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Losing funding ruling, Abbott school advocates vow to stay the course

The state Supreme Court's ruling last week backing Gov. Corzine's school-funding formula was a historic moment that could change the course of education aid in New Jersey, but advocates for schools supported by past decisions vowed to continue the fight.

The state Supreme Court's ruling last week backing Gov. Corzine's school-funding formula was a historic moment that could change the course of education aid in New Jersey, but advocates for schools supported by past decisions vowed to continue the fight.

While Corzine declared an end to the long-running Abbott v. Burke school-aid cases, others said there was a chance of court intervention if his formula did not live up to its billing.

Peter Verniero, a former Supreme Court justice and state attorney general who argued for the state in earlier Abbott cases, called the ruling "very significant."

Examining the effect of Corzine's change will be key, he said. The court's provisions included a review in three years and a possible update of the formula.

"If the statute lives up to its expectations, then it may mean the end of the so-called Abbott litigation," Verniero said.

Advocates for the state's Abbott districts - 31 historically poor, mostly urban communities including Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City, and Pemberton Township - were quick to say they did not plan to wait three years.

The court's ruling ended a mandate that those districts receive enhanced aid in favor of a formula applied to school systems statewide. Corzine argued that his plan sent support to all needy students regardless of where they lived.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, vowed to "step up" efforts to track what Abbott advocates say will be negative effects of the change.

"We and our partners across the state will take whatever action is necessary to hold the governor and Legislature accountable, to make sure that the formula is fully funded and to make sure that New Jersey does not return to the unequal educational system we had in our recent past," Sciarra said.

Corzine's formula, which was first applied this school year, is already at risk of being compromised, Sciarra said.

Because of the economic downturn, the proposed Corzine budget that would take effect July 1 caps school aid increases at 5 percent, though some districts would be entitled to far more if the governor adhered strictly to the math of his plan. Many communities, including most Abbott districts, are slated for no increase. None would get less aid.

"If the Legislature were to adopt the budget that's before them today, it will violate the court's ruling," Sciarra said. "We're not going to sit back and let them have a formula that's not worth the paper it's printed on."

State Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said the formula provided enough for all communities to deliver an adequate education. Most Abbott districts already receive enough for their enrollments, she said.

Local Abbotts, however, see problems ahead, particularly in districts facing rising costs despite declining enrollments. Under the formula, their funding could be reduced in the future.

"I don't know how they think we're going to operate," said Sara Davis, Camden school board president. In its recently passed budget, Camden cut 90 positions, about half of them vacant.

Of particular concern to some Abbott officials is the court's decision to not allow them to apply for additional aid. In an advisory opinion, a court-appointed hearing officer said such funding should be made available for at least three years, until the revised formula proved adequate. The court rejected that recommendation because it would have thwarted the goal of a unified system.

"Our biggest concern as an Abbott district is we won't be able to seek supplemental funding," said Pat Austin, business administrator for Pemberton Township schools.

Districts with high levels of poverty have costly extra needs, including social workers and parent liaisons, Austin said.

Pemberton, she said, has economized in anticipation of falling enrollment.

Still, she said, ruling out supplemental aid "will be a big deal down the road when we're running out of places where we can cut costs."

Burlington City business administrator Craig Wilkie suggested that disallowing special aid to the Abbotts could lead to more litigation.

"To take away the ability to have that conversation leaves no alternative," Wilkie said.

The Abbott cases grew out of demands for help for the state's neediest districts, which badly trailed their suburban counterparts. A series of rulings ordered more money and programs into those districts. As the mandates grew, critics said a disproportionate share of the state's resources went to the Abbotts. Supporters point to gains in those districts; critics note there has been waste.

The court's decision saddened Lola Moore, a Camden education activist.

Her son, Michael Hadley, was a child plaintiff in the 1980s. Her grandson, she said, attends a Camden public school now, and improvement is still needed.

"We were so behind for so long," Moore said. "It takes a while to catch up."