But suburban school officials say the latest wrangling simply added to their growing resentment toward the state over aid allocation. They say dwindling state money has forced them to seek property-tax increases, even as Gov. Whitman and the legislature, under pressure from the state Supreme Court, distribute more money to the poorest and mostly urban 28 districts.
The court is deciding the constitutionality of Whitman's 1996 school-funding law as part of a 27-year-old lawsuit seeking more money for poor, urban districts. Suburban school officials say they hope a lobbyist will give them a voice in changing the funding formula, although Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said there were no plans to alter those rules.
``What we're hoping,'' said Mount Laurel schools Superintendent Arthur Merz, ``is that we will have a seat at the table when a revision to this funding formula is discussed in Trenton.''
In addition to the Lenape and Eastern Regional districts, the coalition that plans to hire a lobbyist includes K-8 districts in Evesham, Medford, Medford Lakes, Mount Laurel, Shamong, Tabernacle, Woodland, Gibbsboro and Voorhees.
The districts have signed an informal agreement with The Strategy Group of Trenton for a 12-month contract beginning April 1, although several boards have not approved the funds. The districts will pay according to their enrollment.
Several superintendents said they hoped the lobbyist would help increase their district's aid before the state budget is finalized on June 30. Others said they wanted to ensure a voice on all education funding issues.
``I think the school districts are tired of passing those costs straight on to the taxpayers,'' said Lenape Superintendent Daniel Hicks.
Some school officials that send students to the two regional districts have chosen not to contribute money to hire the lobbying firm. ``We have a real tight budget. . . . and the board does not want to use taxpayer money to pay for a lobbyist,'' said William Martin, superintendent of Southampton schools, which sends students to the Lenape district.
The districts are not the first suburban schools to seek influence in the legislature. Some of the state's wealthiest districts have formed the Garden State Coalition of Schools, several local school boards have joined the Association of Middle Income Districts, and parents in other districts have hired lobbyists. The New Jersey School Boards Association lobbies state lawmakers on education issues.
But John Patella, spokesman for the school boards association, said he did not know if any other school districts have hired a professional lobbyist.
Robert Stears, director of The Strategy Group, said he expects the practice will become more common. ``There are a lot of significant educational issues coming up in this legislative term,'' he said. ``I don't think this is going to be out of the norm at all.''
Advocates for both the urban and the suburban districts say their interests are not divergent.
Steve Block, director of special projects for the Education Law Center, which sued the state on behalf of school children in the poorest districts, said the state's reliance on property tax to fund schools - and Whitman's income-tax cuts - had strained middle-income districts as well as poor ones.
``I'm not trying to take money away from the poor districts,'' said Shamong Superintendent Joseph Webb, who heads the Lenape Regional Council, which represents schools sending students to the Lenape district. ``Something's just not right. We just need a funding system that's just more equitable.''