TRENTON — The Democratic leaders of the New Jersey Senate said Tuesday that they will not permit a vote on a state budget this year unless changes are made in school funding to begin addressing funding discrepancies impacting hundreds of school districts.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, and Paul Sarlo, D-36th of Wood-Ridge, announced the position Tuesday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, questioning acting Department of Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington as part of their review of Gov. Chris Christie's proposed $35.5 billion budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
Christie's budget proposal calls for school aid to remain largely flat, but he has called on lawmakers to negotiate a new school funding formula before the new fiscal year begins in July.
About 400 of the state's 586 school districts are considered underfunded, some severely, according to school advocates. At the same time, some districts continue to receive large sums of aid despite experiencing enrollment decreases or demographic changes that should reduce their aid under the existing formula.
Sarlo, who chairs the Senate budget panel, said no budget bill will move without school funding changes, specifically the phase-in of increased aid to run the formula without enrollment caps and a redistribution of adjustment aid, also known as "hold harmless aid," which is awarded to districts so they don't lose aid under the formula because of enrollment decreases or demographic changes.
"The day of reckoning has come," Sarlo said at the onset of Tuesday's budget hearing. "We will begin the process now."
"The time for talking, for false starts and for delay is over,” Sweeney said. “We are moving forward with the needed reforms and we need to start now with this budget. The Senate is not going to pass a budget that fails to start to address the unfairness and inequities that are causing so much harm to so many school districts throughout the state."
Details about how much aid would increase and how much money would be redistributed were not released. The Democrats said the specifics are still being developed.
The New Jersey Constitution requires a balanced budget to be in place by July 1. If one is not approved and signed into law by then, most of state government will be required to shut down.
The school funding formula was created in 2008 but has never been fully funded by the state. The approximately $9 billion in direct school aid the state now distributes is about $1 billion short of what the formula calls for, officials said.
Sweeney has proposed boosting school aid by $100 million a year for five years and redistributing about $500 million in adjustment aid to the most underfunded districts.
Twenty school districts in Burlington County are due to receive adjustment aid in 2017-18, according to the Department of Education aid numbers. The aid sums range from a low of $3,387 expected to be awarded to Mount Laurel to $32.3 million for Pemberton Township.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, has resisted Sweeney's plan, saying he prefers taking a more careful approach to redistributing adjustment to not harm districts that now receive it.
“I’ve made clear that we need to tweak the school funding formula to fix adjustment aid and enrollment growth, while also improving special education and preschool access, and that I want to negotiate the new state budget without punishing school districts, playing politics or hurting low-income children. That was and remains my goal," Prieto said Tuesday.
"Last week, members of the Assembly Budget Committee from throughout the state worked cooperatively to focus accountability on Gov. Chris Christie’s Republican administration for failing to properly fund schools for eight years. That cooperative approach needs to continue if we’re going to reach a productive agreement.”
Harrington told lawmakers that the administration is committed to working with them to reach an agreement to make changes this year.
"We agree that what we have isn't working and we need a new solution," she said, adding that any redistribution must be done carefully so as not to drastically reduce aid from districts that may be considered overfunded but still have small tax bases.
"We have to be careful we don't paint with a broad brushstroke," Harrington said.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-1st of Dennis, believes school districts that have had enrollment increases should receive an increase in aid, but he was concerned that redistributing adjustment aid would force many low-income districts to lose millions in state support.
"My problem is if you run the numbers, these aren't tiny tweaks," Van Drew said. "They're not going to receive just a little less aid. These are huge, giant cuts over these years."
Sen. Sam Thompson, R-12th of Old Bridge, said underfunded districts can't wait another year for funding changes.
He cited Chesterfield in Burlington County, saying that the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade district is receiving only about 9 percent of the school aid called for under the current funding formula, and that the town's taxpayers are paying close to $1 million more than the formula's "local fair share."
"No local school district in the state suffers more under this. The time has come," Thompson said.
Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, agreed that some changes are needed this year, but stopped short of supporting Sweeney's proposal, arguing that only about 46 school districts that receive adjustment aid are actually overfunded.
"As we make changes to deal with folks that have had huge enrollment growth and are grossly far behind (in aid), we can't make new districts that are grossly far behind," Beck said. "This is not a simple matter."
Sarlo stressed that changes will be forthcoming.
"This committee will pass as part of this budget the first steps to correcting the school funding formula," he said.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said he was committed to working to find a solution for the upcoming budget.
"There is no greater issue that demands our attention during this budget season than adequately addressing disparities in school funding across our state," he said. "This will not be an easy task, but it is a necessary one whose time has long since passed. I am personally committed to putting in the time and effort to see that this goal is accomplished, as we are finalizing this year's budget."