New Jersey Assembly Passes Legislation to Assist School Districts Dealing with Decreased State Funding

State lawmakers passed a bill on Monday aimed at assisting school districts that have faced reductions in state aid by providing one-time grants and allowing them to increase local taxes beyond the mandated 2% cap without needing voter approval.

The approved bill, in a 51-20 vote divided almost entirely along party lines, permits districts that have experienced cuts since the 2020-21 school year to raise levies by up to 9.9%, with the hikes limited to the lost state aid amount over that period.

“Presenting a solution for this year is our priority today, leading to a swift process due to the urgency for school boards to take action,” stated Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset), the primary sponsor of the bill.

Advocates of the bill view it as a necessary stopgap to address significant fluctuations in state aid that approximately one-third of New Jersey’s school districts have witnessed each year since 2018, stemming from the legislative approval of bill S2 meant to redistribute aid between overfunded and underfunded districts.

The adjustments in aid, initially controversial, have raised concerns among lawmakers and education officials as unforeseen reductions resulted from escalating home values and inflationary pressures.

For the upcoming school year, 140 districts are confronting nearly $106 million in combined cuts, with reductions ranging from $989 in West Wildwood to $10.4 million in Long Branch.

Opposition to the bill primarily came from Republicans, who favored an alternative proposal by Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-Ocean) capping school aid cuts to 1% and supported making permanent revisions to the 2008 school funding formula law.

“School board members in the 24th Legislative District are not seeking a mechanism to drastically raise property taxes beyond current limits; they seek equitable state funding for schools in New Jersey,” declared Assemblyman Mike Inganamort (R-Morris).

As six Republicans voted in favor of the bill, including Assemblymen Michael Torrissi, Erik Simonsen, Antwan McClellan, Alex Sauickie, Robert Clifton, and Rumpf, Democratic Assemblymen Dan Hutchison and Cody Miller voted against.

Specific clauses within the bill establish a $71.4 million grant initiative to mitigate two-thirds of the impending cuts for affected districts in the upcoming school year. Eligible schools are prohibited from reducing staff beyond enrollment adjustments.

Assemblywoman Rosy Bagolie (D-Essex), also East Newark’s superintendent, highlighted the impracticality of Republican objections to the bill due to budget timelines requiring swift decisions amidst fluctuating aid figures.

“It’s either a merry Christmas with our funding or a disruptive surprise; we, as superintendents, cannot feasibly meet the tight budget deadlines under the conditions you propose,” she explained.

Efforts by legislators to revise the state’s funding formula to incorporate certain expenses like transportation costs under its purview are underway as the state nears the final school aid increase mandated by S2.

Some Republicans urged their Democratic counterparts to hasten this process of reforming the funding formula.

“Addressing the school funding formula is not like observing weather patterns; it requires action from the majority party to make necessary changes,” stated Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris).

Acting Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer indicated that the Department anticipates a reduction in significant aid swings after the upcoming fiscal year, although shifts may still occur due to factors like enrollment changes.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed doubt on Monday regarding the anticipated cessation of sharp aid fluctuations.

“The impending scenario for next year remains uncertain; we must collaborate to address this ongoing issue,” Freiman emphasized, highlighting the need for continued discussions.

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