EDUCATION

Town Files Lawsuit Over Constitutionality of Education Funding

By Brenda Flanagan
Correspondent

“We don’t have enough money for textbooks. We’re using box tops to buy the bare minimum technology needed to administer PARCC,” Chesterfield council member Andrea Katz said.

Educators and officials told a special joint panel of lawmakers that New Jersey’s current school aid formula hurts students and burdens taxpayers because it doesn’t permit funding increases for growing towns like Chesterfield. Council member Andrea Katz says, it gets only 11 percent of the aid it should receive.

“No one capped our growth, so please don’t cap our aid,” she said.

“Without our fair share of state funding, nearly every class at the middle schools next year will have class size of 30 or greater,” said Kingsway School Distric Chief Academic Officer Patricia Calandra.

Gloucester County’s Kingsway School District hosted this public hearing — the first of four — by the Select Committee on School Funding Fairness. Enrollment here’s boomed since 2008, but state aid decreased significantly. Property taxes soared 142 percent to make up the difference.

“As a parent I’m beyond frustrated. I’m deeply disappointed in the broken educational system. I’m upset at the crippling of our school district’s resources,” parent Jenn Cavallaro said.

New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act increased aid levels the first year to shield districts from potential cuts due to changes in enrollment down the road, but funding’s been flat or down since then. It’s currently $1 billion less than required by the formula. As a result, 40 percent of New Jersey’s school districts are underfunded, according to the Education Law Center. The Assembly and Senate are exploring solutions to both increase and fairly equalize state aid. It’s contentious.

“I am concerned that across the board cuts in aid will pit school districts and communities against one another in a battle for a limited pool of funds,” said Pitman Superintendent Patrick McAleer.

Republican lawmakers blame New Jersey’s Supreme Court for approving the current plan.

“Under the Constitution, it’s the legislature and the governor that finalize these decisions, not keep having to go back on our hands and knees to the Supreme Court and ask them to bless that,” said Sen. Michael Doherty.

Gov. Christie’s called for a flat $6,600 per pupil funding and could try to compel changes in his next state budget address on Feb. 28.

“We’re hoping he doesn’t do anything extraordinary to cause chaos,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “We really do believe in a very strong bipartisan way the plan that we have that we’ve been working on here, is something that would work.”

But Kingsway, now facing a $2 million defect is done waiting. It filed a lawsuit today asking the Supreme Court to declare the current funding model unconstitutional.

“We are tapped out. We are to the point where there’s no more games, there’s no more gimmicks, there’s no more things that we we can do,” said Kingsway Board of Education President James Mueller.

The lawsuit asks for fast relief before the next round of school funding forces Kingsway to make even deeper cuts in its school budget. Educators fear that this legislative process, while well intentioned, just won’t move quickly enough.