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TRENTON — The Assembly Education Committee has held the first in a series of hearings on an issue it seems everyone has a different opinion about: the state’s school funding formula.

Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto, D-Hudson, said holding multiple hearings on this issue is essential because it is something that affects the finances of all New Jersey residents and he believes it is unacceptable that New Jersey has gone years without properly funding the formula.

Back in 2008, the Legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act, described as a student aid formula weighted for student need in order to properly provide the state’s core curriculum standards.

Because of ongoing state budget problems, the program has never been fully funded.

Gov. Cris Christie has come out in favor of a complete overhaul of school funding in New Jersey. His plan, unveiled last summer, calls for every school district in the state receiving the exact same amount of state aid per student, regardless of socioeconomic need: $6,599. This would mean many wealthy suburban districts would see a boost in state funding, while poorer cities would see their state aid slashed by dramatic amounts.

Christie has said this would not only be the fairest way to distribute aid, it would also save many suburban school districts millions of dollars in property taxes currently being collected from residents.

Meanwhile, state Senate President Steve Sweeney continues to tout his own fix for the school funding formula.

He’s in favor of a plan to allocate aid to school districts based on the number of students enrolled, and several other factors, but Sweeney wants a four-person panel to study the issue in depth.

During the Assembly Education Committee hearing at the Statehouse on Wednesday, several education experts testified before the panel, expressing a wide range of different ideas, concerns and suggestions about how to fix education funding in the Garden State.

David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said the main problem with the formula is that it’s not being funded properly.

“Many districts across the state that are spending below what the formula requires are doing so because of this administration’s steadfast refusal to put any money into the formula going on now seven years,” he said.

Sciarra added “there’s about a $1 billion hole in our formula right now, as a result of the governor’s failures.”

He explained that under the formula each district gets a unique adequacy budget based on their weighted student enrollment, so if you have more poor kids in your school, or more students who don’t speak English as their first language, more money will be allocated.

“The gap between adequacy and state and local revenue in district budgets has grown, while more districts, now over 300, are below their adequacy levels,” he said

He told lawmakers the chronic underfunding has been going on for years.

“It is taking its toll on the availability of teachers, support staff and programs in district schools, many districts have had no alternative but to cut essential resources, increase class sizes, and reduce or eliminate interventions needed for our most at-risk and vulnerable students,” he said.

He described Christie’s plan as a “radical proposal that in effect would turn the clock back 50 years.”

Sciarra stressed distributing money equally to each district would be a terrible idea because it would devastate “the budgets of lower income districts, not just the former Abbott districts by the way, but 140 districts across the state would see pretty, some massive cuts.

Sciarra suggested to fix the problem, more money should be funneled to education.

“We need to implement a multi-year phase-in of new state aid through the formula we have to target that aid to districts that are most under adequacy and/or experiencing significant increases in student population growth,” he said.

Sciarra also said lawmakers could consider phasing out some adjustment aid to certain districts, and they could lift the property tax cap, from 2 to 4 percent, to give towns more opportunity to raise additional funds for education.

During his testimony, Rocco Tomazic, the superintendent of schools in Freehold, said the formula just isn’t working and his district has been severely shortchanged.

“Right now my class sizes are above required levels. I cannot provide the full level of service to special education students. I have no teachers to do a basic skills math program and my technology is restrained and my median salary for my teachers is the lowest in the state for our category,” he said.

Sean Spiller, the secretary-treasurer for the New Jersey Education Association, told members of the committee that NJEA members are constantly being asked to do more with less and “that’s starting to be a level of frustration I think we can all understand.”

He stressed school money should be fully funded, and “when we talk the importance of educating our children, we know it’s an expensive process, but we know it’s an investment, an investment that has significant returns so it’s something we absolutely have to focus on to make sure occurs.”

The next school funding hearing, which is expected to take place in the coming weeks, will be open for comment from members of the public.

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