Is Christie’s School Funding Plan Good for South Orange-Maplewood?

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Last Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie grabbed the spotlight in the state’s school funding conversation by proposing to ‘blow up the state’s school-funding formula for a simple everyone-gets-the-same plan.”

Those words are from the investigative news site NJSpotlight where reporter John Mooney opined, “All students getting the same would be fine in the leafy suburbs, but poorer districts would end up hemorrhaging money — and teachers.”

Indeed, in paragraph 22 of the transcript of his speech, Christie said that his new funding formula would mean “South Orange aid up 912%, taxes down over $3,700.” (Apparently South Orange is its own school district in Christie’s new world of school funding. There’s no mention of Maplewood.)

The South Orange-Maplewood School District certainly needs and wants the extra funding. This year, for example, despite using banked cap to exceed the 2% funding cap in providing revenue for the 2016-17 school budget, South Orange-Maplewood still needed to cut 11 teachers (nine at Columbia High School) as well as two librarians. At a school funding workshop on June 16, district leaders noted that the district self-funds 94% of the budget through local taxes, while the state only provides 3.4% in funding.

So, isn’t Christie’s proposal good for South Orange and Maplewood?

Not really, some say.

Pundits, educational reporters and at least one local leader say that Christie’s proposal is going nowhere fast and will serve as a distraction from more realistic funding reforms such as a bill from State Senate President Steve Sweeney that passed the Senate Education Committee last Tuesday (the same day as Christie’s announcement). Sweeney’s bill would create a commission, appointed by the governor and legislature, to develop recommendations for revisions to the state’s funding formula that would then need legislative approval.

“Christie’s proposal is dead on arrival,” said former South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Jeff Bennett. Despite leaving the board last year, Bennett remains a district point person on education, writing a detailed blog on the subject and serving as an advocate and resource as the district lobbies Trenton for more funding.

“Even most Republicans don’t want equal spending per student,” said Bennett.

Bennett also noted that Christie’s speech got some stuff wrong, such as a “specious argument” that Abbotts are 5% of NJ’s districts that get 61% of student spending, when in truth “the Abbotts are 5% of NJ’s districts, but they are big districts and have 22% of the kids.”

Bennett also said, “I see Abbott as extremely unfair myself because of how it hurts equally poor non-Abbotts and almost as poor working class non-Abbotts, but Christie totally ignored the idea that poorer districts should get more money. He totally ignored SFRA [the School Funding Reform Act].”

Most alarmingly, Christie’s proposal, which the governor plans to spend the summer stumping for, “is going to waste so much time and distract the public from real issues,” said Bennett. “If Christie blocks aid reform until 2018, then the soonest we will get reform is 2019-2020.”

Asked for comment on the governor’s proposal, South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, who is leading an effort to advocate for more state funding for the district, said the district would do its “due diligence” in reviewing the proposal, but that “much in the proposal … gives cause for concern, including question as to its constitutionality.”

Read Baker’s full statement here:

“For decades, shortfalls in state education aid have adversely impacted the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The Board of Education has focused on this problem as part of our overall goal of expanding District revenue. The District held a State Aid Workshop on June 16 to highlight this issue and engage our community.

“While at first glance Governor Christie’s proposal on state aid is attractive to suburban districts like ours, there is much in the proposal that gives cause for concern, including questions as to its constitutionality.

“The Board will undertake its due diligence on the Governor’s proposal, together with Senator Sweeney’s bill that calls for a study commission. That due diligence should include discussions with our town officials and legislative representatives. We should also consider analyses by the New Jersey School Boards Association and other educational policy organizations.

“One thing is clear though. These proposals underscore the need for the South Orange and Maplewood community to be informed and engaged on the state aid issue, and to call attention to the needs of our District as the statewide debate heats up.”

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