Acting Commissioner Harrington Makes First Appearance Before Budget Hearing April 24

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Acting Commissioner Kimberley Harrington appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee April 24.  Harrington’s appearance came replete with robust questioning by lawmakers on school funding, the Department’s role in determining aid and the Department’s views on the impact of funding shortfalls in a number of communities. 

Setting funding levels?

In her first opportunity to appear before the legislative committee as the state’s acting education commissioner, Harrington was repeatedly grilled by Democratic lawmakers about her department’s role in determining school funding levels for the upcoming fiscal year.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli noted that while the Christie administration touts a $523 million increase in school aid for Fiscal Year 2018, the majority of that increase will go toward expenses like teacher pensions and benefits or school construction debt, while direct state aid to classrooms will rise by only $17 million, which is essentially flat.  Burzichelli asked if it was the DOE’s position that maintaining the status quo in school funding is acceptable.

“The department’s position is that we are making difficult decisions with limited dollars to try and do the best we can,” Harrington told the Assembly budget committee.

Burzichelli then pressed Harrington to speak up on the deleterious impact of school funding shortfalls.

“We need the department to speak up loud and clear,” he said. “When the department stays silent on something that’s not working … it doesn’t help the process.”

Asked later by Assemblyman Troy Singleton if she felt the state needed a new funding formula, Harrington said: “I don’t know that we need a new funding formula, but we need dollars,” a reference to the chronic underfunding of education.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who represents Paterson, said the state-run district faced 500 employee layoffs last year and is now looking at eliminating 200 positions this year due to underfunding.

“Why would a teacher want to even come to a Paterson, or a Newark, when they know they’re going to get laid off?” he asked Harrington. “How do you get highly-qualified teachers to come in when they know their evaluations could be based on test scores that are totally ambiguous to the student that they are trying to teach?”

Paterson is among the districts that should receive more funding than others under the current formula, because it serves a greater number of low-income students, English learners and students with special needs.

Enrollment changes not recognized

On hand Monday were also a number of parents from some of the most severely underfunded communities. Districts have seen changes in their student populations — either through enrollment growth or decline, or due to changes in demographics over the years — but have not seen changes in the allocation of state aid amounts. As a result, some districts are receiving more aid than they should while others are grossly underfunded as based upon the State’s ‘adequacy aid determination’.   

Before the Assembly hearing, Sen. Jennifer Beck joined parents and local school leaders for a press conference outside the meeting room to demand greater funding.  While acknowledging the money would not be enough to fully solve the problem, Beck said the state could start by redistributing roughly $11 million in state aid that is now going to 46 receiving adjustment aid over the State’s set ‘adequacy level.’

Speakers during the news conference shared examples of how their districts are hurt by the underfunding, such as in Freehold, where new classrooms are being built but the district doesn’t have money to hire teachers to inhabit them. Delran Superintendent Brian Brotschul said his district in Burlington County is receiving $4,600 less per pupil than it should, and is being forced to eliminate its early childhood education program.  Parents also spoke up after the hearing.

Funding realities

The budget proposes spending $13.8 billion on K-12 education in Fiscal Year 2018, which begins July 1. That amount represents about 39 percent of the total state budget. Approximately $9.2 billion will go directly to schools — representing an increase of $16.1 million, or 0.17 percent, from the previous year. 

In his budget address, the governor spoke of record-high spending for K-12 education for the seventh straight year — after he decreased the amount that went directly to schools in Fiscal Year 2011. While education funding overall has gone up since FY 2011, most of the increase has paid for expenses like employee pensions and health care or school construction debt service. 

The Governor in his February budget address, also challenged state lawmakers to come up with a new funding formula within 100 days and left open the possibility of taking action on his own if an agreement isn’t reached.Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto both say the current formula should remain in place with some tweaks, but the two have not agreed on how to go about making the changes.

Harrington, who is awaiting confirmation by the Senate to officially become the education commissioner, sat through nearly four hours of questioning by the committee.