Public school funding is facing reform. Chris Christie is campaigning for a formula that would give a flat $6,599 per student to every district. That would require overturning the long-standing Abbot ruling that guaranteed extra funds to 31 urban and low-income districts. Christie’s asked the state Supreme Court to reopen Abbott. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently asked state-appointed Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf whether he was surprised the governor is attempting to have that case reconsidered.
Cerf: I wasn’t really surprised. There’s a lot of concern across the state from all sides of the political spectrum with the details of the funding formula. Some people say it’s being underfunded, some people say it is being inequitably funded, some people say it needs to be considered wholesale. So really what he’s done is precipitate a conversation and there will be a lot of voices heard in that conversation.
Williams: Let’s talk about the fairness formula for a minute. If that happens then urban districts are going to get less than they were, in Newark perhaps as much as a 60 percent cut. What effect would that have?
Cerf: The way I interpret what he’s saying is the funding formula has been imposed by the only non-elected branch in government.
Williams: The judiciary.
Cerf: The judiciary. And there’s some issues with it. I’ll give you one classic example. There are 591 districts in New Jersey and some of them have grown exponentially because of the construction of new residences and yet the funding formula hasn’t kept up with that. So it’s something like that. There are other districts that have become much wealthier since the Supreme Court designated what was and was not an Abbott district and there’s an issue about some districts are under-taxing their cities.
Williams: The governor says that throwing more money at schools is not really the answer.
Cerf: Well, he does say that. It’s a complicated conversation because I don’t think anybody, including him, says that money is irrelevant. Of course money is relevant. But a lot us would say that it’s not only a question of how much we spend, but how well we spend it. And I think he’s trying to engineer a conversation that looks at both parts of that equation.
Williams: Speaking of finding money to spend on something, let’s talk about lead in school drinking fountains. For the time being, I know you’ve been trying to remediate, you have remediated in some cases, but how do you remediate lead in the water without changing the pipes?
Cerf: Well, let me say at the outset, I am very proud of the way the Newark public schools handled this issue. You’re right, it is an issue we inherited. It is inherent in plumbing that was installed, in some cases the 19th century and really up until 1976. You can remediate by removing some of the fixtures, but I think more immediately what you can do is turn off the water or put an appropriate filtering system in place.
Williams: Is there money to change the pipes?
Cerf: We spent about a million dollars so far on testing and rememdiation efforts. We have a comprehensive system to turn off all water outlets that have a high level of lead so there’s no risk that children will be exposed to lead. And in kitchens and in some water fountains we’re installing a reverse osmosis system to absolutely guard against there being any penetration of lead into the water.
Williams: Newark’s been under state control for a couple decades now. You’ve regained control over personnel and a few decisions. What’s left and are you going to get control, local control, back for the Newark school district by the end of the school year?
Cerf: We are going to get local control back. I am committed to it. I believe the governor is committed to it.
Williams: And there are no impediments to that?
Cerf: Well, there’s a process and any process has hurdles to get over, but I’m not aware of any hurdles. I am absolutely confident that local control will be returned in Newark.
Williams: Finally, let me ask you about David Hespe. The commissioner is leaving at the end of the year. He’ll be replaced. What’s on your agenda to work with his replacement?
Cerf: Well, a number of things. First of all, congratulations to Dave. He did an absolutely spectacular job in very complicated political and educational waters so I think everyone in the state owes him a great debt of gratitude. There’s a lot of unfinished work in Newark and in the state. First of all, we have elevated the standards so there’s a much higher level of rigor across the state. And that and measuring those standards and assuring the education that goes on classroom by classroom by classroom is effective at implementing those standards is a piece of work that will take a decade to implement.