Press of Atlantic City – HAMMONTON — Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Friday he wants revisions to the school-funding formula in place for the 2017-18 school year.
“Every year, the gap gets greater,” he said during a visit to the Hammonton School District to discuss school funding. “Every year there is flat funding we are losing ground.”
Hammonton, among the most underfunded districts, would get an extra $14.8 million in state aid if fully funded, almost double its current allotment.
Superintendent C. Dan Blachford said Hammonton is already the lowest spending district in its K-12 category of 103 districts, spending just $11,149 per student in 2015-16. He said they are short 30 teachers and eight supervisors.
“This cannot be pushed back any longer,” Sweeney said. “It needs to be dealt with now.”
Sweeney said he recognizes some districts would lose funding under a revised plan, but those districts have known for years they are getting more state aid than they should, and they should have been making plans.
He said any state plan would likely phase in over five years, so the impact would be gradual.
By law, proposed state aid numbers for 2017-18 were released to school districts Thursday, and once again they were flat. But Sweeney said Republican Gov. Chris Christie told legislators those numbers could change before the state budget is approved in June.
Christie on Tuesday also challenged legislators to come up with a new school-funding plan in 100 days or he would take action on his own. Christie had proposed his own formula, which would have allocated the same amount of state aid to every child, and there were concerns he would try to implement it for next year.
Sweeney said it is a victory that the governor is willing to work with the Legislature. He said the problem is Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who will not even introduce any plan that could hurt Jersey City in his district.
Sweeney said his plan would still give every district 100 percent of the aid they are entitled to. It would just stop overfunding districts.
Most of the money would come from eliminating $600 million in so-called “adjustment aid,” which was meant to be temporary aid to districts losing money under the new formula but was never reduced.
Hammonton school board members talked about the impact of underfunding and sacrifices that have been made.
“I know we shouldn’t take personally what other districts get, but it does hurt,” said Sal Velardi. “We are now being penalized for being frugal.”
Hammonton Business Administrator Barbara Prettyman said the district laid off more than 30 people, reduced aides to part-time so they would not get benefits and developed a partial self-insurance health plan to save money. Support staff is not eligible for family benefits, and teachers can’t get family benefits until they get tenure after four years.
Republican state Sen. Dawn-Marie Addiego, who represents Ham-monton, and Atlantic County Democrat Jim Whelan also attended the meeting. At one point, as the media room where the meeting was held got chillier, Whelan asked if lowering the heat was one way the district balanced its budget. The answer was yes.
Judy Shaner, president of the Hammonton Education Association, said the cutbacks have hurt the district’s ability to attract new teachers, and they have lost some teachers to other districts.
“It’s crazy what we have done,” she said.
Former school board President and now City Councilman Joe Giralo said revising the formula is a question of fairness.
“Our taxpayers are paying their fair share,” he said. “Now it’s up to the state to live up to its part of the bargain.”
Giralo asked if districts that lose money could exceed the 2 percent cap on property taxes to make up some of the lost revenue. Sweeney said they could arrange to ask for waivers from the state Department of Education.
Helen Haley, the business administrator for the Vineland School District, said they would lose money under the proposed revisions, and it would be devastating for the district, which is among the poorest in the state.
“We have cut 57 positions through attrition,” she said. “We are a large rural area, so transportation costs are high. Our special-education population is growing. But we have trouble raising taxes because of economic conditions.”
Sweeney said special education is an area that must be addressed, and the district could get additional aid there to make up for losses in other aid.