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3-11-12 Education Issues in the News
The Record - Analysis: Christie budget would boost state spending by $2.1 billion

Star Ledger - 6 months into N.J. law to halt bullying, a survey takes a look at how it's working

Star Ledger - Edison school district proposes first school tax cut in history, but rates up

The Record - Analysis: Christie budget would boost state spending by $2.1 billion

Star Ledger - 6 months into N.J. law to halt bullying, a survey takes a look at how it's working

Star Ledger - Edison school district proposes first school tax cut in history, but rates up

The Record - Analysis: Christie budget would boost state spending by $2.1 billion

Sunday March 11, 2012, 8:49 Am  By John Reitmeyer State House Bureau

Governor Christie wants to spend more now than when he first took office and started to cut state spending.

Aid to public schools — a budget cut that drew ire and national attention — is just about back at the same level it was when Christie became governor.

The $32.1 billion budget proposal introduced last month includes money for several areas that had been cut during Christie’s first two years in office, including aid to schools and hospitals. In this, his third budget, Christie would increase state spending by $2.1 billion, thanks to revenue growth that he expects as New Jersey climbs further out of the recession over the next 1½ years.

Compared to the cuts made by Christie in 2010 when he slashed more than $2.2 billion, money to critical areas such as property tax relief and school aid is a mixed bag.

The governor’s proposed increase in school aid would fully restore prior cuts. But spending on property tax relief, higher education and municipal aid would be lower — even with the increases in the new budget — than before Christie came to Trenton.

“If you look at this budget, we’ve increased school funding by $213 million, we protect funding to hospitals — we do a lot of very good things in this budget — and we make the largest pension payment in the history of this state by any governor in one year,” Christie told reporters last week. “We do a lot of good things in this budget.”

Yet many Democrats, who reluctantly accepted Christie’s cuts in 2010, are now questioning how the governor portrays his new spending increases, such as the money for school aid.

“It’s just getting [schools] back to where they were three years ago, as much as the administration may tout it,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Christie’s initial cuts — and a refusal to raise taxes, even on millionaires — earned the governor a national reputation as his party trended further to the right to oppose President Obama’s policies.

Christie kept his GOP bona fides after spending ticked up only slightly in his second budget, enacted in 2011 as New Jersey lost much of its federal stimulus aid. Christie’s second budget sent more money to schools and hospitals, boosted property tax relief and also helped the pension system. Christie’s popularity in New Jersey soared heading into 2012.

Now, budget hearings are under way as legislators review Christie’s third spending plan, which again boosts education aid and the pension payment. And the new budget also features business and income tax cuts that have maintained the governor’s status as a future GOP presidential hopeful.

“With New Jerseyans having been dealt a net 20 percent property tax increase under Governor Christie, it’s more important than ever to hear what residents need to see in their state spending plan,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson.

Lawmakers, who have until July 1 to approve a balanced budget, will be looking closely at how the plan affects other major issues, including property tax relief. And they’ve already held a hearing on the essentially flat state aid that would go out to New Jersey municipalities in the new budget.

“Two of the biggest concerns are municipal aid and property tax relief programs,” said Sarlo, who is also the mayor of Wood-Ridge.

These are some of those key issues, and how they’ve fared under Christie’s earlier budgets and where each stands now:

Property tax relief

Spending on the Homestead property tax relief program was once well above $2 billion, but Christie’s first budget cut the funding for rebate checks from about $1 billion down to $268 million. He also canceled all rebate checks in 2010, and turned the program into a tax credit in 2011. In all, Christie spent $850 million on property tax relief in his first budget. But right after enacting that spending plan, the governor worked with Democratic legislative leaders to create a 2 percent cap on local tax levy hikes. Homestead funding then went up to $458 million in Christie’s second budget, and overall spending on property tax relief programs grew to $1.2 billion. The proposed budget slightly reduces funding for Homestead credits and overall property tax relief as property tax bills went up by $183 on average in New Jersey to $7,759 in 2011.

School aid

Some of Christie’s earliest budget cuts hit direct aid to local school districts, which have since seen some of the biggest increases in spending. The governor’s first budget included $7.9 billion in school aid after Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, had boosted the same line item to $8.8 billion thanks to help from the federal government. Corzine, who Christie beat in the 2009 gubernatorial election, had argued school aid is property tax relief because it reduces the burden on local taxes.

