|4-29-15 Education in the News|
Politicker NJ – Hespe says school funding in FY2016 budget follows five year increase
By Chase Brush | 04/28/15 1:53pm
TRENTON — Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe defended Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, saying the amount of funding secured for New Jersey schools has grown for the fifth straight year under the Republican’s administration.
At a hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in the statehouse, lawmakers grilled Hespe on the department’s funding, noting that Christie’s $33.8 billion proposed budget, $12.7 of which earmarked for education, again flat funds the state’s school funding formula, adopted in 2008. The administration has only once provided full funding of that formula, said state Senator and committee chairman Paul Sarlo (D-36); if it were followed in the coming fiscal year, schools would receive an additional $1 billion in aid from the state.
Hespe chalked the trend up to budgetary problems elsewhere, acknowledging the state has always had difficulties meeting the formula. But he pointed out that school aid has nevertheless continued grown under Christie’s tenure, from 33 percent when he first took office to 38 percent today. He said that is the number lawmakers should focus on.
“That number is growing, and it’s growing sharply,” Hespe said.
State Senator Jen Beck (R-11) said that the funding formula issue has served as a chronic source of frustration for lawmakers across the state, suggesting that it has prevented the legislature from addressing education problems in the interim. Republicans and Democrats — namely, state Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1) — on the committee argued that the formula often ignores problems going on in more impoverished, rural districts, instead putting an emphasis on urban areas.
“While we dither, some of these schools are teaching kids in hallways, on stages, 37 kids in the classroom,” Beck said, pointing to schools in her own district. “The kids are… economically challenged in the same ways kids in Newark or Camden. They’re desperate.”
“The suburbs are not getting their fair share,” added state Senator Peter Barnes (D-18).
Hespe called it a “serious problem”, adding it’s an “issue of what’s possible — what’s the world of possibility in these tough financial times.”
Lawmakers also prodded Hespe on other issues, including the implementation of the PARCC exam, now in its second phase at schools across the state, but also ongoing education-related controversies in Newark, where public schools Superintendent Cami Anderson continues to receive flak for her roll-out of the much-harangued “One Newark” plan.
State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29) pointed to one specific undertaking there — “this whole concept of the extended day,” she said — that she suggested has been emblematic of Anderson’s overall leadership in the district.
“Somehow this has now been introduced to schools at a local level where the extended day as a concept has been perverted because of its approach,” Ruiz said. “She has now gone on to name eight schools as a turnaround model. Turn around for the last several years under her leadership has had a negative meaning.”
Earlier this year, Anderson announced eight new “turnaround” schools in Newark that the district will target in the coming school year in an effort to curb struggling performance; last year, Christie announced a $5 million pilot “grant-style” program for some school districts to study ways to implement longer hours.
Ruiz suggested mismanagement has plagued both projects.
“Quite frankly, had she worked with the administrators and the teachers — an extended day model cannot work from the top down,” Ruiz said. “But to come to a school in May, with only days left in the academic school year and say, this is what we want to do here… and in September say we’re going to have it up and running, it is just one of the most pressing recurrences of mismanagement and it doesn’t make any sense to me,” she added.
Hespe said the department will take a “deeper dive” into the issue.
NJ Spotlight - Hespe Taken to Task Over Failure to Fully Fund School Districts…Commissioner says amount of aid reflects what state’s able to afford in tough financial times
John Mooney | April 29, 2015
New Jersey’s school-funding law got lots of attention yesterday as the Christie administration went before the state Senate’s budget committee – but the legislation remains basically an extinct species at this point.
Questioning started right out of the gate with the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), as he quizzed state Education Commissioner David Hespe on what has become the new reality in school funding: little or no increase in state aid to New Jersey’s public school districts, regardless of what the law says is required.
“In fiscal 2014 and 2015 and again fiscal 2016, we are not meeting the school funding formula, is that correct?” Sarlo asked Hespe.
The commissioner acknowledged that the Christie administration was falling well short – by about $1.1 billion this year -- of what is mandated under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008. He cited the state’s financial crisis and said the amount of aid is what the state could afford.
“That formula is underfunded to make ends meet,” Hespe said.
The commissioner tried to put the best face on it, saying that the administration has increased its share to districts and is hitting a record high amount in overall state aid to schools – at least when pension contributions and school-building funding are included.
“My favorite number is what is percentage of the budget that goes to support education in New Jersey, and that has increased from 33 percent at the beginning of this administration to 38 percent now,” Hespe said. “That is the number I’d like to focus on.”
That hardly allayed concerns from both sides of the political aisle, as Sarlo and other Democrats stressed the impact of the administration’s decisions, and Republicans, too, questioned how and why their own school districts were being hurt.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) cited said scores of districts are falling short of the state’s own calculations under SFRA of what is deemed to be “adequacy” to meet educational needs. The hardest-hit were those with big enrollment gains, she said, but without seeing the state support needed to sustain them.
“We have gone from 130 districts that are 10 percent below the adequacy standard to 173 districts,” she said. “They cross all of our legislative districts, and it is not tenable. Some of them are barely hanging on.”
Beck said the funding formula has grown virtually defunct, and the Legislature will likely at some point need to craft a new one.
“While we debate and figure out what we will do with the funding formula – clearly it’s not working and we’re not using it,” she said. “While we dicker, some of these districts are teaching kids in the hallways or on stages, 37 kids in the classroom.”
Hespe stood firm and said that if the state ran the funding formula with existing resources, as many as 350 districts could have seen decreases next year. But he agreed that the districts are dealing with financial strains.
“It’s matter of what’s possible and what’s viable in these financial times,” he said. “But clearly it’s unsustainable. Districts can’t stay in this position for a long period of time.”
