On Tuesday a gloomy Chris Christie donned a hair shirt instead of a fleece jacket and proffered his 2015 fiscal-year budget sermon to Statehouse legislators. Total state spending will come to $34.4 billion, which includes a $2.25 billion state-mandated payment towards New Jersey’s “exploding” retirement fund for public workers in order to atone for the “past sins” from “governors and legislators who paid little or nothing into the system.” We worship on “the altar of these three things: pensions, health, and debt,” Father Christie intoned hoarsely (he had a cold) and we must reform our pension system or we’ll end up in the fiscal hell of Detroit. Then he quoted Mahatma Gandhi.
We hardly recognize the man, diminished in girth and bluster, preaching penance. But at least school funding is intact.
Here’s the highlights:
$13 billion in total public school aid, retirement benefits for school staff, and school construction aid; that’s $37 million more than last year. According to State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, each district will see an increase of about $20 per student, an improvement over last year’s budget when most districts’ aid was flat. (Today districts will find out their exact aid numbers.)
$13.5 million to help districts pay for technology associated with Common Core assessments.
$5 million to expand preschools in Abbott districts, which brings the N.J.’s total preschool annual tab to $648 million.
$4.8 million in increased funding for the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows schools to accept students from outside district boundaries.
$5 million to fund an “Innovation Program” structured like the federal competition Race to the Top, whereby districts can propose pilot programs to extend student learning time.
$159 million more for higher education, about 8 percent above last year’s budget allocation.
Let’s poll the parishioners. Most school districts, accustomed to harsh cuts, heaved sighs of relief, although the proposal falls short of the N.J.’s school funding formula. Lynn Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools told NJ Spotlight, “‘in some respects, it’s the most friendly budget we’ve had under Christie. Compared to what we were expecting…,” she said, her voice trailing off. ‘I mean, we knew the realities.'”
Lawrence Feinsod, Executive Director of NJ School Boards Association, was “pleased with the $36.8 million increase in total direct aid to school districts” and grateful for the $13.5 million in state PARCC Readiness Aid (i.e., those Common Core assessments).
But not all public school stakeholders are sanguine, and that has less to do with actual state aid to schools and more to do with pension politics which, in turn, is intertwined with teacher union politics.
Here’s the rift: on one side you have emboldened Democrats claiming that the 2011 pension reform legislation fixed everything just fine. Only four years ago a bipartisan majority of legislators gritted their teeth and bucked the teacher unions (except for Barbara Buono, and you know how that worked out), passing a bill that raised public workers’ retirement ages to 65 and increasing pension and health care premium contributions. Senate President Steve Sweeney said yesterday, “if we stay the course, the pension system will be fine. It’s not going to bankrupt us. What’s missing here is we haven’t grown our economy, and that’s the issue.”
NJEA, realigned with Democratic leaders, issued a scathing press release aimed at Christie’s homily of N.J.’s fiscal crisis:
“Pension costs are not ‘exploding.’ As a result of deep, painful cuts absorbed by public employees and retirees in 2011, pension costs going forward have been curtailed, and the state is finally on the road to responsible, sustainable pension funding practices. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary and it’s legally required…Governor Christie knew then, and he knows now, that the state is paying largely for its past failures to fund the pension promises it made.”
On the other side of the aisle we have the doomsayers, which include Christie – desperate to enact civil service reform — and a host of economic assessments that conclude that N.J. fiscal woes put us on a steady path towards insolvency. For example, The Common Sense Institute says, “these pension plans will remain unsustainable with the only question being by how much and when insolvency will occur.” (See last week’s post for more on this.)
Are we saved or are we lost? In the world of pension and budget politics, it depends upon whom you ask.
Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.