In bid for N.J. school aid, sense of betrayal

Jennifer Cavallaro, with Olivia, 8, and Jackson, 3, has been fighting to get more funding for Swedesboro-Woolwich.
Jennifer Cavallaro, with Olivia, 8, and Jackson, 3, has been fighting to get more funding for Swedesboro-Woolwich. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2012

Figures flow from Jennifer Cavallaro's memory as she recounts her futile crusade for an extra million bucks for her son's school district in Gloucester County.

Nine: That's how many Gov. Christie town hall meetings the 35-year-old mother of two attended. She always arrived five hours early to ensure a front-row seat, and the governor called on her to speak eight times.

 Fifty: That's how many supporters joined her at the Hammonton town hall last March, when Christie himself encouraged Cavallaro to push for legislation to supplement funding for the Swedesboro-Woolwich School District, which spends only half as much per pupil as the state average. "I will help you," the governor told her.

And 4 p.m.: That's the time she got a call one day last month from an apologetic governor's aide, saying Christie would veto the bill she had shepherded through the Legislature at his suggestion.

"I was devastated," Cavallaro said.

On Tuesday - day 612 of this quest for more money for a handful of Gloucester County districts struggling with skyrocketing enrollment - Cavallaro will head to state Assembly chambers to watch Christie deliver a budget address that, she hopes, will offer a solution.

She won't be the only one hanging on the Republican governor's words. Interest groups of all sorts - along with taxpayers, mayors, and school superintendents in poor and wealthy towns alike - will wait to hear how the fiscally conservative governor chooses to allocate about $30 billion in state funding.

The highly anticipated annual address is a numerical reflection of the governor's priorities. After haggling over the details, the Democratic Legislature will make changes by June 30 and return the fiscal-year 2013 budget to the governor for his signature. He can then line-item veto whatever he opposes.

Christie won't talk about what's in the proposal, but the challenge is clear: He must keep his constitutional obligation to balance the budget amid lower-than-projected revenue and rising pension and debt costs. And he intends to incorporate the first phase of a 10 percent income-tax cut that he proposed last month. That'll cost about $150 million.

So where does that leave school districts, which collect a third of state funding? Reductions in state school aid often mean increases in local property taxes, which New Jerseyans tell pollsters is their top concern.

Christie already has sought to control rising property taxes by signing into law a 2 percent cap on annual increases. Though the cap allows for a few exceptions, it already has prompted many districts to share services, eliminate programs, and reduce staffs.

But the cap presents a particular challenge to districts dealing with growing enrollment, such as those serving the housing boom off Exit 2 of the New Jersey Turnpike.

In 2004, the K-6 Swedesboro-Woolwich district had 1,059 students, according to Superintendent Victor Valeski. Now, there are 1,728, with 3,200 projected by 2016-17.

The result is "a slow erosion of the programs and educational services," Valeski said, because he needs schools built and teachers hired.

Among the state's K-6 districts, South Harrison next door spends the least per pupil, at $8,852, according to state data from the 2010-11 year, with Swedesboro-Woolwich next on the list. Some districts spend more than three times as much.

"We're crippling these school systems. Right before our eyes, it's happening," said James Lavender, superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District in Woolwich, which spends the least per pupil among regional districts.

Christie has long said the state formula for funding schools was unfair, and he is working to change it. He is hampered, he argues, by the so-called Abbott rulings from the state Supreme Court that have required the state to send a disproportionate amount of money to poor, low-performing school districts.

Since 2010, Cavallaro's questions at town hall meetings about the fairness of school funding have given Christie the opening to wow crowds with statistics about the amount of money going to districts such as "disgraceful" Camden, where test scores are among the worst in the state.

In return, Cavallaro got a chance to lobby Christie and collect information for her community. "I'm here to say, 'We need your juice, Governor,' " Cavallaro told Christie at a January 2011 meeting in Chesilhurst.

Two months later, in Hammonton, Christie called out "our friends in the front row from the Swedesboro-Woolwich School District," for whom he had found a possible solution.

Explaining that he had no authority to redistribute school funding, he said he had learned that a "specific change" through legislation could be made to help the district.

If Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Cavallaro's legislator, sponsored a bill for a "fix," Christie promised: "I am going to consider that legislation and consider signing it.

"I will help you if they [pass] it, but you've got to get them to do it," he said.

Cavallaro spent the next 10 months getting the bill sponsored and written. She met with Christie's staff and once spoke to the governor on the phone to go over the details. Finally, in the waning days of the legislative session in January, the Legislature approved a bill sending $4.1 million to 13 high-growth districts. They included Chesterfield in Burlington County and East Greenwich Township, Kingsway Regional, South Harrison Township and Swedesboro-Woolwich in Gloucester County.

Then Christie let the bill die in a maneuver known as a "pocket veto."

Asked why at a news conference last month, Christie said his policy was not to allocate money beyond what is prescribed in the annual budget.

"I don't do special legislation to give money to certain school districts," he said.

He tried to clarify the recording of his statement at the meeting. "I don't think I said to [Cavallaro's group], 'Get me a supplemental bill and I'll sign it,' " he said.

For the coming budget, though, he said he was looking at addressing the "inequities that affect districts like Swedesboro-Woolwich."

Then he criticized Sweeney, who sponsored the bill: "He passed a bill again, as Democrats often do, trying to spend money that we haven't budgeted for. We don't do that here."

He added: "I am confident that if you took [Sweeney] out for a drink and asked him, he never thought for a second I was going to sign that bill."

"That's complete bull," Sweeney responded Friday.

Sweeney said that after watching a video of Christie's statement in Hammonton, "I wholeheartedly expected him to sign it for one reason: He said he was going to. And normally when the gov says he's going to do something, he's pretty good about it."

Sweeney praised Cavallaro, saying she "has done one hell of a job for these people she represents."

Cavallaro recently started a Fair Funding Action Committee, made up of local school and municipal officials. Lawn signs are being printed, and a huge poster, planned for an intersection, will say, "The state of New Jersey owes us $40 million."

The latest town hall meeting Cavallaro attended was last month, shortly after the veto. She arrived in Voorhees early as always, the first one in line, and sat in the front row. She and the governor locked eyes, she recalled.

"For some reason," Sweeney said, "he didn't call on her."


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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