Being removed from the list would be a much worse situation for Jersey City than for Hoboken, because in addition to funding for pre-school and construction, Jersey City receives $140 million in state "core curriculum aid," which Hoboken doesn't receive.
The change would mean a substantial loss of aid to the 3-year-old and 4-year-old early education programs in Hoboken, and in Jersey City, it would mean a big loss in aid to the overall district.
Local school officials and legislators said last week that they are willing to fight for the Abbott designation, even if it means going to court.
What's it all about?
In the landmark Abbott vs. Burke state Supreme Court battle, educators, parents and lawyers representing predominately low-income and minority students in 31 New Jersey communities said the quality of their education was not equal to their counterparts in more affluent suburbia.
In its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered certain education programs, standards, and per-pupil funding equal to spending in successful suburban schools.
Today's Abbott districts are largely funded by the state, and they include schools in the most impoverished urban areas.
But last week, a report by the state's nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) found that nearly half of the current group of 31 districts could fall off the Abbott list. Next month, Education Commissioner William L. Librera is scheduled to make his pitch to the state legislature on how to overhaul the formula for how schools are funded.
According to OLS, the districts that could become ineligible for Abbott status are: Hoboken, Jersey City, Burlington, Elizabeth, Garfield, Gloucester, Harrison, Long Branch, Millville, Neptune, Pemberton, Phillipsburg and Vineland.
According to the reports, the proposed changes in funding could cost the districts, but save the state, more than $565 million in state aid. Districts that no longer qualify would be phased out of the program over four years.
The criteria for Abbott designation may be changed. It includes:
* The district's concentration of low-income pupils, measured by the percentage eligible for free lunch, must be at least 40 percent. * The district must have, per capita, property values of at least 3 percent below the state average.
* The municipalities must be included on the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority's list of eligible communities.
* If the district's low-income concentration is less than 60 percent, its tax rate must be at least 30 percent greater than the state average. If the low-income concentration is at least 60 percent, then the tax rate will not be considered.
Librera has also said that the state should establish standards for administrative costs, costs per pupil and achievement, and then sanction districts that don't meet them.
The Hoboken dichotomy
Why would Hoboken and Jersey City be removed from the Abbott list? In some ways, Hoboken is an anomaly, which in recent years has made it a difficult case study for the state Department of Education. Hoboken today is a very different place than in 1990, the year the Abbott districts were selected. With the development boom has come higher property values and more affluence.
The District Factor Groups were first developed by the Department of Education in 1975 to compare students' performance on statewide assessments across demographically similar school districts. The categories are updated every 10 years. In 1990, Hoboken was placed in the state's second lowest socioeconomic category B. The District Factor Groups range from A to I, with I being the wealthiest.
But in 2000, Hoboken rose to a category of FG, the state's fourth highest.
Hoboken's wealth has increased in the community, but this isn't reflected in the student population. The district is made largely by children from the city's public housing, and according to state figures, over 70 percent of its children are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Hence, the Department of Education's problem. How should they deal with a district whose student population doesn't match the make-up of the general community?
"Hoboken really is a tale of two cities," said local Board of Education President Carmelo Garcia Thursday morning. "It's unfair to punish the students, most of who come from public or low-income housing, just because Hoboken has seen a success via a development boom. Just look at how many of our students still receive reduced or free lunches. It's over 70 percent."
Garcia said that he has already reached out to state Sen. Bernard Kenny and other legislators to fight this proposal.
What Hoboken could lose out is about $4 million in state aid for its 3-year-old and 4-year-old pre-school programs if it is taken off the Abbott list.
What about school construction?
One of the biggest questions facing Hoboken is, what impact would de-designation have on the $100 million in new school construction and renovation scheduled for the next five years?
On July 18, 2000, the New Jersey Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act was signed into law. It has resulted in the state's investment of billions in public school construction in New Jersey over the next decade, including full funding by the state of all school renovation and construction projects in 31 Abbott school districts. Hoboken's most current school construction plan calls for the construction of a new high school, an elementary school, and athletic fields on a six-acre piece of property near the now vacant former Cognis Chemical plant on 12th Street from Adams to Madison streets. The district is currently undertaking an environmental study of the property.
"We're already well along in our plans," said Tim Calligy, who is the school district's acting board secretary.
The six existing school buildings in Hoboken will be rehabilitated, except for the Demarest Middle School on Garden Street, which will be converted to some other public use.
So if Hoboken is removed as an Abbott, does it lose its state construction funding also?
Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny, one of the state's most influential legislators, said Thursday that he has been in close communication with Librera, and has been told that Hoboken's construction will go on as planned. "Initially that was my biggest concern when I head about [this report], but I have talked to the commissioner and was told that Hoboken's school construction funding will be unaffected," Kenny said Thursday. "We are grandfathered in, and will continue to receive 100 percent funding for school construction and renovation."
What about JC
Another Hudson County Abbott district on the OLS report in Jersey City, which, like Hoboken, has seen new construction on the waterfront push up real estate values.
Kenny said that the OLS report heavily weighted property values and ratables, and was incomplete because it didn't take into account other factors that are important in determining which cities should be among the Abbott cities.
Kenny said that under no scenario would he support taking Jersey City off the Abbott list. "There is absolutely no way that Jersey City is going to be removed as an Abbott district," pledged Kenny. He said while the waterfront development might have increased the ratable base, there are certainly areas that are impoverished, and still greatly benefit from the Abbott designation. To make his point, Kenny offered an analogy to New York City, claiming, "It would be like saying that downtown Manhattan has high property values, so we aren't going to give state aid to the Bronx."
Has to go before the legislature
This new plan from the education commissioner is far from final. Librera does not have unilateral power to institute changes on how the state funds schools. There has to be an extensive legislative process in both the state Senate and Assembly.
Even by Librera's own admission, by the day's end, it's likely that some of the 13 schools will remain on the list.
Kenny is the first to admit that the state's current system could use some tweaking, but said Hudson County schools districts should be protected.
"There is an obvious need for some changes," Kenny said. "There's no question that we have to revisit the whole funding formula."
For example, he said that funding for 3- and 4-year-old programs shouldn't be connected to only Abbott Districts. Every district should receive money for pre-school students, Kenny said.
But he said that whatever changes are made, they will only be made after intensive discussion and debate in the Senate and Assembly. "As long has there is a strong delegation from Hudson County, as there is now, nothing is going to happen to the school funding formula that will unfairly or adversely affect our county's schools," Kenny said.