School districts battered by years of funding cuts would get a one-year $103 million boost in state aid under a new bill. (Danielle P. Richards for New Jersey Monitor)
After years of outcry from school districts struggling with cuts in state funding, a trio of lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy agreed on legislation that would allocate an additional $102.7 million in supplemental school aid.
The money will provide extra money to more than 160 school districts that were slated to see their funding slashed under Murphy’s proposed $53.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year. The proposed extra aid ranges from a low of just a few hundred dollars for schools in Margate, Loch Arbour, and Harmony Township to a high of $33.7 million for Jersey City schools.
The full Senate unanimously approved the fast-tracked bill Monday, just days after it was introduced by Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Middlesex).
Under the proposal, school districts would regain two-thirds of the funds that were previously set for cutting. To claim the additional aid, the districts would need to submit a written plan to the state education commissioner explaining how they will use it and how they will operate in future years without the supplemental money. The supplemental aid would come from the state’s property tax relief fund.
School funding in New Jersey has been a source of statewide consternation since 2008, when lawmakers created something called “adjustment aid” to protect some districts from losing too much money too fast as the state implemented a new school funding formula.
In 2018, New Jersey lawmakers again tried to rebalance school aid by phasing out “adjustment aid” in a funding formula law that became known by its bill number, S2. That proved controversial, too, with federal education authorities intervening in 2021 to order New Jersey to restore millions of dollars in funding cuts the state made to 80 of its poorest school districts under S2.
The formula takes several factors into account, like a district’s enrollment, poverty level, and student population with limited English proficiency.
During a Senate budget committee hearing Monday morning ahead of the Senate’s afternoon vote, lawmakers agreed the current S2 funding formula leaves school districts in the dark about funding weeks before their budget is due, and requires another look so that they aren’t in the same quandary again next year.
The state usually finalizes its budget at the end of June. School districts must finalize their budgets months prior.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said the current budget process is “not conducive to districts’ budgeting. It just doesn’t fundamentally work.”
Zwicker agreed, identifying two issues at hand — first, school funding for the coming year, and second, long-term funding challenges the S2 formula poses. He said it is unfair for schools to plan for a certain amount of money, only to be told weeks away from budget approvals that significant cuts are coming.
Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill said his regional school district has already used COVID and emergency funds to supplement teacher salaries. The district, which would have lost $14.4 million in aid, has already seen state support fall $60 million in the past five years, Hill said. Under the bill, Toms River schools would get $9.5 million more in aid.
“I understand the S2 formula punishes districts that were overfunded in the past. But punishing students and teachers today for mistakes made by administrators, both local and state, over the last 10 years, it makes no sense,” he told lawmakers. “It’s cruel and ridiculous. It cannot be what the Legislature intended.”
Continuing to cut money would hurt his district’s ability to provide a “thorough and efficient” education, as the state constitution requires, he added.
He urged lawmakers to reform the education formula because the state “needs a school funding formula that is transparent and easy to understand for all children and communities.”
In South Brunswick, administrators still are figuring out what to cut this year and how to plan for next year, said Lisa Greco, who heads the school board there. The district, which may see a 20% drop in funding, must cut at least $1.5 million this year, she said. Under the bill, South Brunswick would get nearly $2.7 million in extra aid.
“Districts are burning the midnight oil right now identifying people and programs to cut even without” the full funding, she said. “How do you expect them to figure it out next year, when factors like inflation are unpredictable?”
The revised allocations will provide essential relief, she said, but it’s still a temporary fix. Lawmakers need to “stop kicking the proverbial can down the road” and reform funding, she said.
Brick Township Mayor Lisa Crate echoed Hill’s calls to create a new funding formula that is transparent and reevaluated on a regular basis. Under the bill, Brick schools would get almost $1.7 million more in state aid.
“The Brick Township School District is playing the fiscal game that’s been put before them. They are following the rules and regulations, and it doesn’t matter — you’re failing them anyway,” she said. “More than that, we’re failing our children and educators.”
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who chairs the body’s budget committee, said the extra aid lawmakers want to provide this year will not be approved next year.
Republicans in both chambers have called on the state to provide enough direct aid for every school district to reach what’s known as adequate funding, while requiring localities to offset property tax collections based on the amount of aid received.
Monday, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) proposed an amendment that would fund schools with what they received last year, but it was voted down along party lines.
In a brief speech on the Senate floor, he called the funding cuts “policy malfeasance.”
“We have kids in our rural districts, in our suburban districts, and in our urban districts who are struggling to get back on track from the pandemic,” O’Scanlon said. “Almost everyone in this room has districts that are going to be negatively impacted by these cuts, which are totally unnecessary.”
He added: “Restoring two-thirds of the funding that Gov. Murphy proposed cutting from our children’s schools isn’t good enough. We need to restore 100%. We Republicans have been arguing for this for several years.”
After again rejecting his proposed amendment, the full Senate unanimously passed the bill.
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