Local school officials were hoping for a bigger piece, but the New Jersey budget pie would only stretch so far.
For the first time in six years, school districts would get an increase in state funding - $580 million statewide in new aid - under the $33.3 billion budget proposed yesterday by Gov. Corzine. Every district, including suburban districts that have been limited to flat state aid for years, would get at least a 3 percent increase.
But the budget proposal has left many wondering whether the added money will be enough to help offset rising local property taxes and allow cash-strapped districts to reinstate programs and staff they were forced to scale back in tough economic times.
The money is "not going to make a big difference in our school programs, but it's better than not having any increase," said Diane DeGiacomo, superintendent of the Buena Regional District.
DeGiacomo, president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said her 2,600-student Atlantic County district would see a $400,000 increase in state aid.
Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said Corzine's budget was "a small step, but it's a step in the right direction."
"It's a lot better than we've seen for the previous five years, which has either been nothing or next to nothing," he said.
The budget could be a windfall for low- and middle-income districts, which get substantial state aid, but would likely have little impact in wealthier districts because the increase is based upon how much aid they currently receive, said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocate for middle class districts.
"It's going to help a number of districts," Strickland said.
In addition to more direct state aid, the budget calls for new funding for early childhood education, full-day kindergarten, and programs targeting at-risk students. In total, it earmarks $10.9 billion for school aid.
Districts should receive their preliminary state aid figures for the 2007-08 school year early next week, and school officials say that will give a better handle on what impact the increased aid will have.
"The devil is in the details," said DeGiacomo.
A recent Rutgers University study estimated that schools last year were shorted $846 million by the state. The shortfall has forced many districts to rely heavily upon property taxes, which fund about 60 percent of the cost of public education in New Jersey, compared with the national average of 43 percent.
Under the budget proposal, about $270 million of the new school aid would go toward helping districts pay debt service and cover retired-employee benefits.
Another $310 million would be direct aid, a third of which would be sent to the 31 so-called Abbott districts, mostly troubled urban districts that have, by court order, received supplemental state funding aimed at leveling the playing field for poorer students.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which has argued on behalf of the Abbott districts and their 350,000 students statewide, said it was too early to tell whether the budget proposal would meet the districts' needs.
"I don't know what these numbers really mean," he said.
Sciarra said the budget "recognizes there is a need for new funding across the board." The state has said it expects to have a new funding formula by the next school year.
In South Jersey, the nine Abbott districts include Burlington City, Camden, Gloucester City, Pemberton Township, Bridgeton, Vineland, Millville, Pleasantville and Salem.
Sciarra left open the possibility of yet another legal challenge if the districts say they have been short-changed. The districts receive additional funding under the landmark state Supreme Court Abbott v. Burke funding case.
About half of the money for the non-Abbotts would "follow the child," and be distributed to help districts properly educate low-income and special-needs children.
The budget sets aside $26 million to help districts that offer full-day kindergarten. About 275 districts currently have such programs.
The state's colleges and universities, whose funding was cut by about $170 million last year, would receive a $50 million increase.
Rowan University would receive $38.2 million, up from $36.5 million last year.