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School officials cautious over aid

Corzine's funding formula raises many questions, even for area schools that would see big increases.

Whether they came in at the low end, with a projected 2 percent state aid increase, or were looking at a 20 percent hike, school districts around the region yesterday were trying to assess the impact of Gov. Corzine's new education funding formula.

Even those districts that could be in line for double-digit increases had questions about how the new formula would affect special-education aid, among other areas.

"We're being very cautious," said Pennsauken Superintendent James Chapman, whose district is one of those projected to get a 20 percent funding increase under the proposed formula.

"We've felt for years that we have urban issues that we've been unable to address because of budget constraints," Chapman said. "If we get money to address that, we're thrilled."

Frank Scambia, superintendent of the Paulsboro schools, said he was "elated" at the prospect of a 20 percent funding boost from the state, but he also wanted more information.

"Along with some of the money comes stipulations," Scambia said. "We need to look at that."

The same goes for Cherry Hill, which is in line for a 10 percent increase.

District spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel said that some of that increase would come under a new category called security aid, "and we don't know the parameters attached to that aid."

Corzine's proposed funding-formula change, which will require court approval, would end the special funding arrangement for the so-called Abbott schools, 31 districts that get a proportionately larger share of state funds.

The proposed new approach to allocating aid, according to the Corzine administration, takes into consideration demographics, enrollment change, special needs and English proficiency, among other factors, and whether a district is covering more or less of its "local fair share" of education costs.

In Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties, 40 out of 108 districts are projected to get the maximum 20 percent increase, while 36, including local Abbott districts Camden City, Burlington City, Gloucester City and Pemberton Township, would get the minimum increase of 2 percent.

Lola H. Moore, a retired Camden educator and one of the original plaintiffs in the epic 1990 Abbott case, said the proposed formula would spell disaster.

"It took us years to get into court with Abbott and get a resolution. I don't see how he can come and just throw it out," Moore said. "He's doing the Abbotts an injustice. He's killing Abbott."

Camden School Board President Sara Davis said the proposed formula would be "very devastating" to her district, which she said relies on state and federal funding for most of its more than $300 million annual budget. Taxpayers in the city contribute only about $7.5 million toward the schools.

"We don't have any other way to make up for that funding," Davis said.

In less-troubled Pemberton Township, however, schools Superintendent Michael Gorman said the proposed 2 percent increase for his Abbott district would allow his schools to maintain current programs with some "belt-tightening." He said the slight increase would still allow his district to spend more per pupil than most districts that would get bigger funding increases under the Corzine plan.

"I do think there was an effort to try to address the needs of economically disadvantaged students outside the Abbott districts," Gorman said. "It seems to have maintained the focus upon student needs."

Rancocas Valley Regional's business administrator, Bob Sapp, said his district's proposed 20 percent increase would help with rising enrollment costs that the district has had to absorb over the last six years as enrollment climbed 21 percent.

"This is the best catch-up I think we could anticipate," Sapp said.

He added: "It remains to be seen if it's better than other formulas we've seen."