Bipartisan Effort to Fix School Funding Formula

By Brenda Flanagan

“I think it’s time to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over again,” said former Rockaway Township Councilman Paul Minnena.

Minnena preached to a bipartisan choir of unhappy politicians about how New Jersey’s school funding formula isn’t working. In Morris County alone, 13 school districts get only 50 percent or less of state aid they’re entitled to, under the formula. And local property taxes make up the balance.

“My property taxes are $18,000 a year on an acre and a half of property. I’m not looking for anything special. I don’t think anyone up here that you’re going to talk to today is. What we’re looking for is something that’s equitable and balanced,” Minnena said.

“It’s splitting up families. It’s causing people to move out of state because they’re simply being suffocated by the weight of property taxes. And so long as I have a breath in my body, that’s still going to be my number one issue,” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio.

“This county’s shortchanged millions and millions of dollars that they’re entitled to, if we fund the formula,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Sweeney — a Democrat — joined Republican Pennacchio, both promising local pols they’ll hammer out a bipartisan solution within the next few weeks. They’re in sync on several issues, including more state funding for special ed students and abolishing caps on extra aid for districts with booming enrollment. Both want to reconfigure adjustment aid, which lets over-funded districts like Jersey City in Hudson County pay comparatively little into its school budget — to the frustration of towns like Manville, New Jersey’s eighth most under-funded district.

“It’s not that there isn’t enough school aid to go around. It is simply not being distributed in a fair manner,” said Richard Onderko, mayor of Manville.

“There’s a fight brewing. There’s absolutely a fight brewing,” Sweeney said. “It might become an ugly budget, but we’re going to fight on this one.”

Gov. Chris Christie threw down that gauntlet during his budget message Feb. 28, giving lawmakers a deadline.

“One hundred days to get this done. No phony task forces. No stupid blue ribbon commissions. No delays until next year. We get in the room starting next week and you get this done with me,” he said.

Christie’s willing to deal, Sweeney and Pennacchio said today — but both noted, Hudson-based Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto hasn’t cooperated.

“If you look at the speaker’s home base is Hudson County. Some of these towns we’re talking about that have glaring examples of the inequity of the formula are from Hudson County. Hopefully we can appeal to the better angels in his nature,” Pennacchio said.

“At this point, the Assembly hasn’t offered anything to fix this. Now I spoke to the speaker. I’m more than willing to listen and talk about things. But listening and talking are fine. Doing is what needs to be done,” Sweeney said.

Prieto did not respond to our request for comment.

Sweeney wants the funding formula fixed by the state budget deadline. That’s June 30. Think that’s a huge lift? The governor’s 100-day deadline ends June 8.