NJ lawmaker promises ‘no politics’ in crafting new school funding formula
Democratic lawmakers have a plan for fully funding New Jersey’s schools. Or rather, a plan for developing a five-year plan over the course of the next year.
One twist on the idea behind the State School Funding Fairness Commission: The panel’s ideas for revamping, though not replacing, the 2008 school funding law would be guaranteed a vote in the Senate and Assembly, without changes or meddling from lawmakers.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, likened it to the way Congress decides on military base closures by giving an up-or-down vote to recommendations made by the Base Realignment and Closure commission, in an effort to insulate the process from parochial political interests.
“What this does is it puts a hard line with an up or down vote with no amendments, with no politics, with no horse-trading. It forces us to vote, not to make deals,” Sweeney said.
The state doesn’t fully fund its school-aid formula; it follows language in the state budget each year to override the 2008 law. That gap in the upcoming school year exceeds $956 million, equal to 12 percent of full funding. For 93 percent of districts, that means they’re being shortchanged.
Sweeney says that can be addressed by adding $100 million a year for five years to school aid and weaning districts off the ‘hold harmless’ adjustment aid that was added to the formula to temporarily help districts that would have lost money. That adjustment aid , totals $550 million next year,
That’s where the political problem comes in. Almost one-third of school districts get adjustment aid, accounting for nearly $1 of every $6 in state funds they receive. On the other hand, the formula caps aid increases to districts with growing enrollments, leaving them starving for cash.
“To be honest with you, there will be some towns that districts will win. There will be some districts that will lose. But the goal at the end of the day is to get to 100 percent funding for everyone," Sweeney said.
“We should not leave in place a school-aid formula that has the property taxpayers of some towns subsidizing the property taxes of other towns,” he said.
Sweeney and Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, are sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, both Democrats from Monmouth County, will introduce it in the Assembly.
“It’s very much a crisis situation at this point,” Downey said. “For a matter as important as protecting the educational rights of our state’s students, we don’t have room for politics and gamesmanship. That is why we aim to take the politics out of the school funding altogether.”
The bill creates a four-member commission – two appointed by Gov. Chris Christie and one apiece for Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. It would have to organize within a month of the law’s adoption, then hold public hearings and make final recommendations within a year.
That would place the proposal before the Legislature next July or August. Though the Legislature typically isn’t in session beyond June 30 in an election year, particularly when the Governor’s Office and all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot, Sweeney said a vote would be held before the 2017 election.
"We’re talking next summer. This isn’t something we’re hiding,” Sweeney said. “This isn’t something to hide behind or because there’s an election in ’17. This unfairness in funding has gone on long enough.”
School funding still could be an issue in next year’s gubernatorial race, given its strong connection to property taxes, perennially the voters’ top concern.
Sweeney said Thursday that the state has “a good school funding formula” and that the proposal provides a path to fund it. One Republican lawmaker seen as a potential candidate for governor, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said the current formula should be replaced.
“Instead of fully funding a broken formula, we should fix it by making it fair and more equal,” said Bramnick.
The New Jersey Education Association called for fully funding the existing formula, without the prospective changes the proposal’s study commission may come up with for certain aid categories, tax levy growth, administrative cost limits and income and property measures used determine how much help a municipality needs from the state to fund its schools.
“We must address that in a way that is fair to all districts and that does not harm students in some districts by simply reallocating already inadequate funding,” said Wendell Steinhauer, the NJEA’s president.
The proposal would also direct the study commission to consider the impact had by property tax abatements on what should be the local share of school funding. That’s a potentially politically potent inclusion, as Jersey City – where Mayor Steven Fulop may run for governor – has one of New Jersey’s highest concentrations of properties with tax abatements and partial exemptions.