TRENTON - In a rare holiday-week public hearing, state lawmakers yesterday tried to sort out Gov. Corzine's proposed school funding law, while many education advocates urged them to take more time before overhauling how New Jersey subsidizes school districts.
The legislators spent more than four hours grilling state Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy on the new formula during a special joint hearing of the Assembly Budget and Education Committees.
Corzine wants to change how state education aid is apportioned to the 618 districts. He also wants to increase the aid by $530 million for the 2008-09 school year.
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce, who represents communities in Passaic and Morris Counties, posed what he called "the $64,000 question":
"Can you tell me where all of this money is going to come from?"
Davy said Corzine would include the additional funding in his budget proposal early next year. The budget would boost education spending by 7 percent, to $7.8 billion.
Because Corzine wants the Legislature to approve the measure before the lame-duck session ends Jan. 7, lawmakers gathered two days after Christmas, when Trenton is usually a ghost town.
"I would work 24-7 to get this done," said Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, (D., Camden), chairman of the Budget Committee.
More than 100 people packed the hearing room, waiting for hours to weigh in on the legislation, which has drawn opposition from urban and suburban districts and advocacy groups.
Some complained that the bill, made public last week, was being pushed through despite many questions about its impact.
Corzine announced the plan Dec. 12.
Among their pressing concerns was the plan's effect on the state's 31 Abbott districts - low-income areas including Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City and Pemberton Township - that would no longer get the special funding they receive under a state Supreme Court order.
Most Abbott districts would get only a 2 percent increase in state aid under Corzine's proposal, the minimum guaranteed to all districts.
"This could be somewhat catastrophic," said Assemblyman Craig Stanley (D., Essex), chairman of the Education Committee.
Several lawmakers asked Davy if the proposal would survive scrutiny by the state Supreme Court, which handed down the
ruling in 1990 and must approve changes in how those districts are funded.
"In our mind, we've come very close," Davy said. She acknowledged, however, that administration officials had not sought a written opinion from the state attorney general.
"We need to know it's constitutional," countered Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R., Mercer).
The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy law firm for the Abbott districts, has criticized the proposal, which could force about 10 of the districts to raise taxes. If Corzine's bill passes, a court battle is likely, the group has said.
The proposal would abolish the current funding system, under which per-pupil spending in the Abbott districts is guaranteed to match that in New Jersey's richest tier of suburban districts. The new formula would give extra money to districts everywhere based on the number of impoverished youngsters they enroll.
"It's definitely going to hurt the Camden School District," said Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP branch. State NAACP president James E. Harris asked the lawmakers to take more time to study the proposal.
When Corzine introduced the long-awaited proposal, many districts assumed they were in for windfalls because the plan calls for districts to get increases of as much as 20 percent.
As more details emerged, however, it became clear that as many as 120 districts might have to redirect much of their aid to tax relief. Most property taxes fund school systems.
From its analysis of school funding, the Corzine administration says 380 districts are spending more than necessary for a "thorough and efficient" 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," and aid beyond that would go to reduce the local tax rate.
The provision would apply only to districts where the state says the tax burden is higher than the state average.
Davy announced yesterday that the Corzine administration had agreed to modify the property-tax provision for those districts. Instead of a requirement that they deflect to taxpayers any state aid above the 2 percent threshold, Davy said, the threshold would be 2 percent or the annual cost-of-living index, whichever is higher. (The current index is 2.89 percent.)
The modest change was enough to win an endorsement for the legislation yesterday from the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers' union.
Joyce Powell, president of the 201,000-member union, had some reservations about the plan, but praised it because it would expand preschool and include at-risk students outside Abbott districts.
"We recognize that passage of this legislation is only the beginning," Powell testified. "I don't think there is ever going to be a perfect school funding formula."
Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) has said he plans to bring the measure to a vote before the lame-duck session ends.
"In my view, we're past the day when we needed this done," Davy said. "I don't think we can afford to wait."