South Jersey school districts get less state aid under the assumption that costs are lower — but legislators are working to end that.
The state Senate on June 28 approved a bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Van Drew D-Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, that would modify the so-called geographic cost adjustment in the state school aid formula so that no school district would lose state aid.
Van Drew said he wanted to eliminate the provision because of its impact on his school districts.
“We really want to make a point that there is an inequity,” Van Drew said.
According to the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, the geographic cost adjustment is designed to recognize cost of living differences across the state.
Under the law, districts in 10 counties could get additional state aid while districts in 11 counties get less aid based on the assumption that operating and salary costs are lower in those counties.
Counties that get their costs adjusted lower include Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, Passaic, Salem, Sussex and Warren. The Office of Legislative Services estimated the change would require about $24 million more in state aid statewide.
The bill passed 24-12 in the Senate with most support coming from legislators in areas that are losing aid, regardless of party affiliation, including Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic and Sen. Christopher Connors, R-Ocean, Atlantic. Districts that get slightly more aid would not be affected, but districts that would lose aid would see that aid restored.
“There are a lot of folks who, if they are not affected, are not really worried about, it so I am pleased we got the support we did,” said Van Drew. He said the bill still needs Assembly approval and could be modified a bit during hearings.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, Warren, Morris, said the assumption that costs are lower is bogus. He said his school district costs are roughly equal to or more than other school districts around the state and that some costs, such as transportation are even higher in rural districts.
“The expectation that it is less expensive to operate a school district in rural communities is a farce,” Oroho said in a statement announcing the bill’s passage.
Some districts in South Jersey, especially in Cape May County, are already facing the prospect of less aid under a proposal by the Department of Education to phase out most of the so-called “adjustment aid” those districts received to help them adapt when the new formula took effect. With aid based largely on enrollment, shrinking districts already face years of shrinking aid, so any bill that that might restore some of that aid is welcomed.
“I just went to a workshop on the adjustment aid and we’ll be losing half of ours,” said Terry Nowotny, business administrator in Dennis Township. “Right now we get more than $1 million in adjustment aid and we are already planning for less aid every year. It would be outstanding if we could get a little back and a big help for taxpayers.”
New Jersey School Boards Association also supports the bill. Spokesman Frank Belluscio said since the formula was not used in calculating state aid for the last few years the geographic adjustment didn’t matter. But now that it is being used again, district officials can see the impact.
The state Department of Education is expected to release a report by the end of the year on the school funding formula with recommendations for changes. Some legislators don’t want to change the formula or would prefer to address the entire law, but Van Drew said he wanted the geographic adjustment to get special attention.
Whelan said he supported the bill because costs can vary even within counties and a small amount of money can mean a lot to a small, rural district.
“It hardly seems worth the effort for the state to make the adjustment,” he said. “But to a small district, even losing 5 percent of state aid is not a small issue because they can’t really make it up.”
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