Republicans join NJ teachers union to fight ‘catastrophic’ school aid changes
TRENTON — Unusual things can happen at the Statehouse at the height of state budget season – including a news conference and rally featuring a group of Republican lawmakers and the head of the teachers’ union protesting the planned reallocation of some state aid.
The New Jersey Education Association has been at war with Gov. Chris Christie for the entirety of the governor’s two terms, but NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer – whose union is now battling Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney – said he sees a tide changing.
Their common goal right now is fighting a $171 million plan that in boosting aid to 380 districts also reduces it from 126 others by reallocating $46 million of what had been promised to schools in early March.
“What is not acceptable to us is that when we do fund school districts, that other ones are sacrificed in the meantime,” Steinhauer said.
Sen. Joseph Kryillos, R-Monmouth, said the state needs the find a long-elusive consensus on school funding, rather than turbulence, but that the changes agreed upon by Democratic legislative leaders aren’t it.
“Even if this was a perfect solution, you can’t foist this on people with 90 days to go before we open the schoolhouses again,” Kyrillos said.
The revised school-aid figures announced last week are likely to change again, as Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto agreed to additional changes requested by Christie. Neither would detail those changes Thursday; Prieto called them “small tweaks.”
Sweeney also defended reallocating school aid.
Sweeney said the 50 districts losing the most funds get aid for 17,500 students they don’t enroll because the funding formula hasn’t been followed since 2008, while the 50 districts gaining the most haven’t gotten aid for 12,500 students they’ve added.
“This is why this is a tough issue and some people have to step up and act like leaders instead of pandering. They need to stand up and tell people the truth. You don’t have those students, so why should you continue to get those funding?” Sweeney said.
A parade of school officials joined Republican lawmakers to blast the proposed school funding changes Thursday at the Statehouse.
Schools Superintendent David Healy says the $3.3 million cut planned for Toms River Regional would “obliterate” the progress the township has made recovering after Superstorm Sandy.
“The ramifications of this decision would be catastrophic to our community for this year and for many years to follow. There is no way that this school district can absorb this financial blow and continue to provide our students with a thorough and efficient education,” Healy said.
Toms River would receive $65 million in aid toward a $226 million budget. However, it is also among those districts Sweeney points to as having a declining enrollment – down 13 consecutive years, even before Sandy, a decline of more than 2,500 students, or 14 percent, since 2003-04.
Tinton Falls Schools Superintendent John Russo said there’s no question that there are underfunded school districts but that the idea of reallocating $46 million in promised aid is an ill-conceived one that harms students. His district would lose $224,000, or 6 percent, of its state aid.
“A proposed plan that intends to fix one problem and only creates another is not a solution. It is only another problem,” Russo said.