NEWTON, NJ –For Newton Superintendent Dr. Kennedy Greene, the issue of school funding is not limited to the confines of Newton. Greene has been lobbying in Trenton and other forums to have the state follow the court ordered funding formula that is supposed to be the law of the land. His passion for the topic is fueled by wanting to do the best for the children in his care, and across the state.
Greene testified in Trenton in front of the Senate Select Committee on School Funding, Joint Committee on Public Schools and the Assembly Education Committee. He has also “attended a number of other meetings to hear what’s going on.”
The opportunities to testify have come from an invitation to the Association of School Administrators of which Greene is the Secretary on the Executive Committee.
His concern about funding stems from the “constitutional responsibility of the state to fund the formula that has been court tested and held up as a model, nationally as fair spending. “
His argument is that it is a “$2 billion problem; $1.4 billion under funding by the state and $600,000 in funds being distributed in ways that are contrary to the formula.”
As to the under funding, Greene said it is a matter of priorities of the elected officials. "When state revenues rose by 33 percent educational funding did not rise by 33 percent," making an effort to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act.
SFRA was passed in 2008.
“For the last seven years the education community has been hoping it will get better, but it is getting to the point of being unsustainable budgetarily,” Greene said.
Under the umbrella of school funding, the state has created a couple of formulas by which districts are measured. Funding levels for school districts are evaluated by the state’s “adequacy” formula. Adequacy is based on a per-pupil dollar amount.
The state has also developed a formula to determine the amount of property taxes local communities should be paying to support their local schools. This is called “local fair share,” and is based on property values and income levels.
“The idea that everyone in New Jersey is paying too much in taxes is not quite accurate,” Greene said. “Some districts are not paying their fair share and getting funded over adequacy.”
Using state terminology and formulas takes away the subjective or emotional interpretation of how funding is supposed to work, under the law. It is not about the politics or culture of the district. It is supposed to be objective funding for students.
In Newton, “the issue isn’t a sufficient budget, it’s that the taxpayer are over taxed,” Greene said. “Newton pays 44 percent more than their fair share.”
Newton is one of four districts in Sussex county that is underfunded. The other three, according to Greene are Green, Franklin and Lenape. “It’s not a size, region or wealth issue,” Greene said. “Just as many high wealth districts are not getting their fair share,” as districts with lower income levels.
He explained that some districts are getting more than 100 percent in adequacy funding from the state to make up for the taxpayers paying less than their fair share. “Some districts have become reliant on overfunding by the state.”
The two percent levy cap imposed on school districts in 2008 adds to the difficulties of districts not funded to adequacy by the state. Each year school district budgets can only increase the local property tax levy by two percent. With most of the districts’ budgets going to contractual and non-discretionary spending for items such as insurance and energy, staying with in the two percent cap becomes a difficult task.
Seven years under the two percent cap rule finds many district at or nearing the point of unsustainability. Status quo budgets are being cut.
“It is not so much a partisan issue but how it plays in your back yard,” Greene said. “Each district has their own issues” such as the facilities needs facing the Newton Board of Education.
At the last meeting the Newton Board of Education they passed a resolution asking for the legislature to fully fund SFRA. Green said other districts have asked for copies of the resolution for their own boards to consider.
Greene has been working to keep the pressure on legislators along with a “small group of superintendents who talk regularly.” He is hoping they are able to continue the momentum and to have it turn into action.
Since he began to testify on this issue last year, Greene said, “legislators seem to be engaged and asking better, more in depth questions.”
“We are doing what we can to make the issue known locally,” Greene said, encouraging people to write letters and contact elected officials to get SFRA to be funded as required.