By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
The first member of the public to speak at this first public hearing of the Senate Budget Committee was a parent asking for more funding for her school district, Monroe Township, Middlesex County.
“I’m here to talk about how flat funding for the past seven years have impacted my district,” said Jill DiMaio.
It soon became apparent that she was not alone.
“Something needs to be done for our district and done quickly. I don’t know how we’re going to survive much longer,” said Ridgefield Park School District Superintendent Eric Koenig.
“In Westfield, N.J., personally we have lost 90 percent of our state aid in 2010. That has led to a cut of 22 positions,” said Save Our Schools NJ organizer Liz Mulholland.
“Over the past eight years, Paterson’s education budget has been underfunded by $272 million. That’s not to include this year’s underfunding,” said Rosie Grant of the Paterson Education Fund.
“In 2009, our total state aid was $2.8 million and our student enrollment was 2,687 students. As of January 2017, we have 3,118 students and our projected aid for next year is $300,000 less,” said Robbinsville Public Schools Acting Superintendent Kathie Foster.
Gov. Chris Christie in his budget address challenged the Legislature to update the school funding formula.
It’s nine years old now and there are distortions in how aid is allocated.
Some districts get more than they should, some less — in part because of the so-called hold harmless clause that froze aid at 2009 levels even for districts with enrollment gains.
One of those districts is Freehold Borough.
Residents from there sporting orange T-shirts drove an hour to support their cause.
Their superintendent and the superintendent from Red Bank, another growing district, said those districts are hurting.
“Both of our districts are severely underfunded. The repeated years of flat funding in state aid, ignoring student population growth, has placed our two districts in a precarious financial and also educational position,” said Red Bank Borough Public Schools Superintendent Jared Rumage.
“Our districts would not be in the dire straights we are today if state aid were readjusted — taking funds away from districts overfunded in state aid and reallocating to those who are underfunded,” said Freehold Borough Public Schools Superintendent Rocco Tomazic.
Sen. Jennifer Beck represents both Freehold and Red Bank.
Asked where the extra money would come from, she said take it from the overfunded districts.
“There are some school districts which are overfunded by the state of New Jersey and those districts should have that money reinvested back in districts where there’s growth,” Beck said.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo saw something unexpected this morning.
“I mean, clearly school funding is beginning to be the big topic,” he said.
He is optimistic the governor and the Legislature can update the formula together, so that it reflects enrollment growth, and fully fund it for the first time in nine years.
“I think the governor is going to be willing to work with us to eliminate the hold harmless provision and begin — this is his final budget — the process of ramping up $100 million over five years. That would solve all of the school districts we heard from this morning. That would solve all of their problems,” Sarlo said.
And he added this postscript about the overall state budget: “Clearly we talked about funding formulas for schools. I think we’re going to hear a lot more the rest of the day about what if, what happens if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and Medicaid is gutted.”
The fate of the Affordable Care Act hangs over New Jersey’s budget debate this spring. A Medicaid cut could be felt sorely here.