School aid dominated Monday’s three-hour Assembly Budget Committee hearing on the state Department of Education – not surprising given its high profile in Trenton in recent months, then assured by an overflow crowd of activists in the audience.
No public testimony is heard at the departmental hearings; that is instead received at earlier sessions that kick off the Legislature’s review of a governor’s budget. But so many lawmakers made reference to their attendance that even without speaking, the audience delivered its message.
Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington thanked the audience members for coming, even though the crowd grumbled occasionally at her lack of specificity in answering Democratic lawmakers’ questions.
“I don’t know that we need a new funding formula, but I think we don’t have the dollars currently to fund the formula that we have, so I think we need the dollars or a new solution,” Harrington said.
Harrington said there is $1 billion less funding in the budget than would be required to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 – which hasn’t been followed since its first year. Outside groups say the net shortfall is actually $1.6 billion or more.
Gov. Chris Christie challenged lawmakers to work with him on funding changes that can be completed by early June. Harrington said that work should be guided by five principles.
“First, that we cannot afford the SFRA. We have to find a way to right-size the formula,” he said. “There are districts who are receiving adjustment aid who don’t need it and the converse – we have districts that are hard-pressed for additional dollars and as you spoke to are seeing increasing enrollment. And we also have districts who are not paying their fair share, and I believe that this is a really critical area.”
Democrats said Harrington – who has been on the job since October and whose nomination has not been considered by the Senate – and the NJDOE should be more vocally involved in the school-aid talks as an advocate for schools.
“We are damaging districts by not running the formula as well. We are creating inherently unequal opportunities for boys and girls in this state,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who said teachers and students “have become collateral damage” to Statehouse political theater.
“The people behind you, they either are going to leave or they’re trapped because of financial circumstances beyond their control, and therefore they are prisoners of poverty,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, to Harrington of the activists in the crowd.
Audience members said they think lawmakers are paying attention, though their confidence in a short-term solution varied.
Red Bank Schools Superintendent Jared Rumage said his district receives around one-third of what the funding formula says it should receive from the state. Class sizes are so high that the district should add 24 to 32 staff members, he says.
“We’re looking for immediate relief, especially in Red Bank and in the school districts that are here today. We can’t wait until the 18-19 school year. We are hurting now,” said Rumage, who said he feels “really good that the conversation is positive.”
Delran Schools Superintendent Brian Brotschul said he’s “cautiously optimistic” and that lawmakers need to have significant conversations with Christie. He said district gets $13 million less than it would get if the funding formula was followed and that the state can start by redistributing adjustment aid.
“There’s about $550 million sitting out there that is consistently being applied to other districts and not to those that need it,” Brotschul said.
Monroe Township school board president Kathy Kolupanowich said her district gets $8 million less in aid than the formula would provide. She said residents of her Middlesex County township pay $39 million a year in income taxes to the state but that the district gets back just $3 million in school aid.
“I am hoping that we get something in this year’s budget. I do not believe that we will be fully funded. That’s just my personal opinion. I am hoping that we will be fully funded by next year’s budget,” said Kolupanowich.
She said it’s especially tough in a town where more than half of residents are senior citizens. “They’re being taxed out of their homes, and we’re losing a good segment of our community that is supportive of us because they can no longer afford the property taxes,” she said.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon told the audience lawmakers in both parties are committed to coming up with a new formula that includes immediate help to underfunded schools.
“You all know it wouldn’t take a lot of money to make a big difference in your budget this year,” O’Scanlon said.
However, O’Scanlon threw cold water on the idea that districts should expect an infusion of new money that allows the state to fully fund the formula. He said the state has structural deficit of $4 billion to $7 billion, largely due to public workers’ pensions and health benefits.
“We have heard this morning from numerous folks hinting directly or indirectly that we need massive new money into this formula. And I’ll tell you and tell everybody here, that ain’t going to happen,” said O’Scanlon.