City Mayors Defend Current School Funding Formula

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

The fourth meeting of the Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness was largely an argument about who’s rich and who’s poor.

Under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott Doctrine, the 31 special needs districts — mostly urban — get additional aid to offset the disadvantages of poverty.

But those districts were designated 30 years ago and Republicans argue times have changed.

“In Newark and some of the Abbott districts — they don’t call them Abbott districts, but son of a gun they sure look like Abbott districts and they still get funded like Abbott districts. The formula itself is skewed, it’s gamed and it’s political. If it’s not political, why is a town like Hoboken still part of the Abbott districts? Why are they being treated any differently than mine?” asked Sen. Joseph Pennacchio.

The mayors of Newark and Jersey City were on hand to defend their designations and the concept of compensatory funding.

“Equality is not equity. If you have $5 and I have zero, if somebody gives us both $5 and now you have $10 and I have $5, so equality is not equity. We need to make sure that we give kids and communities what they need,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

But Republicans say look at the per capita incomes, particularly Hoboken at $69,000.

“A lot of my towns are suffering from economic malaise and going backwards and they’re at $29,000, and we have towns at $69,000 and I’m supposed to look my constituents in the eyes and say keep sending the money and subsidizing the town that everybody’s at $69,000?” asked Sen. Michael Doherty.

Gov. Chris Christie has proposed an end to special needs funding. He calls it the fairness formula. Every student would get the same state aid.

Senate President Steve Sweeney on the other hand is trying to preserve the current 2008 school funding formula but get it fully funded for once and fix a few distortions — known in the jargon as adjustment aid and enrollment caps.

“Those two pieces that we added from the Legislature, was never in the school funding formula, has created districts that are at 150 percent funding and districts that are 16 percent funded. And it was the Legislature’s meddling that caused the problem, so we want to fix it,” Sweeney said.

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop argued that reducing aid to urban districts harms essentially minority communities, while school officials from the town next door to Fulop’s — Bayonne — asked what about us?

“I don’t want to take anything from Jersey City — I see Mayor Fulop here and Sen. [Sandra] Cunningham — they do great things with their district. Hoboken was mentioned. I don’t want their money. I want you people to find the way to fund it fairly. I can give you a couple of ideas. Number one, I can give you $300 million right now. Don’t do the State House. Don’t do it. Don’t renovate it,” said Bayonne School District Assistant Superintendent and Business Administrator Leo Smith.

School funding is a very complicated subject — one the state has been grappling with for 40 years. For now, there are wide differences between the governor, the Assembly and this Senate committee, and it’s not clear where this conversation is going.