School bucks Gov.’s new funding plan decides which districts get more aid

How can the state channel the most school funding to the students with the most need? That is the problem Gov. Jon Corzine set out to address with the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, passed into law by the state legislature in early January.

Since the 1970s, New Jersey has struggled with the issue of how to make the education in urban districts as good as that of wealthy districts. A series of State Supreme Court decisions in the Abbott vs. Burke case said that there should be some parity among the districts. But then they wondered how to fund them and make that happen. Special “Abbott” funding has been given to the 31 poorest districts in the state for approximately 10 years, including Hoboken, Jersey City, Union City, and West New York. But the governor’s newest funding reform plan has essentially rendered the Abbott designation outdated.

Next year, districts used to getting a yearly increase in aid might not get as much, whereas some non-Abbott districts are getting more.

Now, the aid amounts are going according to the number and types of students in need, rather than looking at the overall district’s need.

“The main difference is that money is targeted to students rather than to school districts, so that regardless of where students go to school, the aid will more directly follow the student,” said Richard Vespucci, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education.

Essentially, a suburban district with poor students would get money based on those students.

The financial changes, district by district

Since the new formula pertains to all districts in the state, not just poorer districts, superintendents have been waiting to hear whether their district will lose or gain state aid.

In fact, most districts will get some sort of increase, but it might not be as much as they were expecting.

The total amount of state aid to be allocated for the 2008-2009 school year under the governor’s new plan is $7.8 billion, an increase of approximately $530 million over last year, according to Vespucci.

There are an estimated 1.4 million students in the New Jersey public schools.

All New Jersey school districts will receive increases in state aid for 2008-2009 ranging between 2 and 20 percent, Vespucci said, emphasizing that, “every school district in the state is affected.”

Hudson County stands to gain approximately $57 million more in state aid under the new formula, or an estimated 7 percent increase as a whole, according to state school aid documents released by the state Department of Education.

Those documents were based on enrollment data compiled from districts as of Dec. 10, 2007.

Here’s how the changes in state aid break down for next year, according to the state school aid documents. Tentative changes are:

Bayonne, East Newark, Guttenberg, Kearny, and North Bergen are set to receive an increase of 20 percent more in state aid over last year.

Union City will receive a 16 percent increase; Harrison will receive 11 percent.

Hudson County Vocational funding will increase by 10 percent.

Hoboken, Jersey City, Secaucus, Weehawken, and West New York will receive increases of 2 percent.

The total state aid to Hudson County this year was $781 million; with the increase under the new formula, the total is estimated to be $839 million for 2008-2009.

The new formula compared to Abbott

The criteria for the previous formula consisted of enrollment, category of student (core curriculum or special education), and community wealth (based on property values and income of residents).

Generally, the same three factors are being applied, but to different districts because of changes in socioeconomic status, thus making Abbott effectively obsolete.

According to Vespucci, Abbott Districts are not going to be dissolved, but they are not recognized for the purposes of funding.

He explained, “In terms of funding, there’s no formal distinction of an Abbott District in the new law.”

The reason Abbott designation is ignored by the new funding is that the factors that originally caused some of those districts to be designated for Abbott funding have changed, according to Vespucci.

Vespucci explained that half of the families whose income level qualifies as living in poverty are not located in Abbott Districts, while some Abbotts, such as Hoboken, are doing much better now than they used to be.

“The socioeconomic status of those districts is very different now than it was in 1981 – Hoboken in 1981 is not Hoboken today,” explained Vespucci. “Hoboken has a greater capacity to increase its local contributions to school costs as compared with 25 years ago.”

Concerns regarding local impact

Locally, the School Funding Reform Act will have more of an impact on some towns more than others.

Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr., who lives in Hoboken and whose 33rd District includes Guttenberg, Hoboken, Downtown Jersey City, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York, said, “All the schools in Hudson County may get a little increase, but we won’t actually know [the exact impact] for a few weeks. We’re also waiting to hear when we can restart construction on schools.”

Under the state’s now-defunct Schools Construction Corporation, many new building projects were proposed in Abbott districts, but only some of them were completed.

Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Jack Raslowsky expressed concerns about the new legislation, while sympathetic to the premise behind it.

