No school funding deal reached as Christie’s 100-day challenge ends

By Brenda Flanagan

“I’m going to make one final offer,” said Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie issued this challenge to legislative leaders on school funding during his budget message 101 days ago.

“I’m willing to work with you to solve this problem without any preconditions on the ideas that are brought to the table. However, here’s my one requirement to offering this compromise: 100 days,” he said.

That prompted a flurry of public hearings, news conferences and proposals. But the rush to fix this divisive, decades-old problem — fairly — keeps hitting roadblocks. Among them, competing plans from legislative leaders who’ve staked out and locked down their positions. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto reports radio silence recently.

“The governor, the Senate president and myself talked about some broad strokes about what was acceptable. Then, our staffs met after that and I have not heard anything back — any thoughts, any ideas, any concerns or anything,” Prieto said.

For starters, Prieto’s offering a one-year plan that’d add $125 million for the state’s most financially-strapped school districts and those with at least a 10 percent enrollment spike over the past five years. Critics claim his proposal’s too short term, but Prieto says districts have already set this year’s budget.

“People have been hired, so obviously there’s no way you can take money in this fiscal year ’18,” he said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, meanwhile, has held public hearings across New Jersey. His proposal would boost spending by $500 million over the next five years, especially for districts with rising enrollment. Underfunded districts applaud.

“Its not that there isn’t enough school aid to go around, it’s simply not being distributed in a fair manner,” said Manville Mayor Richard Onderko.

To that end, Sweeney would phase out adjustment aid for about 200 districts over five years. But, that drew fire from New Jersey’s Education Law Center, which calculated it’d slash $733 million and “… trigger deep and recurring cuts in teachers, support staff and programs essential to provide students with a ‘thorough and efficient,’ or ‘T&E,’ education…” noting, “It’s simply wrong to rely on adjustment aid to get New Jersey out of the school funding hole dug by Governor Christie.” Prieto agrees.

“You can’t do that in one year, number one, so we have to figure out how do we do this, make sure that if you take money away, you don’t put school districts below adequacy,” Prieto said.

Sweeney had no comment, but in April he vowed to hold the state budget hostage unless the school funding crisis gets resolved.

“There’s a fight brewing, there’s absolutely a fight brewing. It might become an ugly budget, but we’re going to fight on this one,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney’s apparently been meeting with Gov. Christie, who gave an update yesterday.

“I had a lengthy meeting yesterday with the Senate president, I’ve had conversations with Republican leaders as well, so I may have some more to say tomorrow,” said Christie.

The governor promises to have his own fix if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement. Prieto calls Christie’s 100-day deadline “arbitrary.” But the June 30 state budget deadline is constitutionally set. The question: will any school funding changes happen before then?