Small N.J. town takes on school funding fight

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A Chesterfield student peruses a graphic novel in the school library, which officials say doesn't have enough money for books. (Karen Rouse for WHYY News)

A Chesterfield student peruses a graphic novel in the school library, which officials say doesn't have enough money for books. (Karen Rouse for WHYY News)

Chesterfield isn’t what comes to mind when politicians talk about children harmed by the state’s failure to provide adequate education funding.

The 21-square-mile township features acres of lush farmland, horse ranches and a subdivision where brick Colonials display American flags on front porches, and full, elegant wreaths grace front doors. The median income is $77,000.

Chesterfield is southeast of Trenton, along the turnpike in Burlington County, and its school district sits squarely at the center of a battle brewing in the Statehouse over how New Jersey funds public education in its 590 school districts.

On one side is Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, who promised on the campaign trail last year that he would fully fund New Jersey’s public schools under a formula approved by the state Supreme Court. The formula takes into account four factors for each school district: the residents’ average income; property values; the number of kids with special needs; and population shifts. Districts that see a spike in student numbers, for instance, could expect to get additional money from Trenton.

Murphy’s promise to honor the formula was what districts had been longing to hear; after eight years with former Gov. Chris Christie, 65 percent of districts in the state are getting less than what they were supposed to receive under the formula’s calculations. And, to their frustration, roughly a third of districts are getting more than 100 percent of what they should.

“If we’re not funding our kids education in this state, what good is government?” Murphy said during his campaign. “We’re going to find the resources to fully fund public education in the state of New Jersey.”

But in March, when Murphy released his first school funding plan, many districts — including Chesterfield — were stunned when they didn’t get significantly more money.

Andrea Katz, the mother of three Chesterfield School District students and a member of the Fair Funding Action Committee, made her frustration known at an Assembly budget hearing in Trenton.

“The preliminary aid numbers released by Gov. Murphy’s administration are an insult,” she said. “I thought that, after eight years of Gov. Christie, Gov. Murphy would be a breath of fresh air. I was hoping that Gov. Murphy would stand by his own words.”

Murphy did try. He ran the funding formula, but gave districts a portion of what they were due, saying the full amount would be phased in over four years.

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney — a Democrat and the second most powerful politician in the state — has become a champion for those underfunded districts. He says that plan is not enough, and he’ll hold the state budget hostage to get more funding for Chesterfield and other districts.

Last week, Sweeney unveiled a seven-year plan for revamping the school funding formula so that aid is more evenly applied across districts, and that no district is getting more than it should. He says his plan eliminates an “injustice where you have two classes of kids, the haves and the have-nots.”

Sweeney says his proposal would redistribute aid to districts so that all districts are getting money from the state at the same rate, with the goal of all districts getting 100 percent of what they’re owed under the formula at the end of seven years.

“We bring every district up to 58 percent,” Sweeney said. “So when you hear about the Chesterfields at 20 percent and the Kingsways at 45 percent, every single school district will be funded at 58 percent.” His plan was brokered with the New Jersey Assembly, and Sweeney says he’s prepared to not pass a budget, which would shut down the state on July 1, if Murphy can’t to come to an agreement on it.

But advocates for districts with a high number of low-income children say Sweeney’s proposal would not be fair either. The same funding cut in an affluent district has a very different impact in a city that relies more on state aid. In Chesterfield, students are underfunded by $1,300; in Paterson, it’s $6,700 less per student, according to Danielle Farrie of the Education Law Center.

Sweeney’s championing of school funding has endeared him to districts like Chesterfield’s, which serves 780 kids. It bears the dubious distinction of being the most short-changed in the state: Under the state formula, it’s supposed to get $4 million from Trenton for the 2018-2019 school year, but Murphy budgeted about $850,000.

That has galvanized school officials and parents, who are testifying at budget hearings in Trenton, calling on locals and kids to organize and demand more money from their legislators, and join forces with the hundreds of other districts that are getting less than what the state’s own school funding formula says they’re owed.

“I’m fighting for my kids,” Katz said. “I’m fighting for every other child. There’s 990,202 students that are under-aided in the state of New Jersey, and we’re fighting for every one of those kids to get what they’re due. When you have 35 percent of the districts in the state that are getting more money than they should, it’s just not fair, that the majority of students are under-aided. It’s just not right. It’s not what a fairer New Jersey looks like.”

Even though Chesterfield is fairly well-off, underfunding from the state has an impact. Superintendent Scott Heino says there isn’t money to replenish and update library books, purchases a school bus, or hire a vice principal and second guidance counselor.

The state budget — including how much will be spent on public schools  — is due June 30.

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