Plan Would Cut State School Aid $300 Million; Not All Districts Affected the Same

April 14, 2012

Public schools would lose about $300 million or 3.5 percent of state aid under changes proposed by the state Department of Education, according to an analysis by the state Office of Legislative Services.

But the changes would not affect all districts the same. The report said almost a third of all districts would get the same aid as they would under the current school funding law. But 12 percent of districts would get at least 20 percent less aid, and one percent would see at least a 20 percent increase in funds.

The reductions are concentrated in the state’s poorest districts, where advocates adamantly oppose the changes. Representatives of more suburban districts are not happy with all aspects of the proposals, but they say the changes do address some of their concerns about special-education funding. State legislators are cautiously reviewing the report and trying to calculate how to best represent constituent districts when some may be winners and others losers.

“My district really is a perfect storm,” said Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who sits on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. “I’ve got districts that would already take a hit because of enrollment (decreasing), and then Christie decides to reduce the formula for at-risk student aid. Add in the new attendance piece (where aid is is reduced based on poor student attendance), and the geographic adjustment (that gives proportionally less money to southern New Jersey) and every district is affected.”

According to the OLS report, 25 of the 34 school districts in Van Drew’s legislative district would get less aid using the proposed changes than they would under the current funding formula. Those that would gain aid include Avalon, Stone Harbor and West Cape May, although because of their small size and property wealth, those towns get relatively little state aid overall. The biggest losers in Van Drew’s district would be Lower Cape May Regional, Upper Township, Wildwood, Millville and Vineland.

“It’s like Robin Hood in reverse,” said John Saporito, superintendent in rural Maurice River and Lawrence townships, which would lose aid, and Commercial Township, which would stay about the same.

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said a still-unanswered question is how the state might redefine an “at-risk” student, if not through participation in the federal free meal program. The answer has been assigned to a new Education Funding Task Force, named April 4, that includes former Absecon City Councilman Charles Urban.

The OLS report says the biggest cut would be $228 million in so-called “adjustment aid” that was included in the funding formula to assist districts that might otherwise have lost aid. The proposal would cut those funds by 50 percent over five years in districts that are already spending above what the state considers “adequacy.”

Atlantic City would be the hardest hit local district under the proposed changes. The proposed 2012-13 budget gives the district $15.2 million in aid. That would eventually shrink to $9.3 million under the proposed changes, but would grow to $21 million under the current funding formula.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, a teacher in Atlantic City, said while economic issues remain a concern, the state must also recognize that students in poor, urban districts need more services.

“If they start out behind it is very hard for them to catch up,” he said. “I have no problem putting more emphasis on their needs. If there are concerns about districts squandering money, then fix that, but the solution is not to just take money from all urban districts.”

The OLS analysis also compares the state formula and the formula with the proposed changes as fully funded, which rarely occurs. Fully funded, state operating school aid for 2012-13 would total $8.6 billion under the existing formula compared with the $7.8 billion in Christie’s proposed budget, which implements the proposed changes, but without full funding. The proposed new formula, if fully funded, would raise total aid to $8.3 billion.

David Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, has called the proposed changes a scam.

“He’s trying to use the budget bill to get changes that he can’t get through the Legislature,” Sciarra said of the governor. “I understand some districts got more this year, and that was better than nothing. But we can do better.”

Others are more pragmatic.

“We have to deal with the reality of the political world and the economy,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents largely suburban districts throughout the state. She said her members don’t all agree with the revision plan, but will likely accept this year’s aid, then address the proposed changes.

“We are not naive,” she said. “But we have to work in the moment and prepare for the future.”

The lack of full funding is most noticeable in growth districts. Egg Harbor Township has been allocated almost $40 million in state aid for 2012-13 but under both the current funding formula and the proposed changes is entitled to almost $10 million more. Hammonton, Galloway Township, Hamilton Township and Greater Egg Harbor Regional would also get millions of dollars more than they are now under either plan, but only if fully funded.

Van Drew said he hopes the Legislature can negotiate with the governor to find a compromise.

“We always have issues with school aid,” he said. “We’ll try to negotiate something we can all live with.”