N.J. Senate President Expresses Concern About Politics in School Districts

July 3, 2012

NEWARK — If Gov. Chris Christie and public education reformers are looking for someone to blame for keeping teachers’ seniority protections intact, they should look at Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

“I’m the one that stopped the seniority. I own it. And I did it for a reason: My concern was more about the politics that take place in schools,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said today during a wide-ranging sit down with The Star-Ledger’s editorial board.

The Legislature last week sent Gov. Chris Christie an overhaul of the teacher tenure system, but it did not include a core plank supported by Christie and many people who pushed for the bill: The elimination of seniority protections for teachers during layoffs.

Sweeney said the Elizabeth Board of Education — under fire for alleged patronage, nepotism and political shakedowns outlined in Star-Ledger reports — shows why seniority is needed.

“There’s a lot of politics that have entered school districts now. More than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he said. “It seems that’s the new frontier for patronage.”

Sweeney also said that he is renewing his push for a bill that would penalize towns who don’t share services if a state commission recommends they do. Under the legislation, towns would lose the amount of state aid that the commission determined they’d save.

“I’m ready to move the bill in my house. I’m close. I’ve been working on it. Honestly it’s in the Assembly. They haven’t done anything with hit. I’m going to make a push to convince the Assembly to get on the same page as us,” he said.

Sweeney said the 2 percent property tax cap enacted two years ago has caused towns to look at sharing more services. If he had to do it again, Sweeney said, he’s push for a zero percent cap.

“Doing 2 percent I thought was being fair, but the resistance to sharing services is so great, should have made it zero,” he said.

Sweeney’s sit down comes one day after Christie called the Senate and Assembly into special session to push them to immediately vote for an income tax credit based on property taxes.

Democrats set aside $183 million for tax cuts in the budget they passed last week, but they delayed enacting the cut until they see if revenue collections meet Christie’s optimistic projections.

Sweeney said he’s “pretty confident they’re going to come up short,” but did not say how close they need to be to Christie’s projections for them to enact a tax cut.

“I’m hoping his numbers come true and if they come true we’ll have a tax cut. If we have a $1 billion shortfall or an $800 million shortfall — you can’t cut taxes if you’re that deep in the hole,” he said.

Sweeney stressed that the tax cut Christie pushed would not take effect until next year anyway.

“We really need the press to report that what (Christie) is talking about is not true,” said Sweeney. “I could have passed the language of the tax cut three months ago. It doesn’t happen until next year.”