Monday, March 14, 2016

Millville's More for Me Plea OR How Even NJ Education Professionals Don't Understand SFRA

There are many reasons for the persistence of NJ's unfair and irrational distribution of school aid, but one factor preserving the unjust status quo is ignorance of just how unfair the existing distribution is and how SFRA is even supposed to work. This ignorance frustrates the formation of a reform movement and allows overaided districts to lack sympathy for underaided districts and for underaided districts to not comprehend the depth of their victimization.

This post is going to be on the demoralizing ignorance some education professionals and Boards of Education have of SFRA and the basic facts of how much money their own districts are supposed to get, let alone others.

Millville's SFRA Non-Comprehension

The most recent example I've seen of this ignorance comes from Millville.

Millville is a town of 28,000 located in Cumberland County.  It is an Abbott district.  Its 6,000 students are 70% FRL-eligible but only 1% English Language Learners.

Like most other school districts in New Jersey, Millville is facing cuts for next year.  The district estimates it has a $2 million shortfall and is preparing a 4% tax increase.

Like many other districts, Millville is attributing its budget problems to the "lack" of state aid.

The district lays the blame for its budget quandary on state aid, or rather not enough of it. 
Local officials say Millville, for the sixth year, is looking toward getting state aid for its new school year that is about what it got for the current year. Officials argue that, adjusted for cost increases, the amount of money actually in district hands is declining. 
Gentile said Millville would have to close an elementary school if it gets a seventh year of flat funding.  [my emphasis]
The reporting on the most recent Millville BOE meeting is sparse, so I cannot be 100% sure of everything that was said about state aid, but complaining about flat-funded state aid seems to be something Millville did last year too.

During the meeting, Board Member Bob Donato, of the Finance Committee, spoke about the $1.8 million shortfall and the flat funding from the state.
"It's always better than taking a cut but flat funding doesn't work in the world of rising costs," Donato said.
I'm sorry that Millville has to cut its budget, but it is deeply misleading of Millville to suggest that there is a possibility that Millville will gain state aid next year.

What Millville's BOE and Administration do not know or comprehend is that according to SFRA Millville is supposed to be flat-funded.

Millville is among almost 200 districts in New Jersey that already receives more money from the state than SFRA's core formulas says it needs. Specifically, Millville's K-12 state aid is $68 million, but SFRA's formulas show that it should only receive $63 million.

Since SFRA's formulas indicate that Millville should receive less than it was getting in 2008, Millville's state aid is sustained by Adjustment Aid. Although the amounts of Adjustment Aid that districts get are divorced from the formula, Millville's BOE and Administration should realize that its $12 million in Adjustment Aid means that it isn't due for an aid increase.

If New Jersey were on a path to fully fund SFRA, Millville would be flat-funded until underaided districts catch up with it. Only after all districts get their full uncapped state aid would districts like Millville begin to see their state aid increase.

There is no justification to say "if state aid is flat for a seventh year" since Millville's aid will be flat until doomsday as New Jersey falls farther and farther from fully funding its underaided districts.

Even another Abbott verdict in which the NJ Supreme Court orders that the Abbotts get their full SFRA funding would give Millville nothing since it already gets its full Abbott funding.

True, SFRA was supposed to be fully funded in four or five years, but back when SFRA was finalized in January 2008 Atlantic City wasn't suppose to collapse, the Great Recession wasn't supposed to happen, the Pension Crisis wasn't supposed to happen, and someone like Chris Christie was never supposed to get elected.

(Update:  Little Egg Harbor is another overaided district that does not comprehend why it is not getting an increase in aid.)

Underaided Districts Don't Get It Either

Alas, many underaided districts don't understand how SFRA works either and this causes them to miss just how victimized they are.

I've seen many examples of underaided districts say that the state is shortchanging them, but then use their deficit relative to capped aid and not the much larger and more meaningful deficit relative to uncapped aid.

Red Bank Boro, one of NJ's 30 most underaided districts, is one recent example of this. At a November 2015 BOE meeting where Red Bank Boro's lack of state aid and fiscal crisis was discussed, Red Bank Boro's administrator said "the district is due another $500,000 in state aid based on student population and demographics."

NO!  Red Bank Boro was owed $6.5 million in 2015-16!!!

Lakewood's BOE president made an identical mistake in January 2016 when he desperately (and justifiably) asked the state for more assistance for Lakewood.

"If the SFRA was fully funded the District would receive approximately $5 million more than it does."

NO!  Lakewood was owed $15.8 million in 2015-16!!!

The problem with this, is that capped aid is an arbitrary, out of date figure.  Capped aid depends on how much aid a district got back in 2008; uncapped aid is the actual, meaningful measure of what a district needs demographically and economically.

Referring to capped aid figures is also incomplete because very few districts are overaided relative to capped aid whereas about 200 are overaided relative to uncapped aid.  Using uncapped aid vs actual aid gaps thus exposes the inequity of overaiding existing alongside underaiding.

When even Board of Education members and administrators do not understand how SFRA is supposed to work, what aid increases their districts can hope for, or how much aid other districts are getting there is no fuel to fire a reform movement.  New Jerseyans everywhere think their taxes are too high and their schools are being "cut to the bone," and many New Jerseyans justly blame the state for these trends.

HOWEVER, the tax and budgetary pain isn't equal everywhere and one of the disequalizing forces is the unfair distribution of state aid.  Publicizing uncapped aid amounts is necessary because it will show districts where they stand relative to SFRA's recommendations and where they stand relative to other districts.  

In the meantime, if you want to help spread the word about how bad things are in New Jersey, refer lots of people to this blog or the table of uncapped aid and Local Fair Share figures I've created here.

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