School districts clamor for more aid, others warn against cuts in funding debate

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on February 22, 2017

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop urged a bipartisan Senate committee to more thoughtfully forge ahead with changing how public schools are funded, arguing current proposals are vague and threaten to help affluent areas "at the expense of the most needy children."

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NEWARK -- The ongoing debate over how to fairly -- and equitably -- fund public schools prompted disagreements Wednesday between two Democrats who once were considered contenders for the gubernatorial race.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop urged a bipartisan Senate committee to more thoughtfully forge ahead with changing how public schools are funded, arguing current proposals are vague and threaten to help affluent areas "at the expense of the most needy children." 

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who co-chaired the committee, said Fulop's remarks were "1000 percent wrong."

"It's actually insulting in some ways for him to say that we're trying to divert money from urban districts," he told reporters. "The Governor's plan does that, it creates an 'us versus them.'"

New Jersey spends more than $9 billion a year on public schools using a formula that considers each community's ability to raise revenue through property taxes.

It expects wealthier communities to pay a higher percentage of school costs with their own tax dollars and gives school districts extra money for students from low-income families. 

Last year, Gov. Chris Christie proposed a dramatic change which would give districts $6,599 per student regardless of income or other needs. 

Sweeney's plan would include fully funding the state's 2008 formula that determines how much state aid each school district receives according to school enrollment and student need. The state has been unable to fully fund its formula for years as it grapples with rising pensions costs and a dwindling transportation fund.

Part of Sweeney's plan also includes reallocating hundreds of millions in adjustment aid, money currently doled out to the districts like Jersey City and Hoboken solely so they don't lose state aid from previous years.

Fulop said though he supported fully funding the state formula, eliminating the adjustment aid would hurt urban districts like Camden, Asbury Park and Newark. Jersey City received $114 million in adjustment aid this year. 

"It is clearly an attack on poorer, predominantly African-American, Latino and minority communities," Fulop told the eight-member Senate committee during its fourth hearing on the issue at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. 

But Sweeney said urban districts like Newark and Paterson would see a net gain under his proposal because they receive less funding than they should from the state. Newark is underfunded by more than $100 million, his staff said. 

"Newark has cut bare bones and it hurts," Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, chair of Newark's School Advisory Board, told the committee. "Without full funding we don't know what the future will be for Newark public schools."

"We don't want to come up with a new formula, the formula works," Sweeney said. "We need to fund it."

He said some municipalities which are overfunded by the state need to step up local contributions to prepare for a decrease in aid. Jersey City, he said, pays 36 percent of what the state believes is their local fair share in taxes.

"Where they can afford to start paying, they need to start adjusting," Sweeney said. 

Fulop said lawmakers needed to understand Jersey City was not just affluent development. He said there are still pockets of poverty and 70 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. 

"Pointing to a waterfront and classifying an entire city being indicative of a waterfront is unfair," Fulop said. He added that municipalities shouldn't be penalized for using tools given to them by the Legislature, such as tax abatements for new developers; school districts receive no money from abatement revenues.

During the nearly four-hour hearing, other school districts such as Bayonne testified about looming teacher layoffs because of severe underfunding. 

"Bayonne is in a serious structural budget crisis, it has caught up to us," said Schools Superintendent Patricia L. McGeehan. She pointed to their other Hudson County neighbors who were receiving more than enough state money. "So one more time: why not Bayonne?"

Charter school advocates also argued in favor of fully funding the formula. "What's good for districts is good for charter schools," said Rick Pressler, of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.  

Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) who also co-chaired the committee said not everyone agreed with the formula.

"The formula itself is skewed, gamed and it's political," he said.

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