“I understand the situation the governor is in, and I think he’s making a reasonable attempt to solve the problem [of distributing state aid to needy schools],” said Raslowsky. “In regards to Hoboken, we’re not helped by the formula, and we’re being asked to bear part of the burden.”

According to the documented state school aid figures, Hoboken’s 2 percent increase will only provide the city with an extra $180,000 total for the new school year, increasing state aid from $8.7 million for the 2007-2008 school year to $8.88 million for 2008-2009.

For Jersey City, the new formula has a more severe impact, which will burden the taxpayers. Mayor Jerramiah Healy has gone to Trenton to fight the formula.

Councilman Steven Fulop said last week, “The school system as is overall is perceived as very mediocre, so the fact is that it’s going to cost taxpayers money, one of two things are going to happen: either we need to improve the school system and [residents will] stay, or residents are going to decide it’s not worth it and leave. It’s going to have a pretty negative impact on the city.”

What about all those new buildings?

Having given his perspective on the governor’s plan, Raslowsky explained that he has two primary funding concerns – school construction and pre-K programs.

Raslowsky said that under current Abbott legislation, the city is not able to bond to meet school facility needs. He is not sure whether that will change.

“When districts were designated, the state really took control of facilities planning and capital expenditures related to facilities, land acquisition, and related issues,” Raslowsky said. “The state really has effectively seized control from the Abbott districts and directed the planning. [The new] funding proposal is silent on the issue.”

Vespucci explained that the School Construction Act of 2000, which called for an $8 billion bond in state aid for school construction projects, has run out of funding though there are still projects to be done. The state legislature has to determine whether or not to replenish the funding and by how much, which is a separate issue from the governor’s reform act.

As for pre-K, Vespucci said, “I believe the formula does include pre-K; what it does not include at this time is money to expand pre-K outside of the [existing programs].”

Ed Walkiewicz, business administrator for the Secaucus Board of Education, said that the governor’s plan doesn’t help or hurt their funding. Secaucus is not an Abbott district.

“Town taxpayers pay $28,455,747, which represents roughly 90 percent of our budget,” said Walkiewicz of educational funding in Secaucus, which is receiving the minimum increase of 2 percent. “There hasn’t been an increase [for Secaucus] in the last five years … It’s an immaterial amount of money compared to the overall budget.”

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Parochial schools had a rough year in 2007 with several closing, such as St. Aloysius High School in Jersey City, or setting up to merge, such as Bayonne’s four elementary schools – Mt. Carmel, St. Andrew’s, St. Vincent, and St. Mary, Star of the Sea.

As for 2008, the current count for Hudson County’s Catholic institutions is 19 grammar schools and seven high schools, for a sum of approximately 9,000 students, according to figures from Father Kevin Hanbury, vicar for education and superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark.

“Hoboken Catholic Academy is doing very well,” said Hanbury, explaining that enrollment is nevertheless dropping countywide. “Everyone says it’s tuitions, and in Hudson County, there are less Catholics … I do believe that the economics [of families living] in Hudson County have changed.”

Joanne Sommers, technology teacher/coordinator at St. Aloysius Elementary, said that though the high school closed, the two were two separate entities, and the elementary school is doing well financially.

“We’re still going strong,” Sommers said. “We have the second or third largest enrollment in Jersey City [Catholic schools].”

Brother James Dries, principal of Hudson Catholic School in Jersey City, said that enrollment and the cost of a private education “is always a challenge,” though they try to keep it as affordable as possible.

“It’s been decreasing and flattening out the last year or two,” Dries said, though he’s hoping for an increase soon, citing the benefits of Catholic high school education on a college application. “I think there’s a bright future for Hudson Catholic.”

Carolyn Smith, director of admissions at St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City, has high hopes for their new International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which offers advanced classes for junior and senior students that can qualify for college credit.

“I’m happy to say that our incoming class will be at least the same size as our current freshman class,” Smith said, estimating an incoming number of 120 students.

Eileen Donovan-Ferrando, principal of St. Joseph of the Palisades School in West New York, said they have seen growth due to more people moving to the River Road communities and waterfront.

“We’re doing very well. We have a decent-sized enrollment,” Donovan-Ferrando said, crediting second and third generations of students with keeping enrollment strong. “We all struggle, but I think we still have a bright future.” – MP


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