Legislative Leadership Support Christie Changes Budget Changes But Details Scarce
The top two Democrats in the state Legislature indicated June 22 there was support for their school funding proposal with some “small” changes proposed by Gov. Chris Christie, even as several Republican lawmakers argue the deal should be scrapped.
Without offering details of the changes the Governor is seeking, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto suggested school funding is no longer the sticking point in ongoing budget negotiations. Asked by PoliticoPro if Democrats in the Senate are on board with the governor’s proposed changes, Sweeney said he believed that was the case.
That plan, announced a week ago, calls for $125 million in new aid — $100 million for K-12 and $25 million for pre-K expansion. Another $46 million in existing aid would be transferred from districts currently ‘over adequacy’ to those significantly below adequacy, under the State’s funding proposal.
While the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 set parameters for state aid distributions, since 2009 the amount of state aid allocated annually has not met the requirements of the formula. Rather, school funding has been flat funded based upon available revenues and, as a result, state aid figures failed to reflect increases in enrollment in the ensuing years since 2009. Additionally, as part of the legislative compromise of the SFRA, adjustment aid was disbursed pursuant to statutory language that no district receive less aid than allocated in the prior year. This led to increasing inequity in the distribution of state aid to districts with increased enrollment. It also allowed some districts to spend over the ‘adequacy’ level while continuing to receive state adjustment aid. These resulting funding disparities have grown over the years.
However, for those districts who were ‘over adequacy,’ meaning they received adjustment aid that ensured their allocation of state aid equaled or exceeded the amount of aid from the previous year, a notice of reduction in a state aid allocation must be carefully timed to allow districts time to make informed and responsible decisions. NJPSA is concerned that the announced reductions in state aid to certain districts at this late hour may be difficult to address locally since staff has been hired, programs established and tax rates have been set.
Unfortunately, school districts build their budgets around the state aid allocations provided by the Department of Education following the budget address in February. In the ensuing weeks, districts craft their proposed budgets, field public input, and ultimately adopt a budget and corresponding local tax levy. Districts are required to have this completed by May 19 – almost a month prior to this week’s decision. Given that local levies have already been set for the coming year, any reduction in state aid would require a concomitant reduction in district costs. This could potentially include student programs and services as well as possible staff reductions. This announcement requires certain districts to make these difficult choices after their budgets have been struck.
While Democrats, who control the Legislature, seem receptive to the deal, several Republican lawmakers continue to lash out against a plan that would involve stripping funding from districts they represent.
Republican Concerns & Proposal
Republican Senator Jennifer Beck has put forth a plan to, rather than slash $46 million in funding from districts that are ‘over adequacy,’ the Legislature should identify another $50 million for new school aid for the upcoming fiscal year. Her suggestion came during a Statehouse news conference convened by GOP lawmakers on the school funding proposal.
Speakers at the news conference stressed they weren’t opposed to increasing aid for underfunded districts, but said it would be unfair to achieve that by taking money from districts that have already crafted their budgets for the upcoming school year.
Democrats have drafted a yet-to-be-introduced state budget that’s about $300 million more than what Christie proposed in February. If they were able to identify $300 million in new revenue, Beck argues they should be able to identify an additional $50 million to bring new school aid up to $175 million.
Sweeney accused Beck, who is seeking re-election in a competitive district, of pandering. According to Sweeney, the top 50 districts losing the most money are currently receiving funding for about 17,500 kids they no longer have due to declining enrollment, whereas the 50 most underfunded districts have 12,500 students more students that they haven’t been getting aid for.
Besides Beck, others at Thursday’s GOP news conference also denounced the Sweeney-Prieto plan. Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, of Ocean County, criticized the Democrats for not including Republicans in their discussions or holding public hearings on their proposal.
Others said it was unjust to take money from schools this late into June, when districts have already finalized their budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Republican lawmakers were joined by a few school administrators from districts that would take a hit under the Democrats’ proposal.
Joining the Republican lawmakers on stage was Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association.
Listening in the audience were parents and students from Chesterfield and Kingsway Regional, two South Jersey school districts that would see increased aid under the proposal. Chesterfield would gain the most — a 107 percent increase. Later, the Chesterfield and Kingsway parents greeted lawmakers in the hallway as they walked past, encouraging them to support the school funding proposal.
Of course, what is not known, is what the ‘small changes’ are that the Governor is asking for and whether it would assuage concern in the 126 districts impacted by the $46 million cut. NJPSA will keep you posted as budget season comes to a close.