A day after the state Supreme Court ordered New Jersey to come up with $500 million in additional education aid for 31 largely urban, low-income districts, some that stand to be on the receiving end were regarding the news with a note of caution.
"If and when we get the money," prefaced Gloucester City Superintendent Paul Spaventa before speculating on expenditures his district might undertake, such as public address or telephone upgrades or capital improvements delayed by last year's $1.9 million state aid cut.
The $500 million order was the result of a lawsuit brought against the state by the Education Law Center, which alleged that New Jersey violated its constitutional responsibility to provide children a "thorough and efficient" education when it failed to fully fund the state education aid formula. Statewide, that shortfall came close to $1.7 billion.
The Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, said it only had jurisdiction for former "Abbott districts," including Gloucester City, which have received a large share of the state education aid from decades of court rulings.
According to the state Office of Legislative Services, the local Abbotts' share of the $500 million award will be about $18.6 million: nearly $1.7 million for Gloucester City, $11.8 million for Camden, a little over $3.9 million for Pemberton Township, and close to $1.2 million for Burlington City.
In some cases, the funds are less than the amount of aid that was cut last year.
In Pemberton, a surge of about 50 retirements and careful spending helped the district minimize program cuts following a loss of $5 million in aid in the current budget. One student-employment program was eliminated.
"We've been prudent," said Pemberton business administrator Pat Austin.
Gloucester City dealt with its aid loss by cutting spending on supplies and textbooks, and dipped into its reserve fund. Thanks in part to a spate of retirements, the district did not have to lay off personnel, including support-staff members, many of whom are local residents, Spaventa said.
"We felt it would be really bad for the community to lay these people off," the superintendent said. "We are an Abbott district, and we realize people rely on this income."
On Wednesday, Spaventa was feeling ambivalent about the court's mandate, which did not provide additional funding for other needy districts. According to the law center's suit, 205 New Jersey districts have concentrations of at-risk students and spend less per pupil than what state law deems adequate.
"I have mixed feelings," he said. While pleased by the possibility of receiving additional money, "I really feel sorry for [other] districts that didn't get funds, who have at-risk students, and their communities are struggling."