|6-29-07 Lots of news affecting NJ, its schools and communities this week - STATE BUDGET signed - LIST OF LINE ITEM VETOES - US SUPREME CT RULING impacts school desgregation - SPECIAL EDUCATION GROUPS file suit against state|
STAR LEDGER -Governor enacts $33.5 billion budget Plan increases rebates while avoiding tax hikes Friday, June 29, 2007 ...
‘IN THE LOBBY' found at http://inthelobby.net
After he signed the budget bill into law, an apparently angry Gov. Jon Corzine said he is not going to sell the New Jersey Turnpike or other state assets, and denounced critics who said he was...
In the Lobby - Top Headlines: THE UNLUCKY 66 Gov. Corzine signed the $33.5 billion budget today, but not before he took his budget ax to 66 line items totalling approximately $10 million.
Every budget has winners and losers. Here's the unlucky 66:
6-29-07 ASBURY PARK PRESS/GANNETT: A NEW PUBLIC AGENCY? 'Toll-road plan still formulating'...Corzine vague about the details, but lashes out at GOP lawmakers..
STAR LEDGER WASHINGTON BUREAU 'Setback for school desegregation' U.S. justices say race cannot be main factor when placing students throughout a district June 29, 2007
STAR LEDGER 'Jerseyans wonder how 185-page ruling will apply to them' June 29, 2007
STAR LEDGER 6-28-07 'State sued on special ed student separation'
"A coalition of advocacy groups has filed a federal lawsuit against the state that contends thousands of special education students are being wrongfully educated in segregated classes, bringing to court a long-running sore point for New Jersey..."
Governor enacts $33.5 billion budget
Plan increases rebates while avoiding tax hikes
Friday, June 29, 2007
BY JOE DONOHUE AND DEBORAH HOWLETT
After trimming the wish lists of legislators by more than $10 million, Gov. Jon Corzine yesterday signed a $33.5 billion, feel-good state budget that pumps more dol lars into property tax relief and avoids raising state taxes for the first time in six years.
Flanked by seven lawmakers from his party, Corzine presided over a cordial signing ceremony at the Statehouse as Democrats prepared to defend their majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly this fall.
The bill-signing came three days before Sunday's constitutional deadline for a spending plan. Last year, the governor's budget was eight days late after a stalemate with legislative leaders caused an unprecedented shutdown of many government services, from courts to parks, beaches and Atlantic City's state-regulated casinos.
"Unquestionably this is a good budget for the people of the state of New Jersey," Corzine said. "This budget is fiscally sound and fiscally responsible ... We are spending only what we can pay for. There are no gimmicks."
The mood was upbeat even though Corzine dramatically reduced the amount of legislative grants added to the year's budget, nearly all by fellow Democrats.
Last year, lawmakers piled about $378 million into the budget for projects benefiting local districts, extending the state shutdown for more than a day after the leaders had settled their differences. Corzine used his line-item veto power to chop about $33 million from the so-called "Christmas tree" list.
This year, Corzine threatened to veto any additions by lawmakers unless they were publicly vetted and designed to benefit more than just one legislative district or town. Lawmakers added about $112 million for their districts, the lowest total since Democrats regained control of the Statehouse in 2002. Corzine yesterday pared $10 million from that total, eliminating 29 grants and reducing 37 others.
Corzine's cuts included grants requested by Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who stood beside him yesterday.
Democrats downplayed the cuts, preferring to stress that the budget will provide rebate checks averaging $1,051 to homeowners. After Corzine spoke for nearly 45 minutes, Codey joked: "The way you were going, Governor, I thought we were going to miss the budget deadline."
One lawmaker who was clearly displeased was Sen. Nia Gill (D- Essex). Last week, Gill was the only Senate member to vote against Corzine's nomination of former Attorney General Stuart Rabner to become chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Rabner's confirmation was held up several days because of Gill's concerns about his experience.
