School-aid redo brings good news — though only for Pemberton
Some belated good news for Pemberton Township residents: Their school district’s state aid for 2020-21 will be just over $2 million more than initially announced after the Department of Education fixed an error in how it applied the formula.
The changes won't affect any of the other 193 districts where state aid is dropping.
The state used 2018 data, rather than 2019, in considering school districts’ equalized total property tax rate and whether it is higher or lower than the statewide average, one of many considerations that goes into determining school funding – and a key one for Pemberton, as a former Abbott district.
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said that was used because on Feb. 25, the day Gov. Phil Murphy delivered his budget message, the 2018 data was the most recent available from the state Department of Community Affairs.
“However, the 2019 tax rate data has now been finalized and will soon be published by the DCA,” Repollet said Wednesday at a State Board of Education meeting. (Hours later, it was made public by the DCA.)
“In the coming days, the department will be providing all school districts with updated state aid notices based on the 2019 tax data,” Repollet said. “The only district that’s projected state aid notice will be impacted by this revision will be the Pemberton Township school district in Burlington County.”
Pemberton will wind up receiving $75.5 million in formula aid. That’s still a drop of nearly $2.6 million the current year’s $78.1 million – but it’s a softer blow than the more than $4.6 million cut announced initially.
“Again, Pemberton is the only school district that’s projected state aid will be impacted by this revision,” Repollet said.
Pemberton Schools Superintendent Tony Trongone said he was grateful for the Education Law Center’s help in getting the state to correct the calculation.
“I want to thank the governor and commissioner of education and their expediency in resolving the matter and using was purported to be how we should follow the school funding formula and S-2 as its laid out,” Trongone said.
S-2 is a reference to the 2018 state law that moved the state back toward using its 2008 funding formula. It modifies the formula to eliminate adjustment aid and the state aid growth limit.
The law includes a provision that modifies the state aid losses in former Abbott districts, if their equalized total tax rate exceeds the statewide average for the most recent calendar year available, with the amount of the change dependent on whether they’re spending above or below what the state aid formula determines to be adequacy.
“I want to thank them for correcting that,” Trongone said. “I’m not saying anybody made an error, but as educators we plan ahead, and Pemberton is a district that is below its local fair share.”
Trongone said the district is one year into a plan to raise school taxes by 9% a year until it contributes what the state formula considers adequate. That led to a nearly $1.3 million increase in school taxes in the current year, bringing the district’s tax levy for the 2019-20 budget to $15.6 million.
“We have an obligation to close that gap in our local fair share, and so by doing that we looked at a six-year continuum of closing that gap,” he said. “We’re approximately $9 million below our local fair share, so we weren’t going to raise $9 million in one year, but we wanted to do it incrementally over time.”
In 2018, Pemberton’s equalized total property tax rate was $2.273 per $100 of assessed valuation, including school, municipal and county taxes, just slightly below the statewide equalized rate of $2.287.
In 2019, the statewide equalized tax rate was $2.276. Pemberton’s tax rate was $2.293.
With the 2019 increase, Pemberton is now considered an "overburdened" district, and as a result, the loss of aid is calculated differently – sparing the district $2 million in aid cuts, a significant difference.
“It is. That’s why it begets another problem now: What goes back in?” said Trongone, who was set to meet Wednesday afternoon with his district’s business administrator and other administrators to look over options to recommend to the school board.
“It’s definitely a better problem to have,” Trongone said. “Again, I know everybody says this, but being the instructional leader in the district, my job is to mitigate those cuts to maintain our programs that we provide our kids every day.”
In all, 194 school districts are losing more than $150 million in state aid combined. But nearly twice as many will receive more state aid, and overall the increase in school aid amounts to nearly $337 million and tops $9 billion in state spending.
Districts that lose aid would be eligible to apply for a portion of $50 million in stabilization aid, if that proposed pool of money is approved by lawmakers.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.