Report: Budget trims funds for many N.J. schools

Posted: April 13, 2013

Under Gov. Christie's proposed fiscal 2014 budget, almost half of New Jersey's school districts will see a net drop in the amount they receive from the state next year, according to a legislative analysis.

The reason is an extra bill for debt service on school construction grants, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said in its analysis of the governor's proposed $13.3 billion education budget.

Factoring in that charge, the agency found that about 270 districts - or 48 percent - would see net losses ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $200,000 in Barnegat and East Brunswick.

Others on average will see about a 10 percent reduction in their publicized increases in direct formula aid, according to the report.

The local assessments for the grants from the Schools Development Authority (SDA) are rising from $21 million to $34 million next year, or more than 60 percent.

NJ Spotlight obtained an advance copy of the agency's report on the eve of Thursday's Assembly Budget Committee meeting.

The analysis raises a number of issues sure to be hotly debated. The SDA assessments already have the districts churning, but the agency's assessment also trains the spotlight on planned spending on controversial programs such as charter schools and the school-vouchers pilot.

Concerning the latter, the state Department of Education offers the first details of the planned $2 million pilot.

Under Christie's plans, 200 low-income students attending low-performing schools could receive "scholarships" of up to $10,000 to attend other schools, public or private. However small, it would be the state's first school-voucher program after years of heated debate.

But with little time between the final passage of the budget in June and the proposed pilot launch in September, the department said it has started to vet the private schools that would be eligible to create an application process to screen students for income and need.

Meanwhile, the debt-service assessments on districts for construction grants have already become a bone of contention for school administrators and some legislators - especially in light of Christie's election-year pronouncement that no district would see a loss in aid under his spending plan. The budget calls for an overall increase in state aid of $97.3 million, to more than $7.9 billion.

On Wednesday, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts reiterated that the assessments were not part of state aid that the governor was alluding to. And he said the assessments have been in place since 2011, with the increases due to ongoing refinancing on the construction bonds.

"Any attempt to suggest that aid has been reduced is misinformation, per the above $97.3 million overall increase," Roberts said in an e-mail to reporters this week. "Districts are, however, required to pay their small share of these projects they requested to have."

Whatever the arguments, the agency's report puts the first numbers to individual school districts, broken down by each senator and Assembly member's legislative district.

And it could prove uncomfortable for Christie's aid plan, especially in some suburban districts represented by fellow Republicans. Among the hardest-hit counties are Bergen and Morris, while fewer South Jersey communities are seeing net losses due to the SDA assessments.


Read more of John Mooney's education stories at www.njspotlight.com.

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