Big concerns sparking a big debate over school funding. We heard it yesterday in the Assembly Budget Committee’s hearing on the education department’s spending for next year. Some say the disparities in funding are striking. Joining NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill in the Agnes Varis NJTV Studio is Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of Somerset County.
Hill: Do you see this, just to frame your argument, do you see this as an issue as an amount of money for New Jersey or a how the money is allocated?
Ciattarelli: How the money is allocated. The income tax was established in this state to pay for public education expenses and one of those expenses is state funding for local schools, but the way the formula currently works, it’s blatantly unfair.
Hill: What should be done about it?
Ciattarelli: It needs to be re-calibrated. It needs to be looked at. We need to change the formula. We’ve had this formula now since 2008.
Hill: What exactly is the formula because I keep hearing the word formula. What is it?
Ciattarelli: There’s a formula that distributes aid to our 580 school districts based on a number of things that are highly sophisticated. Its become like the U.S. tax code. In the four and a half years I’ve been in Trenton I know of only two people that understand it completely. There’s equalization aid, there’s adjustment aid, there’s adequacy, there’s over adequacy, there’s aid. It’s highly complex but the bottom line is it’s unfair.
Hill: Is it unfair because certain jurisdictions, certain towns, certain school districts, certain towns again, are not paying their fair share of taxes to the school districts?
Ciattarelli: Yes. Many, many districts are over-funded and because they’re over-funded their local property levy for schools is way too low, especially compared to other towns. So when an $845,000 house in Jersey City pays less property tax than a $325,000 house in Manville, we have a problem.
Hill: At this committee hearing yesterday I noticed there was consensus on this — Democrats, Republicans and the Christie administration — all agreeing we have to take a look at the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and the word we kept hearing was we need to adjust this, we need to fix this.
Ciattarelli: That’s good news. My hope is that we don’t do what Trenton has always done which is take a band-aid approach. I’m hearing talk of just changing the adjustment aid part of the formula. That is not going to solve it. This needs a complete overhaul. The 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which produced the current formula, is not working. We need a re-do.
Hill: Throw it out?
Ciattarelli: Throw it out.
Hill: And put what in its place?
Ciattarelli: Something very different. Something that takes a look at each community’s ability to pay. Right now the current formula, in my opinion, doesn’t do a very good job of that and that’s why those who are well off in certain communities can actually shirk their responsibly of funding public education. When we have $1.5 million homeowners in places like Hoboken, for example, or Jersey City, that are paying less than $10,000 in property taxes, again, we have a problem.
Hill: An adequacy issue as well?
Ciattarelli: You bet.
Hill: I kept hearing the argument yesterday as they talked about Paterson, for instance, and Assemblyman [Benjie] Wimberly kept talking about how Paterson is not getting the kind of product they wanted from the students and [Education Commissioner David] Hespe kept talking about look, 25 years Paterson has hardly raised its property taxes enough to get more support for the school system. Wimberly said look we have been raising our property taxes but something is not right here.
Ciattarelli: Certainly some communities, more than others, will need help. We need to make sure that every child in this state gets a thorough and efficient education. At the same time, we need to take a close look at every community having the skin in the game. We haven’t done that in 40 years, and we certainly haven’t done it since 2008 with the current formula.
Hill: Quick question. I know you’re considering this. When are you announcing you’re running for governor?
Ciattarelli: Sometime I’ll make an announcement, sometime either after the June primary in New Jersey or the July convention. But it will be sometime soon.
Hill: No doubt that you are running?
Ciattarelli: It’s something I’ve given very serious consideration to. I’ve gotten the green light from my wife, the four children, and I want to have a role here in New Jersey. I feel very, very strongly about pointing us in the right direction.
Hill: What will be the deciding factor to say whether you are or you aren’t running?
Ciattarelli: You want to talk with people around the state and see what their feeling is. I anticipate those conversations going well and I look forward to putting my name in the hat.