Christie’s second budget increased education aid by more than $800 million, but due to a state Supreme Court ruling much of that money went only to the state’s neediest school districts. The governor’s new budget would get the number back to $8.8 billion — but without the boost from federal stimulus funds. His budget also includes an attempt to redirect more money to suburban schools.

Municipal aid

Direct aid to towns is another area of the budget that helps offset the burden on property tax bills. New Jersey once spent more than $2 billion on various programs that helped the state’s 566 municipalities balance their budgets.

But Christie’s first budget reduced municipal aid to $1.46 billion. Aid to cities and towns stayed basically flat in his second budget, and now Christie’s new spending plan does the same. The governor has adopted a new “best practices” list and special oversight of aid to needy cities in an effort to improve local spending habits.

Employee pensions

Corzine took office in 2006 as a former Wall Street executive who said he would repair New Jersey’s horrible finances. He immediately confronted the state’s grossly underfunded pension system. After years of partial or skipped payments, Corzine devoted $1 billion in each of his first two budgets to the pension system.

But when the recession took hold in New Jersey, the annual payment into the pension system became a budget casualty. Christie’s first budget repeated that trend, but he added $484 million to the pension fund in his second budget. Last year, he and Democratic legislative leaders enacted reforms designed to bring the fund closer to solvency over the next few decades. And though far below what actuaries say is needed this year, the governor’s new budget proposes a record $1.1 billion pension payment.

Business tax relief

Christie has placed a priority on New Jersey’s economic climate. After years of tax increases under Democrats, the governor let the corporation business tax surcharge expire in his first budget. He provided $184 million in business tax cuts in his second budget.

The new budget boosts the business tax cuts to $348 million, and also proposes the first phase of an income tax cut, at a cost of $183 million, Christie says is designed to benefit the state economy.

Higher education

Spending on higher education was well above $2 billion before Christie took office, but his first budget funded higher education programs at $2.06 billion.

His new budget includes more money for colleges and universities and tuition-aid grants, and it ticks spending on higher education up to $2.08 billion.


Corzine allocated $907 million for hospitals in his last budget, but Christie’s first spending plan provided hospitals with $868 million, including $665 million for charity care, something New Jersey institutions rely on since they are required by state law to take in all patients. Christie’s new budget would push hospital funding to $986 million, with charity care up to $675 million. This third budget maintains that higher level of funding.

Email: reitmeyer@northjersey.com

nlikely to drop


Star Ledger - 6 months into N.J. law to halt bullying, a survey takes a look at how it's working

Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 1:00 PM Updated: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 2:33 PM

By Jeanette Rundquist/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

In the second day of classes at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, a boy approached 11-year-old Jonathan Seltzer in the front hall and called him a name. The verbal harassment continued into the fall, Jonathan said, and in November, he went to his principal.

"That was my breaking point," said Jonathan, a dark-eyed sixth-grader who aspires to be a singer and won the lead in his school play. "It felt like my head was a piece of paper and it crumpled."

The bullying incidents at Hammarskjold were not the first time Jonathan was picked on by other kids, but this year, he had a new way to fight back. He lodged a complaint under the state’s new anti-bullying law.

When the doors opened in September, New Jersey schools ushered in the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a law touted as the toughest such measure in the country. The law set new rules and strict time frames for schools to handle alleged bullying, and inspired assemblies and programs to address the matter. The term "HIB" — meaning harassment, intimidation and bullying — became part of the vernacular for kids and parents.

Six months into the new law, interviews with school officials, teachers, students and parents show it is being widely used and has helped some kids. The state Department of Education does not have statistics available yet on bullying incidents under the new law, but a Star-Ledger survey of 12 school districts showed 1,127 incidents of suspected bullying were reported in those districts in the first half of the year, and 499 confirmed.

The numbers don’t tell the story, some parents say.

One family in Ridgefield Park is now home-schooling their child, after they said school officials did not stop a bully. Another, whose child attends High Point Regional High School in Sussex County, sued school officials and the families of alleged bullies, over bullying that began before the law was enacted.

While local school officials almost universally support the intent of the law, many say implementing it has been arduous.

