|7-13-11 School Aid 'Returns' increased to equal 2% of the 5% cut from school budgets last year - in the News|
Star Ledger - N.J. public school districts to receive at least 2 percent funding increase
Published: Wednesday, July 13, 2011, 7:30 AM Updated: Wednesday, July 13, 2011, 7:43 AM
Some superintendents said they will use the money to rehire laid off teachers and reduce the size of burgeoning classes. Others will bring back after-school busing or eliminate the costly fees many student athletes were charged to play sports.
"We are keeping faith with our commitment to New Jersey’s children and families," Christie said in a statement. "Now is the time to complement the dollars spent with real education reform to bring a focus on student learning, accountability and results."
Woodbridge schools will get $3.5 million more than they were given last year. Hanover’s budget will be boosted by $451,000, while the small West Amwell district in Hunterdon County will be given another $81,000.
In total, Christie increased school aid by $850 million over last year, when he cut nearly as much from districts’ coffers. Those deductions equaled 5 percent of districts’ operating budgets and wiped out all state aid for some wealthy, suburban districts that receive most of their funding from local property taxes.
More than half of the funding restored this year — $450 million — will be spread among 31 of the state’s largest, poorest districts, formerly known as Abbott districts. The state Supreme Court ordered Christie to allocate those funds, and he complied.
Elizabeth will receive $85 million next year, almost twice as much as any other Abbott district. Newark will get $42 million and Plainfield will receive $23 million. All of the Abbott districts were underfunded, as were some 200 suburban districts.
Elizabeth is receiving millions more than any other district because it was so badly underfunded, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center.
The center brought the 21st round of the landmark school funding suit against the state on the districts’ behalf. Sciarra had argued for full funding of all districts but failed to secure it.
"It is deeply disappointing that we didn’t get to full funding for all districts. There was broad support in the education community to get that done," Sciarra said.
"Unfortunately, the governor has put a road block on that effort."
The budget Democrats in the Legislature passed would have fully funded all school districts and cost the state an additional $450 million. Christie line-item vetoed that budget, leaving more than 200 moderate- and middle-income districts with less money than the state’s school funding formula says they deserve.
Sciarra said representatives from some of those school systems have inquired about a possible legal challenge, but no formal plan to sue the state has been made.
Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said she was relieved to see "the second step of the school funding giveback" confirmed by Tuesday’s release of district-level aid figures.
Christie gave $150 million more to non-Abbott districts than the allocations proposed in his original budget.
"Last year, districts were all hit the same way. Now, they’re getting back some of what they lost in a similar way," said Strickland, whose organization advocates for mostly suburban districts. "The needs are there, and they’re ready to put it all to good use as soon as possible."
A few months ago, North Brunswick Superintendent Brian Zychowski said he was planning for flat funding. Now his Middlesex County district will receive $792,000 than it received last year.
"In this environment, any time there is a restoration of aid you have to be happy," Zychowski said. "It’s a step toward full funding of the formula and will really help us restore the cuts we made to our classrooms."
New Jersey school districts yesterday finally learned more of the details about the extra state aid they will receive under Gov. Chris Christie’s final budget. But there's a twist: the administration wants most of them to use the money for property tax relief.
There still appeared to be some questions as to what actually will be required, if anything. But the governor's office said late in the day that suburban districts receiving extra aid would be "strongly" encouraged to apply the added aid to property tax relief and not necessarily to restoring cut programs.
“The additional education aid included in this year’s budget is an opportunity to reduce property tax burdens by lowering local property tax levies for this fiscal year or the next and move closer toward real reform in our schools," said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts in a statement.
“The administration strongly encourages using this additional aid to lower taxes and make the important step toward new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improving student achievement, rather than increased spending.”
Ironically, the bulk of the additional $850 million in state aid was not going to tax relief. That's because it's headed to the state’s highest-poverty districts, per order of the state Supreme Court’s recent Abbott v. Burke ruling.
Roberts said in his statement that the $447 million in Abbott funding -- in some cases tens of millions of dollars for a single district -- "should be directed strategically toward areas of education as determined by each respective district."
Other administration messages were not equally clear, however. As the day went on, various advocates said they were still waiting for specific guidelines.
Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group, said she was told by the governor's office that districts would have some discretion but also not a lot of time to decide.
Strickland and others said they were told any district getting more than $100,000 in new aid would need to revise its budget and submit it to the state for final approval by August 15. There was also an option to apply the money to 2012-2013 budgets.
There had been mention of property tax relief, but not in strenuous terms, she said.
