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N.J. lawmakers at odds on school-funding fix as deadlines loom

For school districts, “we’re at a point where the pot is boiling over and the top’s about to blow off,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

With less than a month to go until a Gov. Christie-imposed deadline, lawmakers are still at odds on changing New Jersey's school-funding system, as cash-strapped districts cut budgets — and others worry whether aid will be taken away.

The disagreement between Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) has not been resolved with Christie and also has raised the prospect of a government shutdown: Lawmakers must pass a budget by June 30 for the coming fiscal year.

For school districts, "we're at a point where the pot is boiling over and the top's about to blow off," said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

The problem has been building for years. The state's school-funding formula — passed in 2008 — is at least $1 billion underfunded, while the state also hasn't provided for enrollment growth in districts. At the local level, a 2 percent cap on annual property-tax increases limits what districts can raise.

Prieto last week proposed allotting extra aid next year to growing school districts and giving the state education commissioner discretion to send money to others in need, saying lawmakers could find $125 million within the $35.5 billion budget plan.

"This actually is a plan," he said in an interview. "I'm making these proposals that will help a lot of the districts the Senate president represents."

But Sweeney remains adamant that a longer-term plan to ramp up funding — an approach that would also shift aid away from some districts — has to begin now.

"It's a one-year fix, and what do we do next year?" Sweeney said of Prieto's plan in an interview. "There's really the haves and the have-nots in the state now. We want to get to where we can fund the formula."

Sweeney, who recently threatened to shut down state government over the issue, repeated last week that the Senate is "only going to pass a budget that starts to address the unfairness" of the funding system.

A major sticking point between Sweeney and Prieto has been adjustment aid: money that was given to districts in 2008 to ensure they didn't receive less under the new formula. While intended to be temporary, it was never phased out.

Sweeney wants to change that. In addition to spending an extra $500 million over five years on schools, he proposes to draw down adjustment aid — $545 million, according to his office — and distribute the money instead through the funding formula.

The formula calculates how much state aid a district should receive based on the local community's property-tax base and the needs of students in the district.

Prieto said in the interview that he would be "very open" to drawing down some adjustment aid — but not as much as Sweeney proposes and not immediately.

"It'd be very difficult to take any money away" from districts, which already have set their budgets for the coming year, Prieto said. He was backed last week by New Jersey Education Association president Wendell Steinhauer, who said Prieto "understands that politicians in Trenton shouldn't punish students in some districts to make up for the shortfalls in other districts."

Bozza, of the school administrators' association, said Friday that for the coming year, "the Prieto formula is the most appealing to districts: It helps those in greatest need and doesn't penalize any districts." But "I don't know" what a compromise between Sweeney and Prieto will look like, Bozza said.

"I don't think that just adding money to the issue of school funding is going to fix the inequities that we have around the state, and it's certainly not $125 million of additional funding," the governor told reporters Tuesday.

School districts based their budgets for the coming year on state aid numbers they received in February. "Additional aid to districts that are legitimately underfunded would be great, but it is far too late to shift resources and force some school boards to make reductions," said Frank Belluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

At the fast-growing Kingsway Regional School District, which earlier this year petitioned the state Supreme Court in its push for aid, school officials laid off 22 faculty and staff and raised athletic fees by $100 per student to close a $2.4 million deficit at the Gloucester County district, Superintendent James Lavender said.

Lavender, who has supported Sweeney, said he would hire back staff if the district got extra funding — but likely only if it were for more than one year.

He dismissed Prieto's proposal to expand a program that has given some aid in recent years to growing districts, like Kingsway. "We're not willing to fall for that same gimmick this time," Lavender said. "It doesn't fix the problem."