In Brief

Judges deny school districts’ appeal for changes to funding formula

By: - September 1, 2021 12:01 pm

Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

A three-judge panel shot down an appeal lodged by school boards in three shore counties seeking to tweak the school funding formula lawmakers approved in 2018.

The school boards — including those in Brick, Jackson, Freehold, and others — sought to regain state aid lost under the funding formula changes. But the appellate panel denied the districts’ request for a reallocation of state dollars, siding with a lower court that found the districts lacked standing to bring the case.

That right lay with the district’s taxpayers, who would bear the brunt of an unfair tax burden, an administrative law judge ruled in 2019.

Stephen Edelstein, an attorney for the appellants, did not immediately return a request seeking comment. It’s not clear whether the districts plan to petition the New Jersey Supreme Court for an appeal.

The new funding formula changed how New Jersey dispenses state funds in an effort to drive more aid to faster-growing districts. It also eliminated adjustment aid it had been distributing to districts that lost funding under a 2008 formula funding change.

The 2018 changes also allow some municipalities with districts in low-income communities to exceed a state-mandated cap on property tax hikes.

The districts involved in the suit claimed the changes were unconstitutional because they deprived them of due process and equal protection. None of the plaintiffs are from so-called Abbott districts, some of the state’s poorest.

The plaintiffs also charged municipal payments-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements should be considered in the distribution of state aid because those agreements lower the towns’ tax bases and boost the funds received from the state.

The lower court found Stephanie Wohlrab, the only individual taxpayer to sign onto the suit and now the school board president in Brick, also lacked standing because the Brick Board of Education did not claim the funding formula kept it from providing students with a thorough and efficient education.

The appellants sought to differentiate their suit from earlier filings in similar cases, but the three-judge panel found the districts’ claims that lacking state aid would force staffing and programming cuts did not pass muster because the districts could raise revenue by bumping local taxes.

The school boards did not specifically claim they would be unable to raise taxes needed to provide their students with sufficient educations. Some cited the state-mandated 2% cap on annual property tax hikes, but even those failed to say how the cap would directly impact their education programs.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.