"The Garden State Coalition hopes that the administration's guidance suggesting that funding be used for property tax relief will also mean that schools will not be discouraged from reducing large class sizes, or other important educational needs that have be put aside due to recent aid cutbacks," Strickland said last night.
The state’s school boards association said its members were also awaiting instructions, but did concur that property tax relief was a good start.
"At the very least, school districts will be able to apply the governor’s additional $150 million [in non-Abbott aid] toward property tax relief, which has been a concern in many communities,” wrote Frank Belluscio, the association spokesman.
The Abbott Angle
The executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark organization that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, said the additional aid to the Abbott districts appeared in line with earlier estimates.
And he said he did not expect much guidance from the state, given the court’s order was specific that the money be provided to the districts as aid under the School Funding Reform Act.
"They really don’t need the guidance," Sciarra said. "Certainly, I understand they will still need to send new budgets back in to the state, but this is meant as formula funding that provides quite a bit of flexibility to districts."
Sciarra has implored districts to move quickly in revising their budgets in time to hire staff and make other moves for the coming fall. "Districts need to get their budgets moving now," he said.
The announcement of the funding totals came with a strong dose of politics. Christie put out a press release that touted how in the end, he had restored all the state aid that had been cut last year, plus another $30 million.
"We are keeping faith with our commitment to New Jersey’s children and families, spending more money per pupil on New Jersey’s students than almost any other state in the country," Christie said in a statement. "Now is the time to complement the dollars spent with real education reform to bring a focus on student learning, accountability and results."
The claim that the administration restored all cuts rang hollow with some critics, who pointed out the majority of the new money was ordered by the courts -- and fought by the administration.
Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union often at battle with Christie, said he heard a radio spot that the state’s Republican party is running that promotes Christie’s budget.
"Out of that $850 million, almost $500 million was from the court where he fought it tooth and nail," Wollmer said. "He’s no hero. He did nothing for education funding, except try to gut it."
Democratic legislators weren’t done, either, saying they still planned to seek an override to Christie’s cuts of more than $500 million in additional aid to suburban schools.
But that override vote was not among the 13 sought yesterday in the Senate, none of them reaching the required two-thirds majority.
Senate leaders said they would likely consider it with an override vote on Christie’s veto of the millionaires’ tax, a procedure that must start in the Assembly. Assembly leaders said they plan to first hold hearings over the summer on the impact of Christie’s budget.
"We want to do them all as a group, and hold off to see what happens first in the Assembly," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
By Rita Giordano
The Christie administration released new school aid numbers Tuesday that detail Gov. Christie's $850 million increase in state education funding.
The increase was disclosed last week with the governor's $900 million in line-item vetoes on the fiscal 2012 budget passed by the Legislature, but the district-by-district breakdown was not.
The governor's $850 million increase in school aid is less than the more than $1 billion the Legislature wanted but more than the $250 million increase Christie proposed in the winter.
"Being able to provide additional education funding to districts this year further affirms this administration's commitment to ensuring each and every child in New Jersey receives a quality education," acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said in a statement.
The $850 million includes an additional $450 million for the former Abbott districts, fully funding them under the state's school-aid formula as required by a recent state Supreme Court ruling.
The new aid also includes an extra $150 million for the non-Abbott districts.
Although the $850 million is $30 million more than last year's deep cuts in education aid, it will not bring most districts back to their precut state funding levels because of the way the money is being distributed.
"For the non-Abbotts, it comes down to restoring two-fifths of the cut from last year" on average, said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Still, the additional money is welcome.
"In an austere budget, it's one of the few programs receiving an increase," he said.
Lynne Strickland, head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which includes many suburban districts, said she was relieved to hear about the additional funds.
"It's well recognized the districts have really had to cut back on programs for education," she said.
Kevin Roberts, an administration spokesman, said the increased aid for the 31 mostly urban, low-income Abbott districts "should be directed strategically toward areas of education as determined by each respective district."
For the non-Abbotts, he said, the administration "strongly encourages" them to use their additional aid to lower property taxes and move toward more effective school management.
South Jersey school administrators, while glad to be in line for more aid, wanted more details on how they would be allowed to spend it.
"We are all grateful to the Legislature for additional funding that was in the budget, and are happy that that much of it wasn't cut by the governor," said Robert Goldschmidt, superintendent of the Riverside district. "But we still don't know what, if any, restrictions come with the money."
Riverside is slated to get $10.2 million, a $411,076 increase from the last school year.
