Assembly’s first Budget Committee hearing focuses on school funding

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

It’s an annual rite of spring — the first official budget hearing of the season, a chance for advocates and activists from nonprofits, schools and community-based organizations to get a word in with the elected officials who’ll be making decisions on what’s in and what’s not in the state budget. Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin is in her first year as Budget Committee chair.

“I think that today is one of my favorite days,” she said. “Really listening to what people in the state have concerns with and really listening to what their needs are. This potentially is where some of the tweaks might come in some of the budget.”

Among the major topics of discussion taking up time Wednesday was the state’s school funding formula, better funded, says the majority party, but not fully funded, according to the School Funding Reform Act, the SFRA. School districts are hoping to be heard on the issue early in the process.

“As two severely underfunded districts, we both had great expectations that, at long last, school resources would finally be apportioned to make up for our state aid shortfalls,” testified Red Bank Public Schools Superintendent Jared Rumage. “It was a bitter pill to swallow. We saw so few funds dedicated to this purpose.”

“We cannot sit silent while our fair share of state aid is given to districts that are already over-aided,” said Freehold Superintendent Rocco Tomazic. “This arbitrary and capricious distribution of state aid is contrary to the SFRA and is exactly how we got into this situation in the first place. We need a fairer solution, starting with this coming budget.”

“As you can see in the audience, there’s lots of blue shirts in the audience out there,” Assemblyman Robert Clifton told the committee. “Chesterfield is the most underfunded district in the state and they’re looking at an increase of $41,000 this year, which is going to leave them in desperate, desperate straits.”

“We have school districts receiving money for kids they no longer have in the system, and we have school districts not receiving money for kids they now have in the system,” explained Assemblyman John Burzichelli. “That battle was fought last year with some success with the idea we were going to get this thing balanced out. The initial numbers sent over with the governor’s budget do not do that, that’s got to be worked through and I think we’re going to get a lot of public testimony along those lines.”

This is the first budget season in eight years where one party, the Democrats, are in control of both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch. You might think that might make for some unanimity of thought, but that’s not always the case. So, could it lead to a dramatic eleventh hour showdown akin to last year’s process when the government shut down?

“I hope it’s zero, that would be my hope. Obviously, we went through one last year,” said Republican Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz. “It doesn’t help the public at all, so I’m hoping that over the course of the next several months, we can find some room for agreement and compromise, that we can get to a point where it benefits the public.”

“It’s really about communication,” added Pintor Marin, “sitting at the table and hammering out what those differences are, and I think we have a good opportunity to do this.”

Wednesday was opening day of the budget season. It runs through June, and both houses have many more hearings set. Then, eventually, the Assembly speaker, Senate president and governor will all get into a room and hammer out a final deal. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario? Right not, nobody wants to think about that.