Schools districts will not be required to pay more next year in debt repayment for school construction grants.
An agreement to keep the payments at the 2012-13 level was included in the fiscal-year 2014 state budget approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday and is expected to be approved by the full Senate and Assembly and Gov. Chris Christie next week.
The measure will save about 200 school districts about $7 million for the 2013-14 school year. While some of the increased payments were small, others were so large they canceled out increases in regular school state aid.
School officials complained that while the governor had promised no school districts would lose aid for FY2014, his proposed budget just gave them more money in one area, then took it back in another.
A spokesman for Christie confirmed the governor had agreed to the budget change.
Most districts will save less than $25,000. But the new budget agreement will save Barnegat Township $367,981, Egg Harbor Township $264,202, Greater Egg Harbor Regional $215,398 and Buena Regional $146,126.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who had fought for the change on behalf of his districts, said that because so many districts were affected it was fairly easy to get other legislators on board to eliminate the payment increase.
“The total $7 million was not a lot in the state budget, but it was a lot to the districts,” Whelan said.
The state Schools Development Authority began charging districts 15 percent of the debt repayment cost of their grants in 2011, but the payments had been smaller because of state debt refinancings. Whelan said he would also like the Legislature to address the entire issue of the debt payments, since the original funds were given to the districts as grants, not loans.
“I do want to look at the whole process so we don’t have this same fight next year,” he said.
Egg Harbor Township school Superintendent Scott McCartney said he was thrilled by the news. School officials and board members Peter Castellano and Louis Della Barca had lobbied on the issue and testified before the budget committee.
“I am pleased that our advocacy efforts paid off,” McCartney said. “We spent a lot of time talking to legislators.”
McCartney said he will go back to his school board to review what they can do with the $264,202 they will not have to give to the state.
“I’d like to focus on things we had to cut that directly affect the students,” he said. Among possible options are some freshman sports, after-school buses and the “pay to play” fee charged to parents for sports and clubs.
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