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Vernon Ogrodnek

Budget Committees in the state Assembly and Senate rejected proposed changes to the state school funding formula Monday, approving a joint resolution to send the recommendations back to the state education commissioner.

The resolutions said the proposed reductions in aid to at-risk, non-English speaking and some special education students were arbitrary and not based on any data or analysis as required. They now go to the full Assembly and Senate, likely in early February.

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf submitted the Education Adequacy Report to the Legislature on Dec. 14. The report is required by the state school funding law every three years as a review of how the funding formula is being implemented. The Legislature has 90 days to respond or the recommendations in the report take effect.

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The resolutions said the Legislature has no problems with the base per-pupil amount proposed in the report, which, based on such factors as cost of living, would increase from $10,555 this year to $11,009 in 2013-14. Aid for preschool, transportation and basic special education services would also increase.

But the resolution said there was no research-based reason given for reducing the additional amounts provided for at-risk students and those who speak limited English. Reducing those funds would disproportionately affect low-income and urban school districts.

The report also proposed increasing the funding threshold at which districts could get additional funds for expensive special education placements, saying that the state anticipates this change will allow only students with the highest costs to be eligible and will help ensure that the state can reimburse those costs.

The Legislative resolution says that recommendation seems motivated more by a desire to reduce state expenditures than help districts cover the cost of expensive out-of-district placements for disabled students.

The votes in the committees fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting the resolution. Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, a co-sponsor of the Senate resolution said the current school funding formula had taken a long time to research and negotiate and was upheld by the state Supreme Courts as constitutional.

“The funding weight given to the at-risk and other categories weren’t just pulled out of the air,” he said. “But now the commissioner says he just wants to change some of them and I didn’t see any thought, analysis or research go into that decision. He just says we’re spending too much.”

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, which has represented urban children, said the resolution was very detailed, and singled out the two areas that should be opposed.

“The Legislature is protecting the formula from arbitrary changes,” he said, adding he was surprised more legislators don’t oppose it since the special education formula reduction could affect every district in the state.

If the resolution passes both houses, the commissioner has 30 days to review it and respond.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who sits on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, voted for the resolution and said during the upcoming state budget hearings he would also like to address the geography clause in the school funding law that gives less aid to districts in the southern part of the state on the assumption that it is less expensive to educate students there.

“I just want to get that on the record now,” Van Drew said. “I hope we can do something for the poor, rural districts that are being hurt by this.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:


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