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Corzine's school formula shifts aid

Some suburban districts would get biggest hikes.

TRENTON - Many suburban school districts were the winners yesterday as Gov. Corzine released his long-awaited figures for proposed state education aid.

Florence Township in Burlington County, Pennsauken in Camden County, and West Deptford in Gloucester County would be among about 150 districts statewide getting a 20 percent increase, the maximum available under the plan.

But the governor's plan would be less generous to many more-affluent districts - as well as to Camden and other big-city school systems.

Corzine wants just a 2 percent hike for Camden, Newark and 22 other big urban districts targeted for billions of dollars in extra state aid in past years under what is known as the "Abbott" school-funding decision.

In fact, all districts in the state were guaranteed a minimum 2 percent bump under Corzine's proposal - including many that otherwise would have seen a cut under his new funding formula.

David Sciarra, the lawyer who is the chief advocate for the urban schools, denounced Corzine's proposal yesterday.

"This is a march back toward inequality," said Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, the organization that won the Abbott ruling in 1990 and has fiercely protected it in court ever since.

Corzine, in a speech at a Burlington County elementary school, released proposed district-by-district figures for the coming school year. To a certain extent, the figures fleshed out Corzine's bold attempt to overhaul the formula by which the state gives out education money, the first new formula in a decade.

But the governor's disclosure masked and delayed the full impact of his proposal on all 616 New Jersey public school districts.

He put in place the minimum 2 percent hike for all districts and recommended, further, that no cuts take place for any district for at least three years - regardless of what his formula dictates.

To "hold harmless" all districts, in Corzine's phrase, his plan calls for spending $850 million beyond what is called for by his own formula. In all, about 250 districts would get the 2 percent hike.

While the full scope of his plan remains unclear, Corzine did reveal much more yesterday about his education agenda.

Its centerpiece is a formula he hopes to push through the Legislature in the next few weeks during its lame-duck session. He proposed:

That the state give local districts a total of $7.8 billion in aid in the forthcoming school year, an increase of $530 million, or 7 percent. While the Corzine education department could not provide comparative figures yesterday, that appears to be twice the increase Corzine and the Legislature managed last year.

That the state no longer treat the 31 "Abbott districts" as a special group for funding purposes. They have been dubbed the Abbott districts from the name of the lawsuit that prompted the sweeping court ruling. Under the ruling, New Jersey was ordered to guarantee that the districts spend at least as much per student as is spent in the richest 128 suburban districts in the state. If the New Jersey Supreme Court agrees, Corzine wants them to compete for aid with other districts under one formula.

That the state dramatically revamp the millions of dollars it provides for special education. The state pays out the same for every special-education student, regardless of the wealth or poverty of his home district. Under Corzine's new plan, richer suburban communities will get less.

Wearing his trademark blue vest under a sport coat, Corzine staged his announcement before youngsters sitting cross-legged on the gym floor at the B. Bernice Young Elementary School in Burlington Township.

Unsurprising, he picked a district for his presentation that would do well under his plan - Burlington Township public schools would get the maximum 20 percent hike.

While his words were literally above their heads, he said his formula would provide a more equitable funding system.

He noted that half of all low-income students in New Jersey were attending districts other than the Abbott districts, sometimes also called "special-needs" districts.

His formula would weigh the numbers of impoverished or immigrant children in all districts in allocating money - regardless of "whether they happen to live in a special-needs district or in Burlington Township or any other district," Corzine said.

While Corzine and his fellow Democrats - in the majority in both chambers of the Legislature - want to get the new formula enacted in the next few weeks, some potent interest groups have been trying to put the brakes on it.

This has made for some unusual political bedfellows.

Advocates for the Abbott schools and a lobbying organization for the richest suburban schools have both urged the state to slow down and deal with the formula in the next legislative session.

Said Sciarra: "The Legislature has got to put up the stop sign and say, 'Hold on here.' "

Statewide, the 31 Abbott schools as a group would get a 3 percent hike in aid. By contrast, all other districts would see an average 12 percent increase.

In South Jersey, the non-Abbott schools would see an average hike of 12 percent. But the four Abbott districts in South Jersey - Burlington City, Camden, Gloucester City and Pemberton Township - get a hike of just the minimum 2 percent each.

In Camden, Sciarra said, the 2 percent increase would not keep the district even with inflation.

According to Sciarra, the formula would actually have cut Camden by $48 million - except for the "hold-harmless" money added back to boost the overall aid up to a 2 percent hike.

If Camden were to be cut $48 million, he said, "that would be cataclysmic. They would plunge Camden into educational chaos."

While advocates for the Abbott districts denounced Corzine's plan, others said they were still trying to assess the complex proposal.

In Cherry Hill, a district spokeswoman said it was "good news" that it was to get a 10 percent hike. "However, we still have questions," said Susan Bastnagel.

Among other issues, Bastnagel said the district was concerned about the move to take a community's relative wealth into account in providing special-education money. She said the district's special-ed students, at 15 percent of the student body, exceed the statewide average.