Corzine's elimination of $1 million for the Minority Student Achievement Network in Mont clair, Gill's hometown, was his single largest reduction of any project.
Yesterday, Gill said the minority program is nationally acclaimed for its educational success and was a model for others in the state.
"The governor says that he is committed to diversity," Gill said. "In Montclair, we're committed to diversity. This undermines the issue of diversity as it is practiced in a positive, creative way."
Corzine also deleted $100,000 for Riskin Children's Center in Clifton, while reducing from $200,000 to $100,000 a grant for Montclair Art Museum. Gill sought those budget additions as well.
Gill declined to speculate on whether the cuts were retaliation for her opposition to Rabner. "It doesn't do justice to narrow this to 'He didn't like her, so he did this to her,'" she said.
Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton said, "The administration did not make funding decisions based on the names and addresses attached to those requests. But the criteria was entirely based on how much a program benefited the state or region as a whole."
While most Republicans declined to seek grants, some did submit requests. After trimming $15,000, Corzine left $175,000 in the budget for the Eastern Christian Children's Retreat, which was sought by Sen. Henry McNamara (R-Bergen). Sen. Tom Kean (R- Union) co-sponsored with Codey a $300,000 grant for Paper Mill Playhouse that Corzine trimmed by $50,000.
The governor also left $75,000 in the budget for the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center after shrinking the grant by $25,000. Sen. Martha Bark (R-Burlington) and Assemblyman Francis Bodine (D- Burlington) both sought the addi tion.
David Robinson, a Republican attorney from Cranford who earlier this week said he might sue to block legislative grants that display favoritism, said he will closely examine Corzine's list and make a decision next week.
Corzine's scalpel removed more than $1.3 million targeted for several arts projects, most of which receive state funds through the Council on the Arts. Even so, arts advocates were pleased with the more than $6 million left in the budget.
Frank Huttle, chairman of the board of the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, said he appreciated the $75,000 Corzine left intact. "Under the fiscal restraints that the state faces, we are very pleased with the governor's support ... and with the legislators' commitment," said Huttle.
The state budget increases spending by $2.7 billion from the one Corzine signed last year. For most homeowners, it will provide rebates equal to a 20 percent reduction in property tax bills, and it doubles tenant rebates. It provides a $275 million business tax cut and a $36 million expansion of the earned income tax credit that will benefit 300,000 low-income families. It also boosts aid to higher education by $53 million.
Senate Majority Leader Ber nard Kenny (D-Hudson) said this year's budget process was "very, very tightly controlled."
"The governor's exerted unprecedented leadership on the budget at a very early stage and he stayed on it and he's getting the budget he wants," Kenny said.
Staff writer Peggy McGlone contributed to this report.
A NEW PUBLIC AGENCY?
Toll-road plan still formulating
Corzine vague about the details, but lashes out at GOP lawmakers
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/29/07
BY GREGORY J. VOLPE
TRENTON — Making his clearest, though still vague, pitch yet for leveraging the state's toll roads to free up cash for the financially-strapped state, an angry Gov. Corzine Thursday lashed out at Republicans for practicing "political demagoguery" instead of waiting to have a rational debate on the issue.
For months, the Corzine administration has been studying whether to "monetize' state assets in hopes of freeing up cash to pay down debt and afford other priorities, like building schools or buying open space.
At first, the plan seemed to center on selling or leasing assets, most notably the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, but now seems headed toward creating a new public agency to borrow against future toll increases.
Corzine remained vague about his plan, saying it still needs legal review, but he issued his clearest assurance that it will not involve selling or leasing the state's toll roads to a foreign or for-profit organization.
"We're not going to privatize," Corzine said. "We're developing a new vehicle — completely out-of-the-box — that will get the benefits of monetization without the costs and compromises that other states have gotten."
He waved a campaign flier mailed by Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, and her Assembly running mates in the 7th District, Brian Propp and Nancy Griffin, that said politicians are considering selling toll roads to increase spending.
