New Jersey Assembly Approves Bill to Help School Districts Facing State Aid Cuts

In the coming school year, 140 districts face nearly $106 million in combined cuts.

The bill would allow school districts to hike tax levies by up to 9.9% and create a $71.4 million grant program for districts facing cuts. (New Jersey Governor’s Office)

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Assembly lawmakers approved a bill Monday intended to help school districts that have seen cuts to state aid by extending one-time grants and allowing them to hike local taxes above the state-mandated 2% cap without getting voter approval.

The bill, approved in a 51-20 vote almost entirely along party lines, would allow districts that have seen cuts since the 2020-21 school year to raise their levies by up to 9.9%, with hikes capped to the amount of state aid the district has lost over that period.

“We’re here today to present a solution for this year. That’s why we’re here under a short time frame. That’s why it’s happening quickly — because school boards must act,” said Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset), the bill’s prime sponsor.

The bill’s proponents have cast it as a sorely needed Band-Aid to address steep swings in state aid that roughly a third of New Jersey’s school districts have seen annually since 2018. That’s when lawmakers approved a bill, called S2, meant to shift aid from historically overfunded districts to historically underfunded ones.

Though they were controversial from the outset, the aid adjustments have drawn consternation from lawmakers and school officials after rising home valuations and inflationary pressures led to state aid reductions that were far steeper than anticipated.

In the coming school year, 140 districts face nearly $106 million in combined cuts, with the reductions ranging from $989 in West Wildwood to $10.4 million in Long Branch.

Republicans largely opposed the bill, favoring a competing measure sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-Ocean) that would cap school aid cuts to 1%. GOP legislators said lawmakers should instead look to make permanent changes to the school funding formula signed into law in 2008.

“School board members in the 24th Legislative District are not asking for a mechanism to dramatically increase property taxes above that which they are currently allowed. What they’re asking for is fair school funding from the state of New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Mike Inganamort (R-Morris).

Six Republicans — Assemblymen Michael Torrissi, Erik Simonsen, Antwan McClellan, Alex Sauickie, Robert Clifton, and Rumpf — voted in favor of the bill that passed Monday. Democratic Assemblymen Dan Hutchison and Cody Miller voted no.

Separate provisions of the bill would create a $71.4 million grant program meant to defray two-thirds of cuts proposed for the coming school year in affected districts.

Districts could receive the grants if they face a state aid reduction for the 2024-2025 school year. Schools receiving such grants are barred from cutting staff past what is needed to account for changes in enrollment.

Assemblywoman Rosy Bagolie (D-Essex), who is East Newark’s superintendent, said school budget timelines made Republican urgings against the bill untenable, noting officials have just weeks to finalize budgets amid still-shifting aid figures.

“Either it’s Christmas, and we get our funding, or Krampus comes and takes the floor from under us. We cannot mitigate as superintendents — within the timeline that we have to present budgets, to rehire teachers by May 15th — to do what you’re asking us to do,” she said.

Lawmakers are exploring changes to the state’s funding formula that would bring some uncovered expenses, like certain transportation costs, under its auspices, as the state approaches the final school aid increase called for by S2.

Some Republicans urged their Democratic counterparts to speed up that process.

“It’s not like a phenomenon of the weather, that you just watch it come down and it affects our school districts in some strange way,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris). “You’re the majority party. If you don’t like the school funding formula, change it. If you think it has all these awful effects, let’s do a new one.”

Acting Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer last week told Assembly lawmakers the department expects outsized changes to state aid to abate somewhat after the coming fiscal year, though some shifts will still be caused by other factors, like changes to enrollment.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Monday signaled skepticism over the supposed end of steep aid swings.

“We still are going to have to come together to address the bigger issue, which is what’s going to happen in out years,” Freiman said. “We still are faced with the scenario of next year: What do they do?”

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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