Sweeney aims to even out distribution of school aid

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney is creating a commission to study how the state funds schools.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced legislation Thursday that would create a commission to study how the state funds schools and produce a plan, within one year, to ramp up and redistribute aid.

While the state has underfunded a formula signed into law in 2008 determining how much aid districts should receive, it also unfairly distributed the money, Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said at a Statehouse news conference.

Blaming the inequitable distribution on a deal struck by lawmakers to pass the 2008 law that gave "adjustment aid" to some school districts, Sweeney said that under his proposal, the commission's plan would go straight to the Legislature for a vote - "no amendments, no changes, no special favors."

As a result of the adjustment aid, some districts "are spending 50 percent more" than they should under the formula and some "50 percent less," Sweeney said.

"We're the ones that created the problem, to be honest with you," Sweeney said.

The commission would have four members: two appointed by the governor, one by the Senate president, and one by the Assembly speaker.

Members would have knowledge and experience in either public school finance or in state budgeting and finance. They would be tasked with producing recommendations that would bring all school districts to full funding under the formula in five years.

Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said in a statement Thursday that district leaders supported "a long-overdue analysis of the school funding system," citing "severe hardships in providing educational programs in many school districts and relative 'overfunding' in others." The New Jersey School Boards Association said it was favorable to Sweeney's proposal.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said in a statement that he was "interested in any ideas to resolve school funding concerns, but we already have a school funding formula that, if ever fully funded, would provide relief throughout the state."

"I'm not convinced we need a commission to accomplish that goal, nor do I support abrogating the power of the Legislature to appropriate funding," Prieto said.

A spokesman for Gov. Christie declined to comment Thursday.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union) said in a statement that lawmakers should decide school funding rather than the courts, but objected to "fully funding a broken formula."

New Jersey has been debating the equity of school funding for decades. A series of state Supreme Court rulings - Abbott v. Burke - that date to the 1980s required the state to increase aid to poor districts.

In 2011, the court forced Christie to restore $500 million in school aid cut from the budget, though it did not require full funding of the formula, which calculates a district's aid on a number of factors, including weights for grade level, at-risk, and bilingual students.

"The formula just hasn't been funded at the levels it's been required to be funded," said David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which brought the Abbott lawsuit. He welcomed Sweeney's call for full funding but said lawmakers did not need a commission to start working toward that goal.

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