"And they haven't ruled out selling them to companies owned by foreign governments," the flier said. "That means a foreign country could decide how much you pay to use our toll roads."
Corzine angrily labeled the flier "political demagoguery" and said critics are obscuring the issue and unwilling to look for alternatives to the state's fiscal problems.
"I find it almost, I'm not going to use excessive language," Corzine said "To dismiss ideas before we know what they are and categorize them inappropriately is the way that you end up with bad things."
Allen claimed partial victory in that Corzine deleted the word "sale" in a clause in the state budget that allows spending on the preparation of a transaction.
"Perhaps first he should listen to the fact that the people don't want to see it happen, period," Allen said. "Please, governor, go to another plan. This isn't the one."
Also included in Corzine's veto summary were eight principles of asset monetization that include public participation, open and predictable toll increases, no effect on current contracts or employees and upfront identification of how money will be spent.
Corzine dismissed a report that he is delaying public release of his plan until after November's legislative elections as speculative.
The plan, according to details dripped separately by Corzine and Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, another monetization supporter, may have similarities to Canada's 1996 privatization of air traffic control that resulted in a nonprofit company controlled by airlines, labor unions and aircraft owners that borrowed money to buy the nation's air traffic control network for $1.5 billion in Canadian dollars.
The sale reduced the national debt, and the new company, Nav Canada, used fees on airlines to repay its investors and for its operations.
In New Jersey, Lesniak said, a new "public-benefit corporation" in place of the existing New Jersey Turnpike Authority is needed to make the plot more attractive to investors.
"The current board doesn't have the expertise that investors would feel comfortable with in terms of being responsible for their fiduciary duties," Lesniak said.
The new entity would repay lenders with regular toll increases and operating efficiencies. Lesniak said the state would not be held liable for the debt but would receive $15 billion to $20 billion in cash.
In recent days, several Democratic lawmakers have issued statements similar to ones voiced by Republicans pledging to fight plans to sell the roads to foreign entities. Corzine did not accuse his fellow Democrats of engaging in demagoguery.
"They are not for leasing or privatizing," Corzine said. "If you read the principles I have laid out, they are not very far from where I am."
Gannett State Bureau writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this story.
Setback for school desegregation
U.S. justices say race cannot be main factor when placing students throughout a district
Friday, June 29, 2007
BY ROBERT COHEN
STAR-LEDGER WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON -- A deeply divided Supreme Court yesterday struck down voluntary public school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle, casting a cloud over -- but not obliterating -- the use of race as a factor in seeking classroom diversity.
In a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said the two school districts failed to justify "the extreme means they have chosen" to combat segregation, literally discriminating against some students by assigning them to schools based on race.
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.
The court put districts on notice, in other words, that race could not be the central factor in the quest for integrated classrooms, but it left the door ajar for more sophisticated plans that might consider race among other factors such as poverty, neighborhoods and test scores.
In a ruling some court observers viewed as a continued assertion of will by a recently formed conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined Roberts, Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in finding the Louisville and Seattle integration plans violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
But Kennedy muddied the waters by questioning the broad sweep of his four fellow jurists' opinion. He argued that race, when considered along with demographic factors, talents and other needs, can be one component of achieving school diversity.
That analysis gave some solace to civil rights advocates, who initially had feared the decision was a total rollback of the court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that found state-sponsored segregation to be unconstitutional.
The new ruling, the last of the court's 2006-07 term, could jeopardize hundreds of voluntary integration plans nationwide and make it harder for school districts to achieve diversity. It also could prompt districts to review and possibly alter their initiatives.
The impact in New Jersey remained unclear. The state's schools are among the nation's most segregated, because of housing patterns, and there are high-profile desegregation efforts in a number of communities that could be jeopardized, according to legal experts.
In a biting dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, said the majority's decision "'undermines Brown's promise of integrated primary and secondary education that local communities ought to make a reality."
"The last half century has witnessed great strides toward racial equality, but we have not yet realized the promise of Brown," said Breyer. "'To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown. This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret."
Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the ruling "'unfortunate" and "'inconsistent with the long body of desegregation case law."
While it adds new obstacles, he said, the decisions of Kennedy and the four dissenters leave "'a window" to craft integration plans that can still take race into account along with other factors to achieve diversity. He said schools systems with voluntary integration plans will now have to find ways to craft plans that meet the more restrictive standard.
Linda Chavez, head of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, said the decisions vindicate the core principle of Brown vs. Board of Education: "that schoolchildren should not be assigned to schools on the basis of skin color."
"It's a victory for parents and students of all races," she said.
Thomas, the only black member on the court, made that very point in a concurrence, arguing that since the "'Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens, such race-based decision making is unconstitutional."
"State entities may not experiment with race-based means to achieve ends they deem socially desirable," he said.
Just four years ago, a divided court waded into the issue with a 5-4 ruling that upheld the limited consideration of race in college admissions to attain a diverse student body. That opinion was written by now-retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
In the two cases yesterday, Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. vs. Seattle School District and Meredith vs. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education, the school systems offered parents and students options, within limits, to select the school of their choice.
The districts set goals for white and minority representation, and made decisions about school assignments based on a student's race in an effort to overcome the consequences of segregated housing patterns.
The Louisville-Jefferson County district implemented its plan after the school system emerged from a 25-year desegregation plan overseen by the federal courts, hoping to maintain the racial integration it had achieved.
Groups of mostly white parents sued after their children were denied admission to the schools they preferred, arguing the plans essentially used illegal racial quotas and violated their rights under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Federal appeals courts had upheld the school plans now ruled invalid.
Jerseyans wonder how 185-page ruling will apply to them
Friday, June 29, 2007
BY JOHN MOONEY
When John Carlton learned yesterday that the Supreme Court had banned the use of race in assigning students to schools, the president of the Montclair school board said he worried it could hurt a township magnet-school system that for years had brought a racial balance to the classroom.
So he started reading the opinion for something definitive. And reading.
"In a 185-page opinion, I'm not sure there is anyone who can say, 'Gee, that makes it clear,'" he said. "It's obviously a momentous decision, but how it will affect us, to be honest, we don't know yet."
Carlton was in good company yesterday as school officials and others in New Jersey pored over the U.S. justices' words and grappled with how the ruling would affect desegregation efforts -- as few as there are -- in place in the state's schools.
Some were more worried than others. Montclair's magnet plan could be among those newly challenged. McNair Academic High School, Jersey City's selective high school that sets strict racial quotas in admissions, may be in even greater jeopardy.
Civil rights leaders and advocates decried the court's message.
"It's a sad day in America," said James Harris, president of the state's NAACP. "We know that this country is resegregating racially, and the Supreme Court is telling us we can have integration but just can't use race to get there."
Yet how it directly affects what happens in New Jersey's schools is hard to sort out, others said, especially in a state with few desegregation initiatives to start with.
New Jersey is considered among the most segregated states in the nation when it comes to its schools, a division in part driven by the state's housing patterns. Last year, three-quarters of the state's white students attended schools that were 90 percent or more white.
Nonetheless, the state's constitution and laws demand racial balance in the schools and prohibit even de facto segregation. Some said yesterday's ruling could leave those laws open to challenge.
"Not sure there would be much change on the ground, but I do think there is a significant question of whether the state policies on the books could survive," said Paul Tractenberg, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Law-Newark.
Much of the hand-wringing was over the wording in both the majority opinion and a concurring opinion from Justice Anthony Kennedy that held out the possibility schools could use race as a factor in assignments, just not the deciding factor.
Tractenberg said Kennedy's words, and even those in the majority opinion, left the door open for some integration measures. "It will certainly invite some careful and thoughtful creativity on schools' parts," he said.
Most affected may be those like McNair Academic, one of New Jersey's highest- performing high schools. Students apply to the selective school through a rigorous admissions process, but one of the final determinants is a formula that requires enrollment be evenly split between white, black, Hispanic and all other students.
