The proposed state funding plan compromise lawmakers released Thursday will have big winners and losers among local South Jersey school districts.
But the big question is: Will it get enough support in the Legislature to pass?
The proposed plan is scheduled to take effect for the 2017-18 school year, even though school districts already have approved their budgets. Local education advocates have already expressed concern, as have some state legislators.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, whose districts would lose almost $6 million, said it would create “absolute chaos” and he would not support it.
The plan must still be approved by the state Senate, Assembly and Gov. Chris Christie. It includes $100 million for new aid in underfunded districts and $46 million in reallocated Adjustment Aid taken from districts deemed overfunded by the state formula. There is also $25 million to expand preschool.
Christie spokesman Brian Murray said in an email the hovernor is willing to consider the proposal but has some concerns about fairness.
Districts could lose no more than 1.5 percent of their total budget, but that would still add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in some local districts.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, helped develop the plan and called it “a landmark first step toward restoring fairness” for children and taxpayers. At a news conference, Sweeney said the goal is full funding for all districts that could be achieved by a millionaire’s tax. Estimates call for at least an additional $1 billion.
A group of 17 education advocacy groups issued a statement Thursday saying aid should not be cut to any district next year: “In many cases programs and textbooks have been ordered, and hiring and firing have occurred,” it said. “After seven years of flat funding and/or cuts, no school in the state could be expected to adjust to a budget decrease at this late date. Cuts will hurt students.”
Locally, the biggest winners would be Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology and Hammonton, which would get an additional $6 million, $1.6 million, $1.4 million and $1 million, respectively.
It is unclear in Atlantic City what impact the $6 million might have on the extra $32 million the district is already approved to receive under the special law passed to assist the district due to loss of ratables.
School officials were cautious in their optimism. Both EHT school board budget Chairman Pete Castellano and ACIT Superintendent Philip Guenther said they won’t make any plans for more money until it is approved. Guenther said they could adjust tuition to sending districts depending how the money is allocated.
The biggest losers locally would be former Abbott districts of Vineland, Millville and Pleasantville, which would lose $2 million, $812,000 and $832,000, respectively. Bridgeton, which has been underfunded, would see an increase of $2.5 million.
In Cape May County, almost every district would lose some aid, with Middle Township taking the biggest hit at $633,000. Upper Township would lose almost $569,000 Lower Cape May Regional would lose $470,000, Lower Township would lose $410,000, Wildwood would lose $280,000 and Dennis Township would lose $248,000.
LCMR Superintendent Chris Kobik and Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said they would like to see more specifics, but the biggest problem would be trying to cut a large amount of funds from a completed budget with contracts in place.
“Our biggest expense is salaries,” Kummings said. “People have contracts for next year. We would have to give them 60 days notice to terminate. It’s just not a professional way to do things.”
“My hope is they come up with a different solution,” Kummings said.
Van Drew said the proposal is not as bad as earlier plans, but is still “excruciatingly unfair.”
“How can they expect districts to make these adjustments after the budgets are done,” he said. He said while enrollments have decreased, the districts still need the funds. He said he could support a plan that just left aid flat for those districts while raising it for underfunded districts.
“It’s unseemly public policy to take from one district to give to another,” he said. “I will keep pushing.”