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6-19-14 Education and Related Issues in the News
Star Ledger NJ's high school seniors graduate with more math and science

The Record - Pension payment cuts in response to fiscal emergency, Christie administration says in court papers

The Record - N.J. Democrats want to tax wealthy to balance state budget, preserve pension fund

Star Ledger – NJ's high school seniors graduate with more math and science

By Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger 
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on June 19, 2014 at 6:55 AM

They are three of about 93,000 high school seniors who will be awarded their diplomas over the next 10 days, and step into the future as some of the most academically advanced students to graduate from New Jersey high schools.For Henry Diaz-Arana, the love of mathematics will fuel the Newark senior’s pursuit of a degree in computer science. Aisha Bosula, valedictorian at Mount Olive High School, plans to study neuroscience and global health, while Samantha Cheone of Paterson, valedictorian at the Academy of Health Sciences, is interested in biology.

Education officials say the Class of 2014 is more tech-savvy and more proficient in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields — because the state raised minimum graduation requirements to ensure they are prepared for college and careers.

"I think our graduation seniors are for the most part the best prepared kids in history," Mount Olive Superintendent Larrie Reynolds said of the almost 400 high school seniors who will receive their diplomas next Thursday. "With their smartphones they can spout statistics like NASA scientists and quote Shakespeare like they’ve memorized it.

"It’s no wonder we’re seeing so many innovations and discoveries in recent years," Reynolds said.

Edwin Reyes, principal of Technology High School in Newark, said the state’s effort to improve student understanding of the STEM fields is crucial to the future success of the students.

"They’re leaving school with the foundation they need," Reyes said, adding that his school’s STEM requirements go beyond the state’s mandates. "If you look at everything in life, technology is something we need to understand."

The New Jersey State Board of Education revised the graduation requirements in 2009 as part of a larger effort to better prepare students for 21st century careers. The state also adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and language arts. The Common Core standards promote critical thinking and problem-solving.

Officials said they took a measured approach, adding requirements over almost eight years to give students and administrators time to adapt. This year’s graduates make up the first group required to pass Algebra I and geometry to satisfy the state’s math requirements. They also had to pass laboratory biology and either chemistry, environmental science or physics.

"The course requirements represent what we believe students should know and be able to do before they leave high school," Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson said. "Those lab sciences, with the practical experience they offer students, turn out to be very important learning opportunities that prepare them in ways that go beyond the course work."

The requirements will push future classes even further. In two years, members of the Class of 2016 will need a third year of mathematics and another lab science to earn their diplomas.

The state sets the minimum requirements for graduation, but the individual districts issue the diplomas and are permitted to add their own mandates. Many districts, like Mount Olive, are ahead of the state and require their graduates to take four years of mathematics and science.

"The course requirements represent what we believe students should know and be able to do before they leave high school."

And many students, like Leslie Herrera, the valedictorian of Newark Leadership Academy, push themselves beyond the minimum.

"I always took an interest in health and how the human body works," said Herrera, who took biology, chemistry and forensic science. She plans to study nursing at Felician College in Lodi.

Diaz-Arana, the valedictorian of Technology High, earned certificates in computer science from Cisco Academy while taking five math courses, including Advanced Placement Calculus. He will enter Boston College in the fall.

"Math is not that difficult, you just have to put the effort into it," he said.

Davana Butler embraced mathematics and science during her four years at Newark Vocational High School, where she will graduate in the top 10 in her class. Butler, whose mother died when she was 9, said her goal was to become a pediatrician so she can help nurture and heal the next generation.

Butler said her tough course load — she took math every year, ending with pre-calculus, and biology, chemistry, physics and anatomy — helped her to get into New Jersey City University, where she received a full scholarship.

"I’m not the best test-taker, so my grades and my courses helped," she said. "It told them I was serious."

The Record - Pension payment cuts in response to fiscal emergency, Christie administration says in court papers

JUNE 18, 2014, 12:43 PM    LAST UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, JUNE 18, 2014, 5:57 PM




Related: N.J. Senate President Sweeney, Democrats propose budget to fund pensions

Governor Christie cut payments to the state pension fund because New Jersey is in a fiscal emergency, his administration claimed Wednesday in a challenge to unions trying to block the move.

That fiscal emergency, which could not have been predicted, allowed Christie to take direct action and cut part of his planned pension payment, the Attorney General’s Office said in court papers filed as part of the union lawsuit. And if the courts do get involved, that would hinder a budgetary process that was assigned to the Legislature and executive branch and be an action beyond the court’s authority, the administration said.

The legal brief also makes a claim that contradicts Christie who frequently says that New Jersey’s pension system is in so much trouble that the state is at risk of becoming like Detroit, a city in bankruptcy.

Not paying the full, promised amount into the pension wouldn’t bankrupt the pension system, the administration said in the court filing.

“The pension systems are not on the verge of an imminent collapse; they are projected to continue providing benefits to retirees for at least the next thirty years,” the brief said.

For the current budget year, which ends June 30, Christie is making a $696 pension payment, which is about $900 million less than was originally planned.

In the proposed budget now being negotiated with lawmakers, Christie wants to reduce his payment by $1.6 billion to $681 million.

The unions are claiming that Christie agreed to fund the pensions on an increasing basis in a 2010 law he signed and now he can not pull back on that promise, especially in the upcoming fiscal year before any fiscal emergency can be claimed. Currently, with the fiscal year expiring at the end of June, New Jersey must plug an approximately $1 billion gap. In the next fiscal year, there is a projected $1.7 billion gap between the original revenue estimates and what is now believed will be collected.

