Funding Fairness and Atlantic City Schools Dominate Education Budget Hearing

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A Trenton rite of spring and a critical component of the state budget process is the annual budget presentations by Cabinet level officers concerning their respective department’s budgets.  On April 12, Education Commissioner David Hespe presented the Department of Education’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016-17 before the Senate Budget and Appropriation Committee.  Hespe and his top staff discussed the NJDOE goals, activities and accomplishments over the past year as well as anticipated challenges in the year ahead, including implementation of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  Charles McKenna, head of the NJ Schools Development Authority similarly updated the committee on his agency’s goals, accomplishments and financial needs in the area of school facilities construction.

Hespe briefly highlighted the Christie Administration’s major education funding recommendations for FY 2017 which include:

  • a $13.3 billion education budget incorporating direct aid payments to and on behalf of  school districts, charter schools and no public schools, which incorporates a  small increase ( 0.9% increase) in direct K-12 State Aid to school districts;
  • a significant increase of $322 million (42.3%) in mandatory State payments to   the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund(TPAF) on behalf of local districts;
  • a $10 per pupil allocation to all districts for Professional Learning Community Aid  as a mechanism to incentivize districts to focus on the collaborative use of data to enhance  classroom instruction ( $13.4 million);
  • a specific allocation of $32 million to assist the  fiscally-threatened Atlantic City  school district;
  • a new aid category, Host District Support Aid ($25.9 million) to offset the loss of state aid to home school districts where significant charter schools impact district finances (Newark);
  • a proposed  reduction in direct charter school aid, which will ultimately be  addressed by $40.6 million increase to charter schools through a supplemental   allocation provision being sought in the State Budget and
  • increased debt service aid to partially address the rising costs of state debt resulting from  the unfounded liabilities of state pension funds including the TPAF fund.

Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-  , Bergen) then began the in depth questioning of the Commissioner by focusing on the question of additional funding to the Atlantic City school district.  Sarlo utilized his bully pulpit as Chair, to comment on Atlantic City’s opposition to the expansion of gaming opportunities in North Jersey which would raise an estimated $200 million for the State.  Hespe described the NJDOE and Atlantic City efforts over the past year to reduce district costs while maintaining core instructional personnel and the significant impact the loss of tax ratables on that school community. When questioned about the Christie Administration’s recent lawsuit to force Atlantic City to honor its “fair share” fiscal obligation to collect tax levies to fund its schools, Hespe stated, “If I don’t receive that local levy from the city, I will be forced into a position of closing the schools; this is the children’s money.  We’re going to make certain they get it.”

With a roomful of parents and community members from the Freehold school district filling the hearing room, Senator Jennifer Beck (R- , Monmouth) raised concerns about the funding formula-particularly the need for enrollment adjustments and the detrimental impacts of statutory caps on communities that spend under the budget amount the State considers “adequate” to provide a thorough and efficient education.  Beck has been an outspoken advocate for Freehold and similarly situated communities across the state who have been frozen in place by the formula that has not been implemented for years, despite enrollment growth and changing community needs.  Commissioner Hespe indicated that he was still considering an appeal by the Freehold district concerning its need for additional space for students despite two unsuccessful referenda to the voters.

On the question of schools testing for lead in their water, Hespe assured the committee that he was working collaboratively with the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protections and the Schools Development authority to identify best practices, issue guidance to districts and assist with remediation.  SDA head Charles McKenna pledged his assistance as well and reviewed the status of 13 school construction projects currently underway in the state.  The SDA has $70 million open for emergent projects but will need additional appropriations to continue its school facilities work in the next few years.

Commissioner Hespe and Chairman McKenna will appear before the Assembly Budget Committee later in April to continue the State Budget deliberations process.