NJ Democratic Leaders Sweeney and Prieto Offer Competing School Funding Plans

N.J. Governor Chris Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto could be headed toward a collision on school funding.

N.J. Governor Chris Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto could be headed toward a collision on school funding. PolitickerNJ

Though New Jersey governor Chris Christie focused his attention and the legislature’s on mitigating the state’s opiate crisis during his state of the state address this week, school funding could be the next major legislative battle as Christie works to secure his legacy during his last year in office.

After Christie’s address, Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said the governor’s school funding plan—which would equalize school funding statewide, presenting a windfall for some districts and ruin for others—will likely make its reappearance during Christie’s budget address next month.

While many pundits and editorial pages have predicted dim prospects for Christie’s school funding proposal given strong Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, Sweeney and his Assembly counterpart Vince Prieto have not presented a united front to oppose Christie’s plan yet.

Prieto plans to hold four hearings on how to change or fully fund the school funding formula, which leaves some suburban districts underfunded and certain once-cash-strapped urban districts like thriving Jersey City and Hoboken overfunded. Sweeney’s plan to create and chair a Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness passed yesterday 33-0, and would hold public hearings across the state.

After Christie’s address, Sweeney said “We don’t have to have one more hearing. All we need to do is pass one bill, and end the games that are being played.”

Prieto, whose home district encompasses Jersey City, opposes Sweeney’s plan. Jersey City and other districts in Hudson County would stand to lose under Sweeney’s plan to phase out state adjustment aid and funding caps for districts with significant enrollment changes over five years.

Those protections for individual districts were put in place in 2008, the last time lawmakers revised the school funding formula. Sweeney holds that removing adjustment aid and funding caps would bring every district in the state to 88 percent funding.

“There is no mystery to the fact that the fatal flaws in the school aid formula are adjustment aid and enrollment caps,” Sweeney said in a statement Wednesday. “Now that Speaker Prieto acknowledges that there is a growing crisis in school funding and has expressed a willingness to address the problem before it becomes worse, I urge him to join with me in making the obvious reforms of eliminating these two provisions so that school funding is fair and equitable.”

“There is no mystery to the fact that we need to study school funding fairness without predetermining the outcome or getting political,” Prieto said in return. “We’re ready to hear from education experts, taxpayers and parents from throughout the state about what’s best for children and what can bring property tax relief.

“We’re not presupposing any outcome or targeting any districts. Now that Senate President Sweeney acknowledges that there is a problem with school funding fairness – based on Tuesday’s Senate vote – he should join us cooperatively in an unbiased examination of school funding.”