NJ Senate leader: No state budget unless school aid changed
Unless there are changes to the school-funding formula and additional aid, the state Senate won’t pass a state budget next month, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Tuesday.
School funding has been the subject of numerous hearings in recent months, even before Gov. Chris Christie challenged lawmakers to work with him to enact changes by early June. Sweeney upped the rhetoric at an event before the Senate’s Department of Education budget hearing.
“The Senate is not going to pass a budget that doesn’t start to address the unfairness in this funding formula,” Sweeney said, to applause from activists from underfunded districts.
The consequences of not passing a budget by June 30, should that come to pass, could include a shutdown of nonessential state government services at the start of July. Christie would decide that, not Sweeney. The senator left Tuesday's event early, without taking questions.
“We know this can’t be fixed overnight, but it has to start now. There’s too many districts that are laying off tens, twenties, hundred teachers, and other districts that are being fine,” Sweeney said. “You know the saying: ‘Run the formula, fund the formula.’ That’s exactly what the Senate intends to do.”
“I can’t make it any clearer,” he said. “The time of talking is done. The time of action is now. There’s just too many districts that are suffering, and we’re fixing it.”
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said Sweeney’s announcement means a budget won’t advance that doesn’t include the Senate’s school funding plan – gradual increases in funding and ending the use of a cap on aid for growing enrollments and adjustment aid meant to ease the transition to the formula in 2009.
“That means we begin to fully fund the formula, phased in whether it’s five years or more, but we begin the process now,” Sarlo said. “And at the same time, we begin to phase out immediately of the hold harmless provision and the growth caps.”
Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee the Christie administration will be a partner in those efforts.
“We agree that what we have is not working and that we need a new solution,” Harrington said.
Harrington urged lawmakers to be careful in making changes that programs and children aren’t hurt. Though nearly 300 districts get adjustment aid, Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said only 46 districts statewide are getting more state aid than the formula would allow, if it was being followed.
“We have to be careful when we look at stripping that out in its entirety just because of maybe the adverse, unintended consequences that could have,” Harrington said. “We certainly know that we have districts who are over adequacy and who have had enrollment decreases, and we just need to make sure – I think there are areas that we can be looking at, those who are truly over adequacy where we can be pulling money out and dispersing it to those who are more severely in need.”
Beck said 327 of the 368 districts that are considered “over adequacy” in the eyes of the school-aid formula register that way because of how much they tax local residents.
Beck said 46 districts get more aid than the formula would allow and that the redistribution of funds could start with that $10 million to $11 million, hopefully supplemented by additional money.
“As we make change to deal with folks that have had huge enrollment growth and are grossly far behind, we can’t create new districts that are grossly far behind,” Beck said. “So this is not a simple matter.”
At the news conference before the budget hearing, advocates welcomed the promise of action by next month from Sweeney and other senators.
“I think we heard something we all wanted to hear, and we heard that it stops today,” said James Lavender, the superintendent for Kingsway Regional and South Harrison Township Elementary. “We’ve had enough. We’ve had enough of the excuses. We’ve had enough of the runaround. We’ve had enough of coming to the state and begging for what’s rightfully ours and what’s rightfully owed to our kids.”
“When the Senate president made his remarks, my eyes filled with tears because I have been fighting this battle for years trying to get my district’s fair share of aid,” said Chesterfield Township Committeewoman Andrea Katz, whose district gets less than 10 percent of what the formula allows.
Freehold Borough Councilwoman Sharon Shutzer deferred her applause, for now.
“We’ve heard the talk from Trenton. For eight years, I’ve been listening to the talk,” Shutzer said. “I will hold my words of appreciation until I stop hearing people with the talk who walks the walk.”