Next year, however, the unions said Christie can’t claim the state is in a fiscal emergency before a budget is even approved. The state counters that the unions don’t have a claim because no plan is actually in place yet – Christie has only proposed cutting his pension payment for the next fiscal year and therefore the unions have not yet suffered any real damage. With no damages, the state said, unions don’t have grounds to sue.

Oral arguments are scheduled for June 25. A balanced budget must be approved by the end of the month.

Email: phillis@northjersey.com

The Record - N.J. Democrats want to tax wealthy to balance state budget, preserve pension fund

JUNE 18, 2014, 1:43 PM    LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, JUNE 19, 2014, 12:21 AM




Related: Pension payment cuts in response to fiscal emergency, Christie administration says in court papers

New Jersey’s wealthiest residents and corporations should pay higher taxes to balance the state budget, Senate Democrats said Wednesday, setting up a high-stakes conflict with Governor Christie less than two weeks before the state constitution requires them to reach a deal on spending.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said their budget plan relies on tax hikes to protect the state’s contribution into the pension system. Christie wants to reduce those payments to balance spending amid budget shortfalls.

“We’re just asking everyone to do their fair share,” Sweeney said during a State House news conference. “We feel this is a fair compromise.”

The Senate Democrats’ proposal comes as Christie and lawmakers are negotiating a spending plan that must be balanced. Adding to the uncertainty is a lawsuit filed by public employee unions that is attempting to prevent Christie from cutting the pension contribution.

Christie’s administration submitted its first brief for that case on Wednesday, arguing that cutting the pension contribution is the only option left in the final weeks of the fiscal year in response to a steep, unanticipated drop-off in tax collections.

The brief also said the pension system will be solvent for the next 30 years, a statement that appears to contradict Christie’s public claims in recent months that new reforms are needed to prevent bankruptcy.

An initial court hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, five days before the budget deadline.

Christie, a Republican who frequently says New Jersey’s taxes are already too high, has vetoed Democrats’ prior attempts to raise tax rates on high-income earners three times before, in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And Christie has already said he will do so again if Democrats send him another tax-hike bill this year, a position his spokesman reiterated Tuesday.

“The governor has been emphatic that he will not raise taxes on already overburdened New Jersey taxpayers suffering from one of the harshest tax structures of any state in the country,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said. “Raising taxes drives businesses and citizens out of New Jersey and makes our problems worse.”

But Democrats are pressing harder this year against the governor, whose approval ratings have plummeted in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and persistent struggles with the state’s recovery from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll found earlier this year that more than 60 percent of New Jersey voters said the state’s tax rate for millionaires should be increased. And more than 60 percent of those surveyed for a June FDU poll said the state should honor its promises to public workers.

That same poll measured Christie’s approval rating at 44 percent, 10 points lower than his approval rating in July 2012, the last time he vetoed a Democratic bill to hike tax rates on millionaires.

Democrats’ proposal

The Senate Democrats say their plan would generate $565 million in new revenue by increasing taxes on income over $1 million, and an additional $155 million by making those with income over $500,000 pay more as well. Right now, the state’s top tax rate is 8.97 percent, levied on income above $500,000.

But the Senate Democrats’ plan would institute a 10.25 percent tax rate on income over $500,000, and a 10.75 percent tax rate on income over $1 million.

The proposal also calls for a 15 percent corporate business tax surcharge and a suspension of $175 million from the Economic Development Authority’s Business Employment Incentive Program.

In all, the Senate Democrats say their plan would generate nearly $1.6 billion, which is the same amount Christie has proposed cutting the planned state pension contribution for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The next task for the Senate Democrats is winning support for their plan in the Assembly so a budget bill can be sent to Christie later this month. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, issued a statement Wednesday that did not endorse the Senate Democrats’ plan, saying instead that it would be under consideration.

“Everything is on the table, as always,” Prieto said. “We will review the Senate plan.”

Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, called for budget cuts instead of tax hikes.

“The Democrats’ solution will make our state less competitive and less attractive to business,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union.

“This approach will chase private-sector jobs out of the state,” said Assembly Republican Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “This is completely contrary to what we should be doing — if we care at all about our state’s future economic viability.”

But labor leaders praised Sweeney and Weinberg for coming up with a way to balance the budget without reducing payments into a pension fund that is already underfunded by an estimated $52 billion.

“We commend the Senate leadership for putting working families first and hearing the call for corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share,” said Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a group that represents organized labor and other community organizations.

Cut defended

In addition to cutting from the planned pension payment in the new fiscal year, Christie also signed an executive order that approved slashing $887 million from the pension contribution for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

His administration defended that cut in the brief submitted to a Superior Court judge Wednesday in advance of the hearing scheduled for next week that was brought on by the lawsuit filed by the labor unions.

“At the brink of fiscal disaster and with only a small pool of funds remaining, the state has carefully crafted a remedy that preserves essential services for the state’s most vulnerable populations,” the brief said.

Also Tuesday, the board of trustees of the Public Employees Retirement System, the largest of the pension funds in the state pension system, voted to sue the Christie administration to block the pension payment cuts.

Those cuts were brought on, Christie said, by revenue collections that fell $1 billion short of the projections embedded in the $33 billion budget the governor signed last June. And since some of those revenue goals were assumed in the original budget Christie proposed for the new fiscal year in February, he later lowered his budget to $32.7 billion, using the smaller pension payment to do so.

Under New Jersey’s government rules, Christie has the authority to veto spending items out of any budget bill sent to him by lawmakers. Democrats maintain raising taxes would insulate against cuts to education, hospitals and other areas that could be forced upon the state if the courts rule against Christie.

Staff Writers Melissa Hayes and Michael Phillis contributed to this article.

Email: reitmeyer@northjersey.com

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