By the administration’s own calculations, if the state did meet its full-funding obligations as set under SFRA, just two dozen districts would be seeing decreases, and in fact, more than 400 would see double-digit increases in aid.
The biggest winners would be the state’s largest districts, including the state-run districts of Newark and Paterson. Newark alone would see a $131 million increase, while Paterson would get $68 million more in aid.
Here is a full breakdown of how the school districts would fare under Christie administration’s fiscal 2016 budget compared to what they’re entitled under SFRA, according to the administration.
NJ Spotlight - Sweeney Chides Christie Over Absences, Announces New 'Millionaire’s Tax’ Bill…Senate president says governor exaggerates supposed exodus from NJ by the wealthy and needs to stay home to address state’s problems
John Reitmeyer | April 29, 2015
Democrats will soon try for the fifth time to get Gov. Chris Christie to agree to collect more money from the state’s wealthiest residents -- but this latest effort seems to be turning more personal.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said during a news conference in the State House yesterday that he’s drafting a bill that would again seek to increase the top-end income-tax rate paid by those earning more than $1 million in New Jersey.
Sweeney also took on Christie personally for not being in New Jersey more regularly this year to work on the state’s biggest problems, and he accused the governor of not telling the full truth during his regular town hall-style events. He also said Democrats are considering raising the tax on high-earners only because Christie’s own economic policies are not growing the state’s tax base.
The tax-policy change would bring in more revenue for the chronically underfunded public-employee pension system, and it would also help Christie and lawmakers live up to promises they made to increase payments into the pension funds, Sweeney said.
The bill expected to be introduced next week would follow four previous attempts since Christie, a Republican, took office in 2010. Although all of the previous proposals were rejected by the governor, Sweeney said he’s willing to work with Christie, including adding a sunset provision to the “millionaire’s tax.”
But Sweeney – a private-sector labor official who has partnered in the past with Christie to enact several major initiatives, including a property tax cap, the pension reforms and a massive reorganization of higher education in New Jersey – didn’t just talk about the budget and tax policy during the news conference yesterday.
Instead, he went on to sharply criticize Christie for devoting too much attention to his ongoing consideration of a 2016 presidential run. In fact, Christie spent part of his day yesterday in Washington, D.C., attending a fund-raiser for a political committee tied to his exploration of a presidential campaign.
“He actually needs to be back here meeting with the legislative leadership,” Sweeney said. “He needs to be back here with a plan on what we are going to do to fix this place because you can’t fix it when you’re not here.”
“You don’t fix anything when you can’t look anybody in the eye. I get his ambitions, but he’s the governor of the state of New Jersey,” continued Sweeney, who is expected by many to run for governor when Christie’s term ends. Sweeney also forcefully challenged several comments Christie has made both on social media and at the weekly town hall-style events the governor has been holding since introducing a $33.8 billion spending plan on Feb. 24 for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Christie, while trying to win support for the new round of employee-benefits reforms he proposed along with the new state budget, has been saying New Jersey taxpayers can simply no longer afford to fund workers’ pensions and healthcare benefits.
The governor’s plan calls for freezing the current pension system and force employees to accept less-costly healthcare options.
But Sweeney said Christie is doing so to deflect attention away from the state’s stubbornly slow job recovery coming out of the last recession.
“Last time I checked they’re paying more for their healthcare and more for their pensions than they did before,” he said. “This is about the economy.”
Sweeney said Christie’s regular criticism of the Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes on the roughly 17,000 state residents who are making more than $1 million annually is misleading.
Christie frequently points to a study released earlier this year by Phoenix International Marketing that found New Jersey lost 10,000 millionaire households last year. But Sweeney said the study referred to those with a net worth of $1 million, not those with annual earnings over $1 million.
That population, he said citing data gathered by nonpartisan legislative analysts, has actually been growing by 38 percent since 2009.
Christie has also repeatedly said the state’s top-end income-tax rate of 8.97 percent starts at $400,000, but that rate has consistently been applied only to earnings over $500,000 since 2004, with only one exception, when rates were temporarily increased for the 2009 tax year. Democrats have sought to up the top rate to 10.75 percent only on earnings over $1 million.
“We need to fix this state and instead of blaming and trying to redirect and distract people we need to focus on the economy,” Sweeney said.
“This is a state where wealthy people can live,” he said. “The people who are leaving this state are the middle class and seniors and the working poor because they can’t afford it anymore.”
Sweeney’s comments came less than 24 hours after Christie, during his monthly radio show Monday night, said he’s hoping this year to cooperate with Democratic legislative leaders, including Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson), and negotiate a budget deal.
Last year’s messy budget season ended with Christie vetoing tax hikes, as well as a Democratic proposal for more funding for the pension system, which prompted public workers to sue the Christie administration in response. That litigation remains unsettled, with arguments before the state Supreme Court scheduled for May 6.
Christie suggested during the radio show that he’s unlikely to go along with Democrats’ wishes if they want to again draw more revenue from those earning more than $1 million.
“I’ve vetoed a millionaire’s tax four times, so sometimes past is prologue, but we’ll see what happens,” Christie told radio-show host Eric Scott.
It was just last week that Christie criticized both Sweeney and Prieto for joining the ongoing litigation filed by the unions in the wake of Christie’s pension cuts.
Christie press secretary Kevin Roberts responded to Sweeney yesterday by saying it’s Sweeney who is trying to mislead the public into thinking increasing taxes on just the state’s highest earners will produce enough revenue for the larger pension contribution.
“Doing so would actually require a 29 percent income tax hike on every New Jersey family,” Roberts said.
Roberts also responded directly to Sweeney’s criticisms of Christie’s handling of the state economy.
“Increasing taxes on New Jersey families to pay for public-employee entitlement programs is a very confused way to argue for strengthening the economy,” Roberts said.
Garden State Coalition of Schools