Legislative leaders settle school funding differences, await governor’s input

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Just a week past the deadline set by the governor, leaders of the Legislature announced that they had reached a deal on a revised school funding plan, appearing to put an end to almost two years of political wrangling between the leaders and the governor. At a press conference this morning, Senate President Steve Sweeney said the process to get the formula back in line had to happen now.

“This is step one. We’ve said this is going to be a multiple step process to get to full funding,” said Sweeney. “Step one was to start getting the formula back into play. We have districts like Chesterfield that are at nine percent funding and we have districts that are at 270 percent funding. That’s not fair.”

And fairness, according to everyone involved, is what this plan — admittedly imperfect as it may be — is all about. Basically, the plan calls for $146 million in additional aid to about 400 districts. $46 million comes from a cut to so-called over-funded districts. So, in terms of actual new money it’s $100 million. On top of that, an additional $25 million will go to fund an expansion of pre-K across the state.

“Pre-K expansion was a very big component that I was championing because it’s probably the best investment and a lot of districts in the state have not had the ability to be able to expand pre-K and that’s the best investment we can do, so that’s a part of it,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

But, part of the reason why this deal has taken so long is because where there are winners, there must be losers. Under this plan, some of the losers include: Jersey City, down two percent, losing over $8 million.

Hoboken loses almost eight percent, down $825,000. Brick Township down six percent, losing $2 million, and Toms River, down almost five percent, giving up $3 million.

On the other side, winners include: Newark which will see a one percent gain, or $7.5 million. Atlantic City would be up 32 percent, or $6 million. The aforementioned Chesterfield would jump over 100 percent. And Bayonne, up six percent with a $3 million increase.

And there — the picking of winners and losers, especially so late in the year when local, school budgets are already set – is where the teacher’s union says this plan runs aground.

“We’re essentially robbing funding from the education of one group of students in order to make up for the shortfalls in the funding of another and that’s never acceptable, but at this time of the year, it’s unconscionable,” said New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Ed Richardson. “We have countless districts that now have to deal with potential the loss of millions of dollars and, in some instances, even though the amounts may be less, it’s as much as 10 percent of their budgets, so where are they going to find that money?”

Prieto says the deal will ensure that no district will lose more than 1.5 percent of their budget. But Sweeney, who is being targeted by the teacher’s union in his bid for re-election, tried hard to hide his disdain.

“Kingsway was going crazy because there was a rumor that all the kids from Washington Township in Gloucester County were getting tablets, when they don’t have books, when they have to share books,” he said. “Is that fair? Where’s the outcry when that’s going on? You know, if they want to blame me for the school funding formula, you know, that’s what they’ve been doing.”

The third party to this deal, Gov. Christie, is reportedly taking a close look at the deal before officially weighing in. But Sweeney says unless the governor signs off on the agreement, lawmakers won’t vote on a budget.