"We're hoping this doesn't impact McNair, but we're looking at it," said Gerard Crisonino, a district spokesman. "We feel the school is very successful and we'd like to continue it as it is."
Montclair's system is less strict in the use of race in making school assignments. Students choose from any of the elementary and middle schools in the district, and officials said race is considered only in trying to maintain a relative balance among all the schools.
The magnet system first came out of a federal desegregation order in the 1970s, but it has been maintained voluntarily by the district -- if not trumpeted -- ever since.
"The diversity of our schools has repeatedly been cited as a reason people move here," said Carlton, the school board president.
Carlton said he hopes that will not change. "We are very committed to the system we have now, so that's the starting point," he said.
John Mooney may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1548.
State sued on special ed student separation
Thursday, June 28, 2007
BY JOHN MOONEY
A coalition of advocacy groups has filed a federal lawsuit against the state that contends thousands of special education students are being wrongfully educated in segregated classes, bringing to court a long-running sore point for New Jersey.
The groups say in the 40-page complaint filed in federal District Court in Newark that New Jersey's policies and funding allow, if not encourage, districts to serve a majority of their disabled students in separate classes and schools.
The state serves about 43 percent of its children with disabilities in predominantly general education classes, well below the national average of about 55 percent, according to the most recent data.
More glaring is the 10 percent who are placed in separate schools altogether, by far the nation's highest rate. And the lawsuit contends the use of separate classes or schools is especially high among some students, including those in preschool, black and Hispanic children.
"If New Jersey approached the national average (for separate classrooms)," reads the lawsuit, "almost 13,000 fewer children would be in segregated placements."
They would include those like a girl cited in the complaint who was denied mainstream preschool after the district told her parents "that it did not offer inclusion unless so ordered by the courts." Other districts said they couldn't afford such programs.
The plaintiffs in the case are New Jersey Protection & Advocacy Inc., Education Law Center, the Statewide Parent and Advocacy Network of New Jersey and the Arc of New Jersey. The defendants are the state Department of Education, state Education Commis sioner Lucille Davy and the state Board of Education.
For years, the advocate groups have fought for more mainstream education, or "inclusion," for the state's 230,000 students with disabilities.
Backing them up is state and federal law that demands students be served in "least restrictive environment" that is appropriate, and advocates and families have maintained that such mainstream classes are critical for their children to learn and to socialize.
Yet New Jersey has struggled meeting these demands, especially in sending thousands of students into separate schools altogether. New Jersey has nearly 400 such schools, public and private, and it is not rare that families clamor to get into these programs when they are dissatisfied with those in the district.
State officials have recently been aggressive in pressing districts to provide more inclusive programs, setting broad goals for bringing down the separate- placement numbers in the next five years. Nearly $19 million was earmarked this year for in-district programs as well.
Still, officials have acknowledged that for all their efforts, they have yet to see much progress in the overall numbers. Yesterday, they would not comment on the lawsuit, other than to say they re main committed to inclusion.
"We stress the need for special education students to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers," said state spokesman Jon Zlock.
The advocates maintain the state must back up its words with tougher actions, and they hoped the lawsuit would force its hand. They acknowledged the difficulty of overseeing 600-plus districts, but said too often, the state still won't act forcefully.
"When they do find a problem," said Joseph Young, deputy director of New Jersey Protection & Advo cacy, "there is a lot of carrot kind of responses and not enough sticks."
Others said the state has clearly stepped up its efforts, but they are not enough.
"Nothing they have promised will happen meaningfully within the academic lifetime of children now in school," said Ruth Lowenk ron, an attorney with the Education Law Center. "This lawsuit was the only way for something meaningful to happen."
And they stress that it is not just about shifting the numbers to more inclusion, but also providing appropriate supports and other programs for children once they are in mainstream classes.
"We don't want to just be moving from no inclusion to more inclusion without the services these children need," Lowenkron said.
Garden State Coalition of Schools