Burlington County Times — Across New Jersey, school boards and administrators have started the long and difficult task of preparing their budgets for the upcoming school year.
Always challenging, the job has become even more difficult this winter because of the ongoing political debate in Trenton over school funding and how to fairly distribute billions in state aid to New Jersey’s public schools.
The aid that school districts receive impacts more than just school programs and jobs. It’s also one of the largest factors for how much homeowners and businesses are taxed through the state’s notoriously high property taxes.
School districts won’t get an idea of how much school aid they will receive in 2017-18 until next month, after Gov. Chris Christie delivers his annual budget address.
Even then, there’s likely to be plenty of uncertainty about how much aid school districts might wind up with as the leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature have promised to address significant funding discrepancies between school districts, with hundreds claiming theirs are being shortchanged while a handful are being overfunded.
The only problem: Those leaders haven’t been able to agree on a fix.
With that as the backdrop, dozens of school officials and parents from across the state traveled to Kingsway Regional High School in Gloucester County on Friday to speak on the issue before the newly formed Senate Select Committee on School Funding.
The bipartisan committee, made up of four senators from each party, was formed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, to try to quickly devise an acceptable fix for the funding discrepancies.
Most of what they heard Friday concerned horror stories from underfunded districts about the impact the inequity has had on their schools and taxpayers.
“We don’t have enough money for textbooks. We’re collecting box tops. That’s where we’re at,” said Chesterfield Township Committeewoman Andrea Katz, about the General Mills’ promotion in which labels from cereal boxes and other foods can be exchanged for grants for buying needed school supplies.
Katz and Chesterfield Superintendent Scott Heino both testified that the small kindergarten-to-sixth-grade district was the “least funded” in the state this year, with only 11 percent of its annual spending covered by the state and the remaining 89 percent covered by local property taxpayers.
“Things are actually getting worse,” Heino said, citing increasing enrollment.
Officials from other school districts shared similar stories of increasing class sizes and the inability to provide Advanced Placement classes or other programs.
Kingsway Regional Superintendent James Lavender and other school officials recounted how the district has a bus that’s over 25 years old and uses study halls to fill schedule gaps created because of insufficient staff. Meanwhile, local property taxes have risen rapidly.
The district is under such strain that it’s preparing to petition the New Jersey Supreme Court to ask that it reopen the decades-old Abbott v. Burke school funding case.
The high court’s landmark 1985 decision mandated that the state’s most impoverished school districts receive large amounts of additional funding to help them overcome the disadvantages their students often face. Since then, the state has awarded billions in extra aid to the poorest school districts to try to address inequities.
Kingsway argues that it’s time for the Supreme Court to take a broader view and examine whether rural and suburban districts are getting enough.
“We’ve had enough. We’re going to be the aggressor on this,” Lavender said Friday.
At the root of the disparities is the 2008 school funding formula and the state’s inability to fully fund it. The formula was created during Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s tenure and is designed to provide districts with aid based on their enrollment, wealth and populations of impoverished and other special needs students.
The formula was approved by the Supreme Court and has won national recognition. But because New Jersey has never had enough money to provide every district with all the aid called for, it has also largely been ignored. And while no districts have lost aid in recent years, growing districts like Kingsway, Chesterfield and Delran have not received the increases they deserve under the formula, partly because the state caps how much additional aid districts can receive.
At the same time, some districts that have had significant enrollment losses continue to receive large sums of extra money, called “adjustment aid” or “hold harmless aid,” which was created to ensure that no districts lost aid because of the formula.
Close to $600 million in “hold harmless aid” was distributed during the 2015-16 school year.
Sweeney has proposed redistributing that money to underfunded districts like Kingsway and Chesterfield, as well as doing away with the enrollment caps. He believes those changes, plus the addition of $500 million in school aid over the next five years, will bring every school district to adequate funding levels.
“When a district gets funded for 3,500 students and only has 2,500, there’s no justification for that,” Sweeney said Friday.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, has resisted Sweeney’s approach, as has the New Jersey Education Association, which prefers running the formula with the available education funding.
Both Prieto and the NJEA have cautioned that redistributing “adjustment aid” needs to be carefully studied because some school districts that would lose money would be negatively impacted and may not necessarily be overfunded.
Pemberton Township is one of the so-called overfunded districts and stands to lose millions if it’s adjustment aid is eliminated. That’s no easy pill to swallow, but township school officials say it’s still preferable to Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal to scrap the funding formula altogether and give all districts a flat per-pupil amount.
Doing so would likely result in significant aid increases for many underfunded districts, but Pemberton Township would stand to lose $52 million, well over half of its $83 million in annual aid.
Superintendent Tony Trongone made the trip to Kingsway to testify in favor of his district, which has large populations of students from military families serving on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, as well as substantial populations of students from poor families. Most of the township is also in the protected Pinelands Reserve, which limits its ability to grow its tax base.
Despite those challenges, Trongone supports Sweeney’s approach and said the district has spent several years trying to reduce its reliance on adjustment aid.
“We’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop. The district has been fiscally prudent for when this time has come,” he said, adding that he believes there is also a moral obligation to support fairness for school districts like Delran and Chesterfield that have been shortchanged.
“I want to do everything I can for Pemberton. But I know we have to look at the bigger picture,” Trongone said.
School officials from underfunded districts said they can’t afford to wait another year for lawmakers to devise a fix.
“There’s been enough discussion. Underfunded districts need results and they need them now, not nine years from now,” said Mike Piper, a Delran resident and leader of the grass-roots school funding group Our Fair Share.
Sweeney agreed and promised to tackle the issue for the upcoming school year, even if it means a prolonged state budget battle.
“If I have to deal with it in the budget process — where we’re going to have a standstill or we’re going to have a fight — then we’ll have that fight,” he said. “This is getting resolved this year.”