In Roxbury, where 71 suspected bullying cases were reported since September and 18 confirmed, interim Superintendent James O’Neill called the law a "bureaucratic nightmare" that saps staff time and imposes extra costs, while turning counselors into disciplinarians.

Guidance counselors and teachers face a steep challenge in trying to draw the line between conflict and bullying.

One suspected bullying incident in Roxbury involved two kindergartners fighting over crayons, and another stemmed from two intermediate school students excluding a third from their lunch table. The crayons case was ruled not to be bullying, but the lunch-table incident was, said Roxbury anti-bullying coordinator Phyllis Prestamo.

"In the first few months, people were very nervous about reporting, and they reported everything," Prestamo said. "We really had to have a discussion about what’s the difference between conflict and bullying."

Montgomery saw 107 suspected bullying incidents reported since September and 41 confirmed. Cases ranged from "mean-spirited name-calling" to harassment on Facebook, said district anti-bullying coordinator Russ Walsh.

The law requires districts to enforce anti-bullying outside school grounds if it affects school operation or the rights of other students, as well as cyberbullying.

Walsh said most cases occur in middle school or high school, but one involved a third-grader making a negative comment toward a religious group.

"I think addressing the issues of bullying and making kids feel safe in school is critical, but I think the law has added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us," Walsh said. "On the other hand, raising awareness is a good thing. Things we might have ignored in the past … we’re paying attention to."

The law was adopted in 2010 after a series of highly publicized suicides across the nation, including the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. The law, already in the works before the Clementi suicide, strengthened a 2002 anti-bullying law.


Garden State Equality called the new law a "resounding success." Executive Director Steven Goldstein said the gay rights advocacy group received hundreds of bullying complaints on its hotline in September, but the number later dropped off.

"Not only are complaints fewer, but they’re more easily resolved because of the law," he said. "There’s not 100 percent compliance by any means, but the trend points to the law making a massive difference."

The state Department of Education was criticized for not providing enough guidance to districts, but DOE officials noted that new guidelines were issued in December and a model policy released last April. In addition, numerous DOE-run training sessions were held.

"We have seen a heightened awareness and importance placed on initiatives to decrease bullying as a result of the law," said department spokeswoman Allison Kobus.

The New Jersey School Boards Association and the state’s school superintendents and business administrators associations recently surveyed school officials to identify areas in the law that could be improved through legislation.

About a third of the state’s roughly 600 districts responded, school boards association spokesman Frank Belluscio said. More than 90 percent said the law imposed added costs, ranging up to $80,000 for training alone, he said. Districts also reported that the law took an average of about 200 hours per month of staff time, and many said that took staff time away from things such as substance abuse prevention, and college and career counseling.

Administrators suggested changes, such as less-rigid time frames and eliminating the requirement that "single incidents" of bullying be subject to formal investigation, Belluscio said. Prevailing sentiment was that the law should be amended and remain in effect, however, he said.

Belluscio also said anecdotal information suggests the number of bullying incidents reported in the state’s schools may be higher this year, under the new law, than last year, in part because the new law altered the definition of bullying. Under the old law, harassment, intimidation and bullying was defined as a series of incidents, while the new law indicates it can be a single incident or series of incidents.

Last year, under the old law, there were 3,412 cases of harassment, intimidation and bullying reported statewide, according to the Department of Education’s report on violence.


Some parents believe the law has not helped.

One Howell Township mother, who requested anonymity, said a group of boys began "ganging up" on her fifth-grade son in the fall, but his classroom teacher did nothing. Only months later did a gym teacher report alleged bullying, but the mom said the incident was not classified a bullying case. "I find it very odd," the mom said.

In Ridgefield Park, parent Laura Driscoll said she and her domestic partner took their fifth-grade son out of school — along with his younger sister — after their school failed to halt bullying. Driscoll is home-schooling the children now.

"It (the law) didn’t work so well for us," she said.

School officials in both districts declined to comment on the cases.

The anti-bullying law faced a legal challenge as well. The tiny Allamuchy School District — with just over 400 students — in January charged that it was an "unfunded mandate" that imposed new requirements without funding. The state Council on Local Mandates agreed, and said the state must provide funds or recast the law, or key provisions expire. The ruling takes effect when a written decision is issued, around late March.

