With state aid to public schools making up nearly a third of New Jersey’s overall budget, billions of dollars are regularly added and cut during lawmakers’ budget negotiations and compromises.
It was no different this year: Line-item vetoes to education made up a large chunk of the cuts Gov. Phil Murphy made to the budget the Democratic-led Legislature delivered to him, before he signed it on Sunday.
But in the end, the cuts were a tiny slice of the final $38.7 billion budget, with limited impact on schools beyond the budget plans Murphy presented back in March or that the Senate and Assembly countered a few weeks ago.
Overall, direct state aid to school districts didn’t change at all from Murphy’s first proposal, with $206 million more in direct aid to school districts, bringing the total to $8.7 billion or an increase of close to 3 percent.
In March, more than 300 districts were alerted they would see a rise in funding, with more than 200 told they’d be seeing less. Many of the latter complained and a few of them sued — their legal fate is still pending. But at least for now, those numbers held in the final budget.
The one substantive change was $50 million more for high-end special education costs that the Legislature added, under the direction of Senate President Steve Sweeney. It would boost the state’s share to more than $200 million. Murphy left the addition intact in his final budget, with precisely how it is distributed yet to be determined.
On a smaller scale, the $30 million that Murphy himself added for the Lakewood school district was removed by the Legislature in its final plan, and Murphy went along with that as well.
It led to some drama yesterday, with the Lakewood district threatening to close its summer programs without the additional aid. But despite questions about whether the district even had the legal authority do so, it became a moot point, as the Murphy administration reportedly offered emergency aid to the district and opened the way for other districts seeking emergency relief as well. One of the language changes in the final budget removed any cap on additional emergency aid.
“The Governor acknowledges the difficult situation being faced by Lakewood’s schools,” read the statement from Alyana Alfaro Post, Murphy’s press secretary. “The Governor’s Office is committed to addressing the needs of the district and working with partners in the Legislature to find both short-term and long-term solutions that are in the best interests of Lakewood students.”
Elsewhere, some other political gamesmanship also came into play, not unexpectedly, when Murphy and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership have been in a months-long feud.
The majority of Murphy’s $48.5 million in line-item vetoes this weekend was $38 million from a fund Sweeney’s majority created to help ease the way for shared services and school regionalization under the Senate president’s “Path to Progress.” Sweeney has made school consolidations a central piece of his plan for reducing public spending.
Yesterday, Murphy didn’t explain in his veto message why he cut the program, but he essentially gutted the initiative, at least for now.
But it was also unclear to how the money was to be spent in the first place. Sweeney had said the state would pick up the costs of feasibility studies and other preparations for regionalization, but how that would happen was yet to be determined.