EDUCATION

Sweeney: Senate Won’t Pass State Budget That Doesn’t Address School Funding Formula

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

With the acting education secretary scheduled to testify this morning, advocates for a new school funding formula called a press conference. The Senate president threw down a gauntlet.

“And I want to make an announcement that the Senate is not going pass a budget that doesn’t start to address the unfairness in this funding formula,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Sweeney and his fellow Democrats in both houses are talking to the governor’s office about changes they want in the current formula.

First, they want it fully funded, adding $500 million to the total pot of $9.2 billion to be phased in over five years.

Then they want to end two provisions of the current formula: adjustment aid, which guarantees that no district loses money but has led to overfunding in some thriving communities like Jersey City. And they want to end enrollment caps, which have led to underfunding in hundreds of districts where enrollment has grown.

“Make no mistake about it, folks. There are haves and there are have nots. I am funded at 43 percent. My school district has grown by 44 percent over the last nine years without any corresponding increases in state aid,” said Kingsway Regional School District Superintendent Jim Lavender.

Parents from Red Bank, Freehold, Robbinsville, Monroe, Cherry Hill and Speedwell wore colored shirts to make their case.

“Our enrollment has gone up year after year, and our state aid has stayed flat. That is not flat aid. That is a decrease in aid,” said Andrea Katz, Chesterfield Township committee member.

“We very basically are mad as hell and are not going to take it any more,” said Freehold Borough Councilwoman Sharon Shutzer.

At issue is the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. The two provisions the Democrats want to excise were inserted back then in order to win votes but have since led to distortions.

Acting Education Secretary Kimberley Harrington told the Senate Budget Committee 368 districts are now over adequacy, meaning overfunded while 223 are under adequacy.

The ones where aid has not kept up with enrollment growth are now having to cut budgets and lay off staff.

“That’s too many districts that are laying off tens, twenties, 100 teachers and other districts that are being fine. You know the saying ‘run the formula, fund the formula?’ That’s exactly what the Senate intends to do,” Sweeney said.

The governor has said he’s ready to negotiate. The Democrats say amend the current formula — don’t toss it — because it’s been approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo asked Harrington today for her position.

“Where does the administration stand on what we’ve been talking about?” Sarlo asked.

“I believe that you can count on us to be partners with you in this conversation. We agree that what we have is not working and that we need a new solution,” Harrington said.

Legislators tell us this is the only real contentious issue in the budget process this spring. And some are starting to warn of a government shutdown if a deal isn’t reached on school funding by June 30.

“The time of talking is done. The time of action is now,” Sweeney said.