NJ Spotlight Education Writer: School Aid to Increase About 1 Percent

Another $100 million for New Jersey school districts bringing the total to more than $9 billion. That’s what Gov. Chris Christie’s proposing lawmakers approve in the new budget. And in a state famously strapped for cash, it sounds like a lot. Recently, NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer, John Mooney, helped us put that $100 million into perspective.

Mooney: It is a lot of money overall but it’s about a 1 percent increase in terms of the total package for the average district, or at least the medium district, it’s about $30,000 more.

Williams: Which is about $10 a kid.

Mooney: Yeah it’s half the price of a teacher. It certainly doesn’t meet the inflationary increases that most of them are facing. It’s a little more and there was some worry they were going to see less. So, I think they are feeling somewhat relieved at least.

Williams: Are all the AVID districts, which have always needed more money, able to get a little more?

Mooney: Yeah they are doing a little bit better but not all of them. For the first time in a few years they’ve somewhat applied the school funding formula. Which has been put aside through this economic crisis. It has given a little extra to those with the greatest needs. There’s a couple of exceptions to that. Asbury Park, which spends $25,000 or $30,000 a kid, is actually not seeing any increase. I think East Orange was another one of those as well.

Williams: And there is another big outlier — Newark is getting a ton of money, nearly what $29 million?

Mooney: Yeah they are getting overall $29 million. I think they’re getting a third of this increase. It is largely, somewhat, I don’t know if this is a perfect term, of a bailout. They are going through some really tough times in paying for the charter schools in the city. I think Gov. Christie didn’t want to leave them hanging entirely given that they’re a high profile as a state-run district.

Williams: What about Atlantic City? Is there something that the governor can do now, the State Education Department, or does that have to become part of the whole Atlantic City…?

Mooney: They also, yeah it’s going to be a mix of both. They’re also the one getting the most out of this total in terms of their tax bases shrunk so badly there had to be some kind of stop gap to at least keep the lights on.

Williams: How do the numbers this year compare to last year and how do cities and towns make up the difference?

Mooney: Yeah, I mean it’s very tough. It’s a little less than last year but for the last few years it’s been a low single digit increase for schools and towns, if any at all. In 2010, they got hammered, they got cut a lot. Eighty percent of districts are still not getting the kind of money they got before Christie was elected.

Williams: So as a consequence they’re raising taxes on them?

Mooney: They’re raising taxes but they only can do so much of that under the cap. They have to find other ways. They’re charging for things, charging for sports, cutting back programs, limiting any growth so it’s certainly not a flush time for schools or towns.

Williams: Very quickly, how much are these figures likely to change through the budget process?

Mooney: Very slim chance. It’s one of the weird parts of the processes. Once it is out there, the schools are putting them into budgets, they rarely change very much. There maybe be some tinkering, there may be some playing with some districts but you won’t see an overall change at all.

Williams: John Mooney, thanks.

Mooney: Thank you.