State GOP leaders fight Democrats’ school funding proposal

By David Cruz

When they tell you it’s not about politics, it’s usually about politics. Beginning with a long State House news conference this morning, Republicans leaders – and to dramatic effect, the president of the teachers union – presented a counter to the education funding formula put forth by Democratic leaders last month.

“What has been proposed by the senate president does not treat all districts fairly,” said Sen. Jen Beck. “We welcome the $125 [million] in new revenue but applying cuts to school districts that are already overtaxed, who have adopted budgets, who have issued tax levies, means that they are in a position where they will have to have mass layoffs and huge property tax hikes in the next two months.”

Sen. Joe Kyrillos said, “Even if this was a perfect solution, you can hoist this on people with 90 days to go before we open the school houses again.”

Beck said 400 of the state’s districts are paying more in taxes than their schools get. She said the state has the money right now to spend $175 million in new revenue to fund every district to where it needs to be, according to the state funding formula. A succession of school district leaders spoke eloquently about the challenges their districts face under the Democratic proposal. But it was the presence of Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, that attracted a lot of attention.

Asked about the strange bedfellows, Steinhauer said politics was secondary.

“This is education funding for children,” he said. “It may be past history, as I said earlier in the last seven and a half years, but I welcome a new change to come back and be a bipartisan group because that’s where the best work is done in politics, not the one side, or the one veto that’s happening now.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was a target of barbs at the Republican presser waved his critics off.

“You have districts that are announcing that they’re giving every child in their districts iPads, while other schools don’t have books, like Paterson,” Sweeney said. “This is politics at its worst because, in my union, I look out for everyone, and I want to get 100 percent for everyone. What they’re arguing about here is let these other guys stay at 180 percent and we’ll just go get more money. That creates two classes of citizens. I want to make it we’re all in this together.”

Beck said there’s no reason for there to be losers and winners.

“This year we have the funding — $175 million in new revenue,” she said.

Everyone here says they’re thinking about the kids. In Chesterfield, Burlington County, the school system is funded at about nine percent of where they should be, according to the school funding formula. Kids from the district were here, where they served as a symbol to make the point Republicans wanted to make, and then they were here, taking a photo with the Senate president.

Grade-schooler Tyler Wszolek lamented the potential loss of the things he loves about school. “I’m not going to be able to read books that I really like and I’m not going to be able to play music for the school,” he said.

Amelia Rebadavia had a message for lawmakers. “That we need more funding, and it’s getting really hard for us,” she said. “We’re losing paper, we can’t replace our copy machines. We’re even out of tissues at the end of the year.”

Beck says if other Republicans are involved, she hasn’t heard of it. She criticized what she called the secrecy of the meetings but, with Democrats in control of both houses and the governor looking to seal a deal on school funding, these Republicans are being forced to sidelines, loud, perhaps, but unlikely to have much impact on the final agreement.