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N.J. school-funding plan under new fire

Districts across the spectrum - from rich to poor - see problems with what Corzine's formula might do.

TRENTON - Despite increasingly angry and anxious objections from big-city and suburban educators alike, Democrats here said yesterday that they still hoped to push through a controversial school-funding law within weeks.

Organizations ranging from the New Jersey School Boards Association to a lobbying group for suburban schools and a law center for urban districts are saying that the more they learn about Democratic Gov. Corzine's proposal, the less they like.

Their latest complaint is with Thursday's news that Corzine's new formula might make 100 or so of the state's 618 school districts use much of their added education aid to cut property taxes or reduce increases. Most property taxes fund school systems.

"It does appear that they are giving with one hand and taking it away with the other," said Susan Bastnagel, a spokeswoman for the Cherry Hill School District.

General Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) praised the tax relief promised by the new formula.

"The state has a moral and a constitutional obligation to provide a quality education," Roberts said. "But we also have an obligation to confront the reality that we have the highest property taxes in the nation."

Corzine is asking the legislature, controlled by Democrats, to raise state education funding by $530 million for the coming school year.

This would be a 7 percent increase, somewhat more generous than the 5 percent hike in state aid put into effect this school year. The $530 million in fresh money would bring state aid up to $7.8 billion.

At the same time, the governor would change how the education-aid pie is sliced.

Among other changes, Corzine is proposing to abolish the system under which per-pupil spending in 31 high-poverty systems - including Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City and Pemberton Township - is guaranteed to match that in New Jersey's richest tier of suburban districts.

Instead, his formula gives extra money to districts everywhere based on the number of impoverished youngsters they enroll.

Roberts said that made sense.

"I don't think you can defend an education system in New Jersey that will help a poor child in Camden, but not a poor child who lives across the street in Pennsauken," he said.

Roberts also praised the tax relief promised by the new formula.

He said he intended to bring the measure to a vote before the lame-duck session ends Jan. 8. That, he said, would give educators the information they need to draft budgets to put before voters in the spring.

From its analysis of school funding, the Corzine administration says 380 districts are spending more than necessary to provide an adequate education. The analysis flows from a new study of the cost of schooling.

Under the new plan, the state would provide funding up to that "adequacy level," but aid beyond that would go to reduce the local tax rate.

The provision would apply only in districts in which the state says the tax burden is already higher than the state average. There are from 100 to 120 districts in that category, education officials say.

Roberts said the "adequacy" analysis was important.

"I don't know how you can make the case that if we determine that a district is performing adequately, we should continue to provide [state tax] resources over and beyond that," he said.

In a sign of the Democrats' focus on getting the measure passed, leaders have scheduled an unusual public hearing on the legislation for two days after Christmas. The session will be a joint hearing of the Assembly budget and education committees.

Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce, whose district includes communities in Passaic and Morris Counties, said Democrats were trying to "ramrod a thoroughly complicated and convoluted school-funding formula" into law.

"They're moving faster than the Polar Express on an icy slope," DeCroce said in a statement.

Initially, many districts assumed they were in for substantial increases in aid. As the proposal became better understood, it was clear that many might have to redirect much of their aid to tax relief.

In the Cherry Hill district, for instance, the formula might let the district keep only 2 percent of its 10 percent increase in state aid. Because the state has determined that Cherry Hill spends 14 percent more than is needed for an adequate education, the bulk of the new money from the state may have to go to cut taxes.

Only last week, said Bastnagel, the Cherry Hill spokeswoman, the district thought it was in for a 10 percent hike. "Now, I'm not so sure," she said.

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents many relatively affluent suburban districts, said her constituents were upset by the formula's emphasis on tax cuts.

"It comes across to local districts as a flip-flop: You said one thing one week and another thing this week," Strickland said.

"The not-so-subtle message being sent out is these districts are spending too much" and that a high-quality education is less valued than tax relief, she said.

Corzine's education commissioner, Lucille E. Davy, has said that while the administration's plan would direct state aid into tax relief, local districts were free to spend any amount of money they can raise locally.

Some critics, though, say other provisions of the proposed law - such as a 4 percent ceiling on increases in property taxes - would limit that option.

Strickland said she was critical of the move to pass the formula within a few weeks.

"It's just not enough time to check out the devils in the details," she said.

Even as the plan might force many school systems to reduce taxes or roll back increases, the 106-page law would also give the state authority to order about 10 big-city districts to increase taxes.

The administration argues that residents of these districts have not borne the burden of education costs adequately compared with the effort made by taxpayers elsewhere.

All 10 are among the 31 districts known as "Abbott" districts. Those are the ones singled out for special aid by a 1990 order of the state Supreme Court. Corzine has said he would ask the high court to approve his new formula's bid to remove the special status of the 31 systems.

Yesterday, state education officials again said they could not name the 10 or so urban systems that might be ordered to hike taxes. They said Davy had yet to make the final determination.

David Sciarra, who directs the Education Law Center, the advocacy law firm for the Abbott districts, yesterday blasted the possible tax increases.

Sciarra said most of the Abbott districts were in line to get only 2 percent hikes in state aid under Corzine's proposal - the minimum guaranteed to all districts.

Corzine is proposing to give the 31 schools a quarter of the overall increase in state aid. By contrast, his last budget gave them 44 percent of the increase.

To also mandate that some hike taxes, Sciarra said, was "to add insult to injury."