Murphy school aid plan not acceptable to Republicans or Democrats
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal ran into bipartisan opposition at Wednesday’s first budget hearing – and not just about the planned tax increases.
Lawmakers from both parties said the distribution of school aid needs to be changed this year. Murphy says he’s willing to talk about changes in the funding formula, though his administration has signaled the revisions would affect the future years in his four-year plan to fully fund schools.
Murphy proposed $283 million in additional school aid, but the distribution doesn’t account for years of changes in enrollment, wealth and development, which have largely been ignored after the formula was essentially abandoned in 2009, after just one year in effect.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said he hopes Murphy’s plan is a “placeholder budget” and predicts it will be changed to direct more funding to districts where aid hasn’t kept pace with changes in enrollment growth, largely because the formula hasn’t been followed.
“I can’t accept this budget as it’s presently presented, even with the good parts of it, until we get that straightened out,” Burzichelli said.
Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said another school year can’t go by without lifting caps that restrict how much additional aid districts can get, regardless of their enrollment growth.
“The school funding recommendations set forth in 2018-2019 for the New Jersey state budget cannot and should not be the final word,” Gopal said.
Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, said the School Funding Reform Act is broken.
“We’ve gone way askew here. We need to do something. I don’t know if we can salvage the SFRA or we need to do something totally new,” DiMaio said.
Even those defending Murphy’s plan concede its shortcomings.
Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach director for the Education Law Center, said many districts are in worse shape now than a decade ago because the funding formula, which has been upheld by the courts, was ditched after its first year.
Any funding added to the fiscal 2019 budget by lawmakers should go to those school districts, she says.
“The formula is a little bit out of whack. It was eight years that it was ignored,” Krengel said.
Steve Beatty, the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association, implored lawmakers not to change state aid in ways that would reducing funding to any districts. All but 6 percent of districts are set to get additional aid, but none would see a reduction.
“Transitioning back to the funding formula should be done with care and in consideration of the impact on kids across the state,” Beatty said.
Manville Superintendent of Schools Robert Beers said his district’s funding gap actually widens for the coming year, to more than $9 million, despite an extra $300,000 in aid. He says the extra money amounts to $205 per pupil, when the deficit is actually $6,000 per child.
“So everybody here might be interested in knowing how we produce a comprehensive K-to-12 learning environment for all our students on a shoestring. The answer is we can’t. We absolutely cannot,” Beers said.
School superintendents from Freehold Borough and Red Bank also testified to the Assembly Budget Committee, as did parents from Chesterfield Township, Paterson and Westfield.
Jaclyn Halaw said Chesterfield schools have been left so overtaxed and understaffed that the district lacks a full-time computer technician, which she blames for her 7-year-son seeing a pop-up photo of a fully naked woman when completing an online math lesson in school.
“The cuts go on and on, and the cumulative impact on our children is despicable,” Halaw said.
Chesterfield is getting $41,000 in additional aid, but it is $3.3 million short of full, uncapped aid.