Proposed bill could bring additional state aid to West Orange School District

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and Assemblyman John McKeon of District 27, which covers West Orange, have proposed a bill that would provide the West Orange School District with an additional $2,474,486 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 West Orange, 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 West Orange Chronicle 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 West Orange, where taxes are now 30 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 Chronicle 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 a 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 West Orange district’s preliminary budget, which includes increasing taxes by 1.86 percent while also cutting 20 positions and two middle school classes. If the bill is approved and West Orange receives the funding in addition to the $8,547,693 it currently receives, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said the district could hopefully bring some of that staff and programming back. It also would help offset the tax burden on residents, Rutzky said.

As a result, Rutzky said the district is appreciative to Jasey and McKeon for proposing the bill, pointing out that being shortchanged only makes the budgetary process more difficult when the district already has to deal with challenges such as increasing health costs. Board of Education President Laura Lab added that the board has often discussed the state aid issue with the township’s state representatives, so it seems their concerns were heard.

Like the superintendent, Lab was pleased by the possibility that the additional funding could provide some relief to West Orange taxpayers. In the end, she said, the bill is doing what is right.

“It’s about fairness,” Lab told the Chronicle in an April 18 email. “West Orange pays a lot of money to the state in taxes and we do not receive our fair share back.”

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