If the Egg Harbor Township School District were to receive full state aid under the law, it would get an additional $6.3 million in next year’s budget.
But school officials say that wouldn’t begin to make up for the $23.5 million it believes it is owed under the School Funding Reform Act if there were no state-imposed caps on growth or adjustment aid, according to testimony submitted to the New Jersey Legislature this month.
“This is the number that will allow us to reach adequacy spending for our students, and provide tax relief to our residents,” reads the testimony signed by Egg Harbor Township school board President Peter Castellano and Superintendent Kimberly Gruccio.
Legislators are meeting in Trenton this month to dissect Gov. Phil Murphy’s $8.4 billion fiscal 2019 education spending plan. Meanwhile, they are being asked by some educators and school districts to fully fund state aid according to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.
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The decade-old formula has only been fully funded once since it was enacted. Murphy’s plan to fully fund state aid to schools is a four-year phase-in, increasing 25 percent each year, but included in that phase-in are the state-imposed caps on adjustment aid and growth.
Castellano said last month that this year’s $2 million increase in state aid only allows the district to maintain what it has, and that is with a 2.5-cent tax rate increase.
Information released this week from the state Senate Majority Office based on the report from the Office of Legislative Services states more than 70 percent of New Jersey schoolchildren and taxpayers live in districts that are underfunded by a total of $2.25 billion in aid if aid were not capped for growth or adjustment aid.
“Meanwhile, more than $660 million in state aid that would otherwise go to underfunded districts still goes to districts that should no longer be receiving it because their enrollment has declined or their income and property-tax wealth has grown since 2009,” the Senate Majority Office release reads.
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According to the data, it would take a $1.3 billion increase from Murphy’s budget to fully fund the formula without any of the caps. With the caps, the 2019 budget remains underfunded by $831 million.
While schools are pushing for more money, South Jersey legislators spoke out against increasing spending in this year’s budget.
“Middle-class families simply can’t afford $1.5 billion in additional spending. Simply ask anyone who just received their quarterly property-tax bill and they will tell you New Jersey doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.
Brown’s district, which includes Egg Harbor Township, was underfunded in the 2019 budget by $135.5 million without caps, according to OLS data.
Brown said the current funding formula is broken, spending 60 percent of the revenue on only 5 percent of the schools.
“We need a serious bipartisan solution to fix the formula so we spend the revenue raised for education fairly, because Atlantic County should not have to subsidize Jersey City schools to the tune of $174 million while children throughout Atlantic County get shortchanged,” he said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he supports helping schools but agreed New Jersey residents have been taxed enough.
Many of the schools in Van Drew’s district receive more funding than the formula calls for, but he said it would be wrong to cut their aid again.
“We must realize that even though these schools may not have grown as much, they have an existing infrastructure,” he said.
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Van Drew said he believes Murphy’s proposal was fair.
“I understand everyone wants to get the max they can for their school district, but at this point in time, it seems fair to me to do the best that you can for districts that deserve more and hold the others harmless,” Van Drew said.
In his testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee Monday, acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said he knows the funding has been controversial.
“I’ve worked in underfunded districts. I remember very clearly how important the annual school aid numbers are to each district as they make decisions about supporting each and every one of their students,” said the former Asbury Park superintendent. “We know this formula isn’t perfect. It’s also important to note that this is the first in eight years that an attempt has been made to right the ship.”