School funding reform debated

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BY KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

There will be wins and losses when it comes to the proposed school funding reform plan.

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State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said Senate Democrats led by Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, came together to discuss how to fix the inequities in school districts across the state.

“You have school districts that are 49 percent funded and you have school districts that are 160 percent funded and explaining that and trying to justify that … you can’t do it anymore,” said Sweeney.

The senate president was joined by Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), Senator Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), local officials and educators for a roundtable discussion held at Middlesex County College in Edison on July 6 to focus on the educational and fiscal value of the school funding reform plan.

Each of the 25 school districts in Middlesex County would gain additional state aid under the proposed School Funding Reform Act, which would provide full funding for school systems throughout the state.

The legislation, S-2372, to create a special commission to develop a school funding reform plan has already been approved by the Senate Education committee.

Sweeney said they have been setting up roundtables in every county promoting the proposal in hopes that by next June the proposal is approved and fair funding can be distributed by the 2017-18 school year.

“We’re not looking to harm any district,” he said noting that the proposal essentially fixes what the legislature broke and moving away from the stigma of urban districts wasting money that pitted urban school districts against suburban school districts.

He noted that urban school districts like Paterson School District’s graduation rate went from 42 percent to 78 percent over the past few years, which signify that the district is improving.

Sweeney said they are all guilty of promoting for their towns in which they represent in the annual state budget.

“Now it’s all about fairness,” he said.

The Senate plan, which has been labeled “Formula4Success,” would remedy a school funding system that has left 80 percent of New Jersey’s school districts underfunded, bringing all districts to full funding within five years with a boost of $100 million annually. New Brunswick would receive an additional $23 million under the plan.

The failure of the state to fund the school formula has shortchanged all types of school districts, including those in suburban districts, Senator Greenstein said.

“The state needs to address the growing disparities in school funding throughout the state,” said Greenstein. “This is a problem that shortchanges suburban districts as well as those in urban and rural communities.

Each and every school system in Middlesex County would benefit from the plan for full funding, which would provide 100 percent funding for all school districts.

For those school districts receiving more than 100 percent funding, Sweeney said, the effect of reduced funding would be minimal because it would happen over a five year period.

“We have a realistic school funding plan that is fair and equitable for every school district in New Jersey,” said Senator Sweeney. “The intent of the original funding plan was correct but the state has not lived up to its promise. This reform will support the promise of equal educational opportunity for all the schoolchildren of New Jersey.”

The school systems in New Brunswick, Woodbridge and Edison are among the many districts in Middlesex now receiving less than 85 percent of formula aid, among others. They would all receive an increase in aid to lift them to full funding, under the reform plan.

Diegnan said looking at the townships and boroughs he represents — the Edison Township School District has received $14 million in state aid, which is $4 million less than what it received prior to 2008, the Highland Park District received half a million less, and Metuchen has received three quarters of a million less in state aid.

Diegnan said it’s important to note the hard work that went into the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) in 2008-2009 that was adopted at the behest of then Gov. Jon Corzine.

“The intention was fairness,” he said adding that lawmakers were on board with the reforms at the time.

However he said with a shift in political offices after SFRA was adopted; the legislation process became mixed up.

Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler and Edison Board of Education member Theresa Ward suggested the committee promoting the senate’s proposal include stakeholders in the community.

Monroe Schools Superintendent Michael Kozak told Sweeney that he was in favor of the reform.

He shared that the Monroe School District has experienced a 26 percent student enrollment increase over the past eight years equating to about 1,400 additional students.

Despite enrollment increases, Kozak said state aid has decreased by 39 percent over those years, which puts the burden on the taxpayers, which 50 percent are made up with senior citizens on fixed incomes, and makes providing a quality education for the students difficult.

School officials, Kozak said, are currently in discussion of solutions, which includes holding a referendum of building a new elementary school(s) and an addition to the high school, which is only five years old.

New Brunswick City Council member Glenn Fleming, who has been an educator for 20 years, said New Brunswick is an Abbott district and shared his concerns of making sure the funding is seen in the classroom.

“Many times if funding increases, we don’t see the funding,” he said.

Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz said the Perth Amboy School District has more than 11,000 students who live in a highly condensed area.

“Any type of cuts would hurt us,” she said adding that she looks forward to understanding and looking into the school reform formula.

Metuchen Mayor Peter Cammarano said the Metuchen School District took a $660,000 cut in state aid.

He said Metuchen is experiencing a healthy growing period with many young families moving into the borough.

“We have had the largest classes in middle school over the past two decades,” he said.

Woodbridge Schools Superintendent Robert Zega said they have been fortunate to have a good relationship with Mayor John McCormac for some pilot agreements in a district of 13,600 students, 1,500 employees and 26 buildings — three buildings over 100 years old.

Zega said the pilot agreements unfortunately do not help them with upgrades to school buildings, which he said need to be addressed down the line. He said the district would like to implement full-day kindergarten, but the estimated cost is $5 million.

Woodbridge School Board President Ezio Tamburello said with SFRA in 2008 they did receive an increase in state aid after experiencing shortfalls previously.

“We were doing cartwheels,” he said of the increases in state aid. “We certainly do not want to harm [other districts], we want equitable funding … even with SFRA, we were still underfunded.”

The commission will put the plan into legislation that will have to be approved or rejected in its existing form with up or down votes by the Legislature.

Under the proposed legislation, a four-member “State School Funding Fairness Commission” would be established and given one year to develop a plan that would bring every school district in the state to “adequacy funding” within five years. The Administration would appoint two commissioners and the Senate President and Assembly Speaker would choose one each, according to the bill.

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