Legislation has already been introduced to address the problems, however, creating a $1 million fund for anti-bullying efforts, and establishing a task force to establish guidelines for implementing the law. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle (D-Bergen), one of the sponsors, said four sponsors worked on the bill, which was announced by Gov. Chris Christie. "This really does transcend politics," she said.

Christie also included $158,000 in his proposed state budget for anti-bullying training.

In East Brunswick, Jonathan Seltzer said being bullied was not new to him; it had happened before, both in grade school and at camp. So after name-calling started in middle school — he is in his first year at the larger school — he took action.

His parents, Dana and Butch, said Jonathan reported two incidents to school staff in the early fall, but nothing happened until he was verbally accosted by several kids in gym class in November, and he went to the principal. His parents were also notified of the bullying then.

The principal "has really embraced the spirit of what the law is about," Dana Seltzer said.

According to letters the Seltzers received from East Brunswick school district at the conclusion of the district’s investigations, Jonathan was ultimately found to be a bullying victim five times, including once in January.

In each case, the offender’s parents were notified and the involved students received counseling, according to the documents. In one incident — which the Seltzers said involved threatening comments on Facebook — the offender also received "appropriate discipline."

"I was enraged. I was upset. I was brokenhearted for what my kid had gone through. I’m very emotional. I’ve lost sleep," Dana Seltzer said.

"My son has to feel safe going to school every day," she said.

East Brunswick officials declined to comment for this story.

Jonathan and his family have begun speaking out against bullying.

Dana Seltzer joined Hammarskjold’s new anti-bullying "safety team," something each school must create under the new law.


Jonathan and his father spoke about bullying to the East Brunswick school board, and Jonathan started a campaign on Facebook. He said he would like to create a wider anti-bullying awareness campaign, too, called "One Bully at a Time."

"I think it’s really just made me stronger," Jonathan said. "I want people to know, so they can say, ‘I’m just like them.’"

The boy auditioned for the reality show "America’s Got Talent" in February — something his mom said has been a goal for years — and when asked if he had any bad personal experiences, Jonathan said he spoke about bullying.

His parents said they are proud that their son has used his experience to try to help others but wish the bullying had never happened.

"If he can save one kid from committing suicide or get one parent to talk to his kid and say ‘Don’t bully,’ it’s worth it to him," Butch Seltzer said.



Star Ledger - Edison school district proposes first school tax cut in history, but rates unlikely to drop

Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 7:30 AM Updated: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 3:48 PM

By Tom Haydon/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

EDISON — Edison residents this year will vote on a school budget that requires fewer local tax dollars than the current spending plan, but due to a decrease in ratables it is not expected to reduce school taxes.

In the proposed $212 million budget, $188,235,709 would come from local taxes, a drop of $56,012 over the current school year.

District leaders say it is the first school tax decrease ever in Edison, the state’s fifth-largest municipality by population, with an enrollment of 14,540 students this year. Enrollment is up from 13,689 students in the last six years.

"It’s pretty exciting to propose the first tax cut in history for the Edison school budget," Superintendent Richard O’Malley said. "Based on our records, it is the only time we can account for this reduction in the tax levy in our history."

One factor contributing to the decrease is a $900,000 increase in employee contributions to benefits and pensions. Under new state regulations increasing public employee contributions, Edison school district employees will pay $2.7 million toward their benefits this year.

"You are starting to see the reaping of a couple of benefits from some policies that may not have been popular," O’Malley said.

School districts across New Jersey are noticing the increased employee contributions and seeing the benefit, said Frank Belluscio of the state School Boards Association.

"Health care costs have been the most rapidly increasing costs in budgets," Belluscio said. It’s too early to say if that will translate into tax reductions, he said, adding that cutting tax levies as Edison did is rare.

Edison also cut special education costs by $750,000 by providing more services within district and consequently reducing the number of students sent to other providers.

O’Malley said an additional $1.5 million in state aid and $1.5 million in reserve funds also contributed to the tax cut. The tax levy was reduced even though the total budget increased by $7 million from the $204.9 million budget for the current year.

Residents won’t see the drop in their property tax bills, however, because of an overall decrease in the township’s tax ratables.

School officials included funds for 10 new positions, including six teachers for an elementary school-level gifted and talented program and two world language teachers.

"We will not lower our expectations and we will continue to deliver academic success." O’Malley said.

School board members will have a final public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. March 26 at John P. Stevens High School.


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