Proposed bill could bring additional state aid to South Orange-Maplewood School District

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and Assemblyman John McKeon of District 27, which includes South Orange and Maplewood, have proposed a bill that would provide the South Orange-Maplewood School District with an additional $2,179,393 in state aid for the 2016-17 fiscal year to make up for the revenue to which it is entitled but not receiving through the state’s underfunded School Funding Reform Act formula.

The bill calls for $122,200,000 to be taken from the Property Tax Relief Fund and appropriated to the Department of Education, which will use it to supplement the funding for those school districts whose equalized school tax rate in the 2015-16 school year is at least 35 percent greater than the statewide average equalized school tax rate. In addition to South Orange-Maplewood, this includes 142 other school districts across 16 counties.

According to the bill, the amount designated for each of those districts is determined by the lesser of two options. The first is the amount by which the general tax fund levy in 2015-16 exceeded its local share. The second is the amount by which the district’s 2016-17 state aid allotment is greater than the district’s allotment of other state aid categories. This amounts to a range of supplemental income for districts throughout the state, spanning $7,646,323 for Egg Harbor Township to $2,428 for Greenwich Township.

No matter how much the districts get, McKeon said it is important that those who pay a lot in taxes get something to compensate for being shortchanged by New Jersey’s SFRA formula, which DOE Public Information Director Michael Yaple said is currently underfunded by approximately $864 million, including growth caps. McKeon said this is an issue that has gone on for too long, and the bill seeks to do something about it.

“There are towns like West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood that walk the walk as it relates to having economic diversity, as opposed to just talk the talk like a lot of other places do,” McKeon told the News-Record in an April 18 phone interview. “And when you have an economically diverse population, you have challenges within the schools that in some instances are different from the big cities that get plenty of aid. So this transitional legislation is a way to recognize the school populations like our communities have.”

After being introduced March 7, the bill is currently awaiting a vote from the assembly’s education committee. Lindy Wilson, Jasey’s legislative policy director who crafted the measure, said she hopes it will be voted on for final approval before the June 30 budget deadline so that it can be included in the budget.

If passed, Wilson said the bill will provide some relief to school districts like South Orange-Maplewood, whose taxes are now 2 percent higher than what the SFRA formula would have asked for if it were fully funded. But she stressed that this is only a temporary fix for Jasey — the measure will not address the larger issue affecting school funding.

“It’s just to raise the issue that we’re not funding the formula and districts are hurting,” Wilson told the News-Record in an April 14 phone interview. “It’s not only these districts that are hurting. The assemblywoman knows this. But it’s a way to say ‘We need to raise this issue. We need to help out some of these districts in the short term. And we need to revisit how aid is being distributed and put more aid into the funding formula.’”

The SFRA formula operates on the premise of funding the education of individual children based on their ages and needs rather than entire districts. Using standards of what it believes is an appropriate amount to educate a particular category of child, the state sets a base cost for elementary students, with the cost increasing for middle, high and vocational students. Additionally, weight costs are added for students who are at-risk, have limited English proficiency or require special education. These adequacy costs are updated every three years.

The problem is, due to the economic recession of 2008, the formula has almost never been fully funded since the SFRA was passed that same year. As a result, many school districts are not getting the state aid they should be getting based on how much they are paying in taxes. And this is causing them to suffer.

This was seen in the South Orange-Maplewood district’s current budget situation, in which the district has announced it will raise the tax levy cap by 2.43 percent — including the debt service and the banked cap it is using — while also cutting 15 staff members. Inadequate funding has negatively impacted the district over the past several years as well, according to district spokeswoman Suzanne Turner. Turner said the most dramatic example of this was when the state cut funding down to a “devastating” $1,689,380 in 2010-11, resulting in the outsourcing of the school system’s paraprofessionals. Though it has received more in recent years, she said state aid will always affect the district’s budget.

“It has an annual impact on our budgeting since enrollment and expenses increase every year, but state aid has declined significantly as a percentage of our overall revenues,” Turner said in an April 19 email. “Every year we have to cut staff and other expenses in order to balance the budget.”

If the bill is approved and South Orange-Maplewood schools receive the additional funding, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker said the extra money would be a welcome infusion to help handle the district’s financial issues while making sure that student needs are met and schools remain “state-of-the-art, vibrant learning communities.”

“In the short term, the Jasey-McKeon bill would be of great assistance in meeting the more urgent needs of our district,” Baker told the News-Record in an April 19 email. “Our district’s resources are stretched to the limit as a result of the lack of sufficient aid from the state.”

Baker added that she greatly appreciates the work Jasey and McKeon have done to propose this bill, pointing out that it brings attention to the needs of “economically diverse and under aided” districts such as South Orange-Maplewood while a larger conversation about school funding commences statewide.

Yaple of the DOE said the department does not comment on pending legislation.