BUSINESS & ECONOMY

School Funding Takes Center Stage at Budget Hearing

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

The room was packed with parents from school districts that believe they are underfunded. At issue is how to update the school funding formula.

Right now, through some quirks in the formula, dozens of districts get more state aid than they should and hundreds get less. Sen. Jennifer Beck is one who has taken up the issue.

“We have 46 school districts in New Jersey that get more state money than they should. Let’s at least take that money and re-distribute it. And maybe we have to add some additional new resources,” she said.

Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington was here to defend the governor’s proposal for education. He’s called for flat funding.

Paterson Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly took issue with that.

“I need answers for my residents. I need answers for all New Jersey residents. How do we properly fund without underfunding one area, overfunding other areas and doing the right thing? Flat funding will be a disaster,” he said.

Democrats generally pressed Harrington.

“Is the department’s position that the status quo and the effect the status quo is having on the people in this room is acceptable?” asked Assemblyman John Burzichelli.

“The department’s position is that we are making difficult decisions with limited dollars and trying to do the best we can to spread that across,” Harrington said.

“Are you satisfied that running the formula the way this budget suggests is in fact in the best interest of the people in this room?” Burzichelli asked.

“I’m involved in the ongoing process that is now taking place to negotiate a new budget,” Harrington said.

The school funding formula was passed in 2008 under Gov. Jon Corzine. It was upheld as constitutional by the New Jersey Supreme Court. But it has never been fully funded.

Democrats would like to see it get to full funding gradually. Republicans say, not this year.

“We have heard this morning from numerous folks hinting directly or indirectly that we need massive new money into the formula. I’ll tell you and tell everybody here, that ain’t going to happen,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.

Although the state spends nearly a third of the budget on school aid — more than $9 billion — it’s $1 billion short of what the formula calls for.

In his budget address this year, the governor challenged the Legislature to create a new formula.

“One hundred days. You did the last one in 10,” Gov. Chris Christie said.

Legislators are hopeful they and the governor can come together on this.

“I think it’s clearly on the front burner. I think it’s the driver of this year’s budget discussion top to bottom,” said Burzichelli.

“I think that the remarkable turnout of families, parents here today sends a very clear message that this is not some small group of people. This is something that has spread throughout New Jersey and people have a real concern and I think their voices have a chance to be heard,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald.

“You saw it on the dais this morning. We gave each other some grief but we’re all on the understanding that there’s a problem here that must be solved,” O’Scanlon said.

At bottom, school funding is about property taxes. The more state aid a district receives, the less it has to raise locally. A change in the formula could mean less state aid for cities and more for suburbs.