In a ruling made in late May, the state Supreme Court ordered the state to come up with $500 million more to aid poor and predominantly urban school districts next year, claiming the state had failed to enforce its own laws or to honor previous promises made to the court in regard to funding.
Although the ruling was seen as a blow to Gov. Christopher Christie’s agenda to curb school spending, the burden of finding the money will fall on the shoulders of the state legislature, Hudson County legislators said last week.
The court only ordered the state to restore slightly less than one third of the $1.6 billion in the total aid due to districts that are commonly called Abbott Districts, a name derived for the original lawsuit brought against the state in the early 1980s seeking to get equal education for poor districts.
‘We’re now in a process of trying to determine where the money is going to come from.’ – Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell
Last year, the Education Law Center filed suit against cuts made by Gov. Christie and asked the court to restore aid to 205 districts that served low-income students.
The court ruled that the state in 2010 had failed to honor its deal with the court to fully fund the state aid formula.
While Christie said the ruling was unjust and that the court should not be making laws, the burden of the obligation will fall on legislators.
State Democratic legislators said the governor only has himself to blame since they had worked out a system of funding under former Gov. Jon Corzine that had divided state aid to more districts and did away with the formula that based aid on zip codes.
By cutting aid so deeply, the Democrats said, Christie brought the courts back into the process.
Where’s the dough?
“We’re now in a process of trying to determine where the money is going to come from,” said Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who represents a district that includes Bayonne and half of Jersey City.
Jersey City is one of the districts that will receive aid if the legislature can find the money in the new budget, but Bayonne will not, even though Bayonne also has a significant number of low-income children serviced by the schools.
“The governor told us that this is our problem and I welcome it,” O’Donnell said. “I think we are going to be able to solve the problem. I agree with the ruling, and though it doesn’t affect Bayonne, it will restore a great deal of the funding to Jersey City. We’re talking about the neediest of the needy in the state. How can this governor deprive them of what they need?”
Quigley says money may be available
Outgoing Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, whose district also includes Jersey City as well as non-Abbott school districts such as Secaucus and North Bergen, said the state may actually have some money to work with.
“Depending on whether the Treasurer’s estimate or the Office of Legislative Services’ estimate is believed, we have half a billion or a billion unanticipated revenue we can add to the budget,” Quigley said. “But if we want to restore money to accounts like Urban Enterprise Zones, Legal Services and nursing homes, it will be a fight to set priorities.”
Quigley, however, said election politics may also get in the way of using these funds.
“The governor suggested that the money go to rebates and pensions and it will be hard for candidates to say no to them,” Quigley said. “And the Republicans probably will refuse to support any budget that doesn’t give some addition money to suburban schools, too. I predict a long and hard fight – ironically because we are not as financially desperate this year and taxpayers know it and are likely to be less forgiving. Neither party wants this budget to be ‘their’ budget but the governor says ‘It is the legislature’s problem now’ and he is right. I think a standoff is more likely this year than it was last year.”