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6-9-09 COMMENTARY on Supreme Court Abbott school funding decisio
Perspectives and Moving Forward:COMMENTARY ON SUPREME COURT ABBOTT DECISION- SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULA CONSTITUTIONAL: 'Abbott amended; now, eliminate spending caps' NorthJersey.com by Robert Hutton, vice president of the Ridgewood Board of Education.

"THE ABBOTT decisions have been with us for more than 20 years. I don't believe the most recent state Supreme Court decision will make unfair funding formulas go away that easily..."

"Given the court's support for the new school funding formula, the only logical next step is to abolish the legislation dictating caps...The reversal of these caps would put budget decisions back where they have been and rightfully should be — in the hands of district voters...If caps remain, the end result will be the elimination of high performing districts such as Ridgewood in New Jersey."

'Verniero: From the courtrooms to the classrooms' NorthJersey.com, by Peter G. Verniero, a lawyer, formerly served as a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and state attorney general. As attorney general, he represented the state in the fourth and fifth Abbott cases..."The bottom line is this: For the time being, all three branches of government are moving in the same direction. If we could keep it that way, all of New Jersey’s school children would be the winners."

Abbott amended; now, eliminate spending caps

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

BY ROBERT HUTTON

NorthJersey.com

THE ABBOTT decisions have been with us for more than 20 years. I don't believe the most recent state Supreme Court decision will make unfair funding formulas go away that easily.

On the case at hand, I believe Governor Corzine did his homework and the Supreme Court did its vetting of all pertinent information, ultimately drawing the right conclusion. Is it over? I doubt it. But I am going to take the position of "Let's move on."

In "A good court ruling, for state and kids" (Other Views, June 3), Contributing Editor James Ahearn identified the fact that an earlier Abbott decision benchmarked the necessary spending for the Abbott districts to affluent, mostly suburban districts. The state realized a few years ago that continuing that tradition would ultimately lead to bankruptcy. So it did the next best thing: It enacted a cap on the rate of spending for all school districts.

Reversed relationship

The cap has been modified over the years to tighten the spending in those benchmarked districts. Their spending growth has slowed. However, as Ahearn points out, the average Abbott district's spending per pupil is $17,325 while the average spent in the benchmarked districts is $14,046. Regardless, the Supreme Court decision has rendered the whole benchmark concept irrelevant.

Given the court's support for the new school funding formula, the only logical next step is to abolish the legislation dictating caps. I know in Ridgewood, for our approved budget for the 2009-10 school year, we needed to remove $2.5 million of desired spending to present to the public a budget that was in line with the cap legislation. Those cuts have removed several of the aspects that make Ridgewood's public education a high quality and unique experience. Other districts had to make these hard decisions, too. Furthermore, Ridgewood's spending per pupil is below the average of the benchmarked category.

Obliterating identity

Can the cost of public education go unchecked? No. But let us not forget that budgets for public education are the only budgets that have an annual check by the voters of each district. Every board of education must evaluate the district's needs relative to the dollar amount voters are willing to accept. Voters have the right each year to demand accountability. The budget is the result of a process that combines Budgeting 101 and Marketing 101. I believe Ridgewood does a pretty good job in maximizing the value of its taxpayers' investment.

If the rules that were applied this year are applied unchanged for next year, Ridgewood will be forced to cut another $1 million in spending. We have done our best to keep cuts out of the classroom; our next option is probably increasing class size. Ridgewood's reasonable class size is what has made Ridgewood Ridgewood. An increase in class size would make yet another cut in the fabric of a quality education.

The reversal of these caps would put budget decisions back where they have been and rightfully should be — in the hands of district voters affected by that spending. If caps remain, the end result will be the elimination of high performing districts such as Ridgewood in New Jersey.

Robert Hutton is vice president of the Ridgewood Board of Education.

 

 

 

 

 

   
 

Verniero: From the courtrooms to the classrooms

Monday, June 8, 2009
Last updated: Tuesday June 9, 2009, 10:56 AM

BY PETER G. VERNIERO

NorthJersey.com

Peter G. Verniero, a lawyer, formerly served as a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and state attorney general. As attorney general, he represented the state in the fourth and fifth Abbott cases.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the state Supreme Court’s recent school-funding decision, many are asking: Is this the end of the decades-long litigation known as Abbott v. Burke?

Although it is premature to declare an end to the case, the state is poised as never before to implement a comprehensive funding formula consistent with its constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient system of education to all pupils.

For many years, at-risk students in predominately urban school districts have sought relief from the court, claiming that deplorable conditions in the so-called Abbott districts denied them the opportunity for quality education on par with pupils in the state’s more affluent communities. Given the demonstrated record of neglect in the Abbott districts, the court sided with the students there, directing the elected branches of government to respond and, in the absence of an acceptable alternative, ultimately ordering parity in funding with the wealthiest districts as well as other relief.

Over this period, governors and legislators of both political parties tried in good faith to comply with the constitutional mandate. Although there were some notable advancements, the state was unsuccessful under the Abbott line of cases in obtaining judicial validation of a comprehensive funding formula – until the May 28 ruling.

In this most recent case (the 20th in a series), the court relieved the state from the court’s prior funding orders. In so doing, it accepted the state’s argument that the statute adopted last year, which established a unitary system for all districts rather than one focused on separate funding streams to the Abbott districts, was constitutionally adequate.

Fair and adequate funding

As the court explained, in a careful and unanimous opinion written by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, “the record reflects that the executive and Legislature have engaged in an accepted process to develop a fair and adequate funding system for use across the state.” (The creation of that record was supervised by a special master, Bergen County Assignment Judge Peter E. Doyne, who served diligently on an expedited schedule.)

The high court added, in deferential language rarely seen in an Abbott decision, “We see no reason, or basis, for us to second-guess the extraordinarily complex education funding determinations that went into the formulation of the many moving parts to this funding formula.”

The ruling assumes “a continued commitment by the Legislature and executive to address whatever adjustments are necessary to keep (the statute) operating at its optimal level.” The court also declared, “There should be no doubt that we would require remediation of any deficiencies of a constitutional dimension, if such problems do emerge.”

Despite those caveats, the court’s decision quite possibly signals a new era of school funding in New Jersey — one in which the energies in Trenton will be focused primarily on education, not litigation. For that truly to occur, all sides will need to work as partners, not legal adversaries.

In that respect, the attorneys involved in the case appear to be persons of good will. They include Attorney General Anne Milgram, who meticulously and skillfully presented the state’s position to the court, and David Sciarra, whose efforts and those of the Education Law Center on behalf of the Abbott districts’ children helped achieve significant progress. They and their clients seem to share a common goal of wanting our kids, wherever they live, to excel at school and advance in an ever-challenging world.

Seize the moment

Only time will tell whether all the participants in this process can seize this unique moment to move education from the courtroom to the classroom, and maintain a system that delivers the promise of quality education to all pupils – including at-risk students who deserve the chance to succeed as much as any child in the state.

The bottom line is this: For the time being, all three branches of government are moving in the same direction. If we could keep it that way, all of New Jersey’s school children would be the winners.

Peter G. Verniero, a lawyer, formerly served as a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and state attorney general. As attorney general, he represented the state in the fourth and fifth Abbott cases.

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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