Haddonfield Superintendent Richard Perry said the $637,893 now allocated to his district does not make up for the $1.5 million it lost last year. But it could help meet needs, depending on its restrictions.
"It's good news on the surface," he said. "We have to see how it pans out."
Scott Oswald, superintendent of the Collingswood schools, said he, too, heard the state would provide guidance on how the money could be used.
"I'm not sure what that guidance entails," he said. "It would be wonderful to our taxpayers if we could provide some tax relief. We are committed to doing that while not shortchanging our students."
According to the state's revised aid figures, Collingswood will get about $10.1 million in state aid, an increase of $593,870.
Pemberton Township, a former Abbott district, lost $5.1 million last year, said business administrator Pat Austin. That's how much of an increase the state has the district down for this coming school year.
"It's very fortunate for us to get this money," Austin said.
Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday how an additional $600 million in state aid would be distributed to school districts around the state.
The extra money could mean some new jobs or restored programs in schools that had tightened their budgets. But the state Department of Education will also encourage nonurban districts to give money back to residents as property tax relief.
Until they have more specific guidance from the state Department of Education, local school officials said they are pleased, but reluctant to speculate about how they might use the money.
“I’m not even going to begin to think about it until I know what the guidelines are,” said Steven Ciccariello, superintendent of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional district, which will get almost $632,000 in extra state aid. “I don’t want to plan for something and then be told I can’t do it.”
The governor’s original budget proposal included $250 million in restored school aid for the 2011-12 school year, and school districts based their budgets on that number. But a subsequent state Supreme Court ruling added another $450 million for the 31 urban Abbott districts, and Christie included an extra $150 million for all other districts in his final budget at the end of June, bringing the total restored aid to $850 million. The $150 million in aid was restored proportionally to districts in the same manner by which it was reduced in 2010-11.
Locally the extra aid ranges from more than $400,000 in Hamilton Township and Middle Township, to $567,000 in Galloway Township and more than $1 million in Egg Harbor Township. The urban Abbott districts received the most extra funding, including $3 million in Pleasantville, $15.5 million in Bridgeton, $3.4 million Millville and $6.8 million in Vineland.
A statement issued Tuesday by the governor’s office said the increase in education aid “will provide important property tax relief to New Jerseyans as the state increases its support for local schools.”
That left school officials wondering if they will be allowed to use the extra money to run the schools, or if it will be allocated to reducing the local property tax levy.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Allison Kobus sent an email late Tuesday afternoon saying that the Abbott districts should use their aid toward strategic educational goals. But the non-Abbotts will be be strongly encouraged to use the extra aid to lower property taxes.
“For Non-Abbott Districts, the additional education aid included in this year’s budget is an opportunity to reduce property tax burdens by lowering local property tax levies for this fiscal year or the next and move closer towards real reform in our schools.”the email said. “The Department of Education strongly encourages using this additional aid to lower taxes and make the important step toward new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improving student achievement, rather than increased spending.”
David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, which represented urban students in the Abbott vs. Burke Supreme Court case, said since the new aid is part of the state’s school-funding formula, it must be used for education purposes, and not to reduce property taxes.
“This money is not property tax relief,” he said. “At some point it may help reduce pressure on property taxes, but the money is there to support the education programs.”
Sciarra said districts should begin figuring out how to use their money quickly so they can have programs and staffing ready in September. He said their goal is to make sure next year all school districts get all funding to which they are entitled under the state school funding law.
Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools was more cautious. She said she would hope districts get the option to either use money this year or save it for next year when it could help control property taxes.
“Some districts could really use some extra money this year,”she said. “But the timelines are tough, and past experience has shown that when the state gives extra aid they like to see it used for property tax relief.”
Local district officials said they hope to get the guidelines soon so they can begin planning before the school year begins.
“Our school district is pleased to receive additional state aid,” Galloway superintendent Annette Giaquinto said. “Since the guidelines are not yet available, I cannot be specific regarding how we will use the funding. Certainly, we will look to support district goals.”
Ciccariello said even if the state allows them to spend all the money in 2011-2012, that may not be the best option. He said with class schedules already set at the district’s three high schools, it would be difficult and disruptive to add more staff for the upcoming school year. He said federal EduJobs grants helped pay for teachers this year, so they could look at buying equipment, or saving money for next year.
“I don’t want to commit until we hear from the state,” he said.“But whatever we do, the money will go for the kids.”
Contact Diane D'Amico: 609-272-7241 DDamico@pressofac.com
Garden State Coalition of Schools