The debate over how to fix New Jersey's school funding formula continued Wednesday, as lawmakers argued with Gov. Chris Christie's education chief about which branch of government should take the lead.
At issue is the state's 2008 school funding formula and how best to redistribute millions of dollars in school aid to public school districts that have been chronically underfunded during the last eight years despite large enrollment and demographic changes.
Among the state's some 580 school districts, more than half of them are underfunded.
The discrepancy is the result of the state's inability to provide enough money to fully fund the funding formula, which was signed into law by Christie's predecessor, Democrat Jon S. Corzine.
The formula was designed to provide school districts with aid based on their enrollment, wealth and populations of impoverished and other special needs students. But the state has never had enough money to provide every district with all the aid called for under the formula.
In recent years, no district has lost aid and most received small increases. However, those districts that experienced large enrollment increases did not receive the additional aid they may have needed, while others continued to receive large sums of extra money despite losing students.
The issue is not a new one, but it has received significant attention during budget hearings this year as school leaders, teachers and parents from chronically underfunded districts have demanded a more equitable distribution of available funding.
During a Wednesday budget hearing, state Education Commissioner David Hespe told lawmakers on the Assembly Budget Committee that the discrepancy would best be addressed with legislation amending the existing school funding formula, so that additional aid that some districts receive is phased out and redistributed over a five-year period.
At the end of the phase-in, about $75 million in extra school aid, called adjustment aid, could be redistributed, a small slice of the hundreds of millions in total aid given out to public schools and still well short of the millions many districts are owed.
"It's not a lot of money, but it starts the process of coming to grips with the situation," Hespe said, adding that the administration proposed a similar phase out three years ago but that the proposal was ignored.
"If we're going to take away (aid) from hundreds of districts, than it should be done by the Legislature," Hespe said.
Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer, D-36th of Passaic, questioned that approach, arguing that the governor has a responsibility to pose solutions.
"Is it for the Legislature alone to come up with ideas?" he asked.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, also questioned why the administration hasn't proposed the aid redistribution with the annual state budget.
"Is there any reason why you didn't go that route, which seems a relatively easier path than getting 41 of us (in the state Assembly) and 21 of us (in the Senate) to agree on the same thing," he said.
Hespe responded that districts need more advance notice of aid changes, since their district budgets must be written, reviewed and approved, long before the state's July 1 deadline for a balanced spending plan.
"If we're going to pull substantial dollars from school districts — and that's going to impact their budgets directly — they should have advance notice so they can minimize the impact," the commissioner said. "I think advance notice is in the best interest of children and that's best done through an amendment of the (school funding law).
Singleton said school districts will need to adapt to the changes regardless and that ample time is available if the changes are proposed when the governor proposes his budget and aid amounts in February.
"I agree we have to address this situation because it is unfortunately pitting neighbor against neighbor," Singleton said. "It's about having the political will and fortitude to do it. But it has to be a two-way street with our administration giving us how they believe we should do it and us as legislators working toward that end as well."
The hearing occurred in front of a large audience of school leaders, teachers and parents from several New Jersey school districts, including Bordentown Regional, Delran and Chesterfield. All three districts have received significantly less aid that what they are due to receive under the formula.
The local school officials did not testify, but they wanted to be present for the hearing.
Delran teacher Kathy McHugh was among those in attendance. She said she's seen how the funding discrepancy has impacted students and taxpayers.
"You see first hand the decisions and compromises that have to be made because the resources aren't there," she said. "Fairness is a concept you teach children practically from the womb. It's hard to look at this inequity each year."
Andrea Katz, a member of the Chesterfield school board, said underfunded districts aren't looking for the state to provide additional tax dollars, but rather to distribute the aid fairly according to the formula.
"If you're funding the formula at 85 percent, then give us all our 85 percent," she said.
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-13th of Little Silver, told the visitors that their message was being heard.
"There's a lot of sympathy up here," he said. "You may not be able to speak but the force of your presence is known."