FLEMINGTON, NJ - Hunterdon County’s Deputy Director of the Board of County Commissioners John E. Lanza lambasted the governor for this year’s proposed continuation of a troubling trend – decreased state school aid funding for Hunterdon County’s public schools.
Actions speak louder than words, and at the commissioners’ March 2 meeting Lanza offered a battle cry to see Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed FY 2022 budget, which reduces school aid to Hunterdon County schools by $2.6 million, overturned by New Jersey’s state legislators.
The deputy director noted that with this budget of $44.8 billion for the state, Hunterdon County school districts would be losing a total of $8.4 million in state aid, cumulatively, over the last four years. And overall in New Jersey, Lanza said, 193 school districts in 14 counties are losing school aid this year, while nearly another 300 of the state’s districts would see an increase to their state aid.
Lanza referenced the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” citing the county and many other districts in New Jersey waking up each year with the state’s budget indicating major cuts to their local schools’ state aid allocations.
“Here it is again, the clock radio is about to hit 6 a.m., the Sonny and Cher song will play on the radio and here we go again with the cuts to school aid for Hunterdon County schools, children, teachers and taxpayers,” Lanza said.
At the next county board meeting, scheduled for March 16, Lanza plans to introduce a new county government resolution – “Stop the School Aid Madness” – which is symbolic of a greater effort he said he hopes to see gain momentum statewide with the other 13 counties’ leaderships.
His plan, he said, is for the Hunterdon County Board of Commissioners to set an example to their peers in the other 13 counties in calling on their state legislators to hold all districts harmless in the final state budget.
“Four years in a row, Four straight budgets from Gov. Murphy, four straight cuts to school aid to Hunterdon County,” Lanza said. “This year’s proposed reduction in school aid for the county is $2.6 million. Over the four years of the Governor’s budgets, there is a total of $8.4 million in lost school aid to Hunterdon County school districts, property taxpayers, school children and teachers, while increasing school aid for many other districts in the state by over $589 million. Who makes up the difference in Hunterdon County? The taxpayers do, since school districts can’t print money the way the federal government does. School aid cuts mean higher property taxes that you and I will pay.”
The proposed state fiscal year 2022 budget indicates total state school aid of up to $9.3 billion, including a $50 million increase for preschools, which would help 30 additional districts implement programs, and $25 million for extraordinary special education expenses in 500 districts. Year-over-year, the State Aid to New Jersey school districts increases by $578 million.
But, Lanza noted, this still equates to negative $2.6 million to Hunterdon County districts in fiscal year 2022, while overall the state’s spending in the budget is set to increase by $4.4 billion in borrowed funds.
“After four straight years of school aid cuts to Hunterdon County schools and others around the state, it’s time to push back hard,” he said. “If all those concerned join together, legislative action can be achieved. Over the past four years, Gov. Murphy’s media releases state that his state budgets will have increased direct pre-K to 13th grade spending, statewide, by nearly $1.5 billion. Yet somehow spending for school aid was lowered. Over the past four years, this governor’s budgets decreased school aid to Hunterdon County schools, children, teachers and taxpayers by $8.4 million. If he’s sending us a message, I think we’ve got it. And we are also told ‘don’t feel bad Hunterdon County, you are not alone as 193 other districts in the state will lose state aid.’ I don’t think it’s any consolation and it is not a group we’d strive to be a part of. While misery may love company, every one of the ‘losing school aid’ districts in the state experienced more cost encumbrances over the past year, with setting up the school facilities to protect public health, to establish remote learning programs and just general cost increases across the board. Again, who pays that bill? The property taxpayers do, or school programs will be drastically cut.”
Hunterdon County Board of Commissioners Director Susan Soloway said she is in support of her colleague’s initiative with the forthcoming resolution, and said she agrees with Lanza’s points on how this level of reductions in state aid to the county’s districts are “beyond understanding, when the governor is increasing the state’s budget by $4.4 billion.”
“He can’t find $2.6 million to hold Hunterdon County’s schools harmless,” she said. “That is the definition of madness. The local property taxpayers bear the brunt of these aid cuts. It is time for New Jersey legislators across the state and across political party lines to push back. I am all for Hunterdon County leading the way and I look forward to the next board meeting where we will be doing that (with the resolution).”
The “Stop the School Aid Madness” resolution will call on those 13 other boards of commissioners in New Jersey where school aid is being cut to send similar (approved) resolutions to state legislators representing their counties. Lanza noted this faction would comprise over half the members of the legislature.
“The 14 (counties) should demand that budget language be inserted in the FY 2022 budget that will protect our school children, property taxpayers and teachers from these aid cuts,” he said.
Another more immediate solution for state-level action was also proposed by Lanza.
“We are told there is a state school funding law (Public Law 2018-Chapter 67, called S2 sets a formula) that ties everyone's hands,” he said. “It’s not true. Language can be inserted in the state budget that overrides the existing law and ensures every school district receives no less funding than last year. Especially as we’ve experienced the pandemic over the last 12 months, it ensures every school aid funding level remains flat from the previous year.”
“It’s pretty simple actually,” he added. “Every year, the state budget is rife with budget language that sets aside state laws in order to fund legislators’ pet projects, to reward a favored hospital or to achieve some more socially acceptable policy. So why not to protect 193 school districts and their school children and property taxpayers with the same language in the state budget as the favored interests receive?”
Lanza added that freezing aid at last year’s level would not redress the larger problem for Hunterdon County schools, of “having seen our school districts lose state aid money over the four years, but it would at least stop the bleeding,” he said.