By Michael Hill
An over-capacity crowd of interested parties and parents packed the Assembly Budget Committee’s hearing on the state education department’s spending plan for 2017 and offered another room for the overflow and a warning.
“The fire marshal might come in and suggest we’re a little larger than we should be,” said Committee Chairman Assemblyman Gary Schaer.
The Christie administration proposes to increase school spending by $548 million to $13.3 billion for next year.
“As almost all new dollars in the budget need to be committed to ballooning employee pension and benefit costs. In spite of these challenges, the administration was able to increase school aid to every single district in the state,” said Education Commissioner David Hespe.
Paterson Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly led the Democrats’ questioning, accusing the state of poorly running Paterson schools for a quarter century and the administration of failing to tell the committee it was going to lay off 355 employees weeks after last year’s hearing.
“29,000 students yet we’re cutting up the 400 people. So as a tax payer tell me how do you justify paying any local tax levy and increase? How,” Wimberly said.
“I think districts through out the state are making very difficult choices,” Hespe said.
“I find it hard to believe that you can find another district that is failing it’s students as you’ve done in the city of Paterson,” Wimberly responded.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee found some common ground when criticizing the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and how they say it thwarts adequately, equitably and fairly funding the state’s school districts.
“I understand the philosophy and it’s sound of wanting to take into account specific needs, of specific children in specific districts. We absolutely should do that but the SFRA isn’t working. The disparities in funding are striking,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.
The state says 40 districts have fewer students than last school year but got the same amount or more funding. One assemblyman wondered why in an era of needing to watch every time the administration doesn’t use its authority to adjust or lower the spending.
“If we’re going to be pulling substantial dollars from school districts and that’s going to impact their budgets directly — we’re looking at large amount of money in some school districts — they should have advance notice,” Hespe said.
“The one thing that can move every child forward which is education. We’re doom to pay longer in the out years for not being able to fund them right now. As Frederick Douglass said, it’s always easier to help a child than to fix a broken man later,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton.
Despite a barrage of criticism, the administration describes its budget as the biggest ever in the state for education.