Gov. Chris Christie is willing to consider a school funding deal struck by Democratic lawmakers but “he has concerns about fairness,” his spokesman said Thursday in a brief statement.
After months of bickering, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced an agreement on school funding Wednesday that would provide $100 million in additional school aid than what Christie has proposed and an extra $25 million for preschool education.
The Prieto-Sweeney agreement also would redistribute $46 million in so-called adjustment aid, redirecting some money from districts considered to be overfunded under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and giving it to underfunded districts.
“The governor is willing to consider the proposal but he has some concerns about fairness,” Christie spokesman Brian Murray wrote Thursday in an emailed statement.
Christie wasn’t the only one with concerns. A mix of liberal groups, unions and Republican lawmakers also voiced skepticism of the plan on Thursday and Democrats were locked in caucus meetings that ran way past their allotted time discussing the finer points.
Sweeney at a news conference earlier in the day said Christie hasn’t agreed to the plan. Asked if Christie could line-item veto the proposal from the fiscal 2018 budget before signing it, Sweeney said, “I’m not going to give it to him until we come to an agreement.”
“I’m not going to give him a budget blindly and not know what’s going to come out of it. So we don’t have any commitment from the governor, so we’ll see where it goes,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Sweeney and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the Senate budget committee, described their plan as a first step toward fully funding schools at the levels set out in the SFRA, which Christie has shorted for years. Sweeney said lawmakers plan to increase a tax on millionaires early next year to generate at least $600 million that can go toward schools.
“Step one was getting the formula back into play,” Sweeney said. “We have districts like Chesterfield that are at 9 percent funding and we have districts that are at 270 percent funding. That’s not fair.”
But not everyone is onboard with the proposal. Seventeen organizations, including unions and education advocacy groups, sent a letter to Senate Democrats on Thursday urging them to not make changes to the SFRA until after the state finalizes its budget for the coming fiscal year.
“While this situation must be remedied, the last few weeks before a balanced budget must be passed are not the correct time to do so,” according to the signatories of the letter, including the Education Law Center, Our Children/Our Schools, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “We urge you not to make changes to the SFRA under this extremely tight timeline.”
The letter said state aid should not be cut from any school districts this year since school budgets have already been finalized. Sweeney said nothing should be considered final until the state approves a budget by the June 30 deadline.
The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, had a fiery reaction to the proposed $46 million redistribution in adjustment aid, charging that some students would see less funding for their schools as a result. Leaders of the NJEA called the deal “vindictive,” “cruel,” “senseless” and a “sick scheme.”
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said the agreement unfairly benefited schools in Democratic districts at the expense of Republican towns. Some districts she represents such as Red Bank and Freehold Borough would see increases in aid to help them cope with explosive enrollment growth in recent years, but overall her legislative district would lose funding. She said school districts represented by Democrats would see a total increase of more than $103 million, compared with a $6 million increase for districts represented by Republicans.
“Let’s not pretend that this plan is intended to be fair or focused on improving education for all students statewide,” Beck said. “It’s an election year gimmick.”
And Republican lawmakers from Ocean County said the Democrats’ deal would hurt their schools at a time when the area is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, including a $3.3 million cut for Toms River schools and $2.1 million for Brick Township’s.
“We have a property tax crisis that is about to explode as a result of this backroom deal negotiated in secret by Democrats who control the New Jersey Legislature,” said Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean). “First, we were devastated by huge ratable losses resulting from Superstorm Sandy, and now we’ll be devastated by massive cuts to our schools thanks to New Jersey Democrats.”
Assemblyman Dabid Wolfe (R-Ocean) said that “as a longtime educator, it’s nauseating to see New Jersey Democrats gutting education funding and hurting our school children.”