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In bid to defeat Sweeney, teachers’ union has no natural ally

New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union has made clear it wants to oust the president of the state Senate. But the New Jersey Education Association’s options are dwindling.

New Jersey's largest teachers' union has made clear that it wants to oust Stephen Sweeney as president of the state Senate.

But the New Jersey Education Association's options to replace him are dwindling. The deadline for candidates to apply to appear on the June primary ballot was April 3, and no Democrat challenged Sweeney for the party's nomination.

And the Republican whom Sweeney (D., Gloucester) appears set to face in November's general election supports an idea the union vehemently opposes: He wants to change the funding formula the state uses to distribute aid to schools.

Whether the 200,000-member union decides to support Republican Fran Grenier anyway will show how committed it is to its goal of removing Sweeney from power.

The union is upset by Sweeney's role in a 2011 law that forced public workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health benefits; not being critical enough of Christie over school funding; and refusing to hold a vote last summer on a measure that would make pension funding a constitutional requirement.

Grenier says he expects to meet with the union next month and hopes "to earn their endorsement," among others.

The union's president, Wendell Steinhauer, has said the group is also considering trying to defeat Sweeney in a leadership election, which party caucuses hold immediately following November elections.

Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, where all 120 seats are up for election this year.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the union, said there was no official timeline in its endorsement process. "We don't have any official word on which candidate or if a candidate will be supported in that race," he said of the Third Legislative District in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties.

Sweeney, 57, vice president of the International Association of Ironworkers, has represented the district since 2002.

Grenier, 53, chairman of the Salem County Republican Party, said "serious changes have to be made" to the way the state distributes aid to schools.

The current funding formula, passed by the Legislature in 2008, is rooted in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, which directed the state to provide more money to poor districts and those with special needs.

Gov. Christie, a Republican, opposes the Abbott ruling and has called for redistributing state aid so that each district receives the same amount of money per pupil. Democrats say this would devastate urban districts.

"I do not agree with the Abbott district funding formulas," said Grenier, a supervisor at PSEG Nuclear's Salem plant and a former Woodstown borough councilman.

Citing a disparity in funding between Salem City, an Abbott district, and nearby towns, he asked, "Why does one community get a break over another?"

Sweeney says he supports the current formula but says it hasn't been funded properly. He wants to phase in an additional $500 million in state aid over five years.

Somewhat controversially, Sweeney wants to redistribute aid from districts he says are overfunded and allow for greater increases to growing districts.

The teachers' union opposes Sweeney's plan, calling it "divisive." But it is more consistent with the 2008 law than redistributing money from Abbott districts.

On another pressing issue in Trenton — public workers' retirement systems — Grenier seemed sympathetic to groups like the teachers' union.

"We shouldn't be going backwards and changing the deals that were made with those past pensioners," he said.

Retirees' benefits should be considered off-limits, he said, but "everything's in play" for current employees.