- Associated Press - Thursday, June 15, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A new Democrat-backed plan to inject nearly $200 million into New Jersey’s schools showed some signs of viability Thursday after Republican Gov. Chris Christie signaled he’ll consider the plan, though the bill drew an immediate rebuke from the state’s largest teachers union and its fate is still murky.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney - both Democrats - are pressing their recently unveiled proposal with Christie, whose spokesman said Thursday the governor would consider the plan. Brian Murray added without elaborating that the governor has concerns about “fairness.”

Sweeney unveiled a town-by-town list detailing the changes the state’s more than 600 districts would see under the Democratic leaders’ plan ahead of a June 30 budget deadline. Out of 40 legislative districts, each represented by two Assembly members and a state senator, eight would see reductions.

The head of the New Jersey Education Association called it a “sick scheme” because it would take money away from some districts.

The proposal “helps many students in New Jersey, but it does so at the expense of other New Jersey students, which makes the cost too high,” said union president Wendell Steinhauer.

The deal would provide $100 million in new aid for underfunded districts and $25 million to expand pre-school. It also includes $46 million in aid that was given to some districts to prevent a drop in funding under the 2008 school funding formula, known as “adjustment aid.”

If enacted, the plan puts the state on a path toward fully funding a 2008 school aid formula that has gone unfunded, except for one year, Sweeney said.

State aid for schools connects to a major issue in New Jersey: property taxes, which are the highest in the country and are fueled by school districts’ levies on property owners.

Increasing aid would lead to lower property taxes, Sweeney and others have argued.

A deal is not required to be in place before the June 30 end of the fiscal year, when officials must enact a new budget, but Sweeney said he expects the issue to be resolved through the budget. Republican leaders agreed.

“If not in the budget, then how?” Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick said.

It’s unclear whether the leading candidates to succeed the term-limited Christie support the deal. Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno have not responded to requests for comment on the agreement.

Calling it a “landmark first step” toward restoring school funding fairness, Sweeney said the agreement was a “significant reform … to provide increased aid to fast-growing districts.” He said it also would start to phase out an aid formula that provides more state aid to some districts than they are entitled to receive.

Prieto said that the compromise would minimize the money taken from districts in the upcoming fiscal year and also cited how it would increase funding for preschool education.

“I think it’s a bill that actually helps education and helps some of these districts that are in dire straits,” Prieto said.


Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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