After appearing before the Assembly Budget Committee on April 24, Acting New Jersey Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington testified before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on May 2. The vast majority of the discussion focused on school funding.
The commissioner pointed out that flat funding, coupled with underfunding the school aid formula for the last several years, has created a scenario where very few districts receive the amount that the state’s school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA), requires. Absent sufficient state revenues, difficult decisions have been made regarding the allocation of funds to individual districts. Legislative “hold harmless” requirements have also made it difficult to allocate funds remaining after struggling to simultaneously provide sufficient dollars for the underfunding of teacher pensions.
While the SFRA specifies a per-pupil adequacy amount that serves as the starting point for district aid calculations, each district is also required to make a local “fair share” effort to raise funds through property taxes. Some districts choose to tax at a level that is at or above their fair share, to provide added resources to their educational programs. A small portion of districts tax below their fair share, but receive enough state aid to reach their per-pupil adequacy spending. A third set of districts tax to reach their local share, but receive insufficient funding to reach per-pupil adequacy. This third group has consistently asked for additional funding.
Rebalancing aid to target under-adequacy districts without impacting other districts’ educational efforts remains the key challenge moving forward. In response to questions from the committee chairman, the commissioner said the state Department of Education would be willing to work with the Legislature to address the underfunding and under-adequacy issues.
Schools Development Authority Testimony In addition to Harrington’s testimony, Charles McKenna, the chief administrative officer of the Schools Development Authority (SDA), addressed the committee. McKenna testified that SDA has $200 million remaining for capital projects, but expects those funds to be disbursed within the next two years for existing project commitments. After that, there will be no funds left without some new bonding for school construction.