Sunday Leftovers

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More Abbott Fall-Out:

The press continues to ponder the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday that the School Funding Reform Act (S.F.R.A.) is “constitutionally adequate” . The Associated Press, in a story picked up by both the Courier-Park Press and the Wall Street Journal, mused,

The question of how to fund schools is wrapped up with one of New Jersey’s biggest education conundrums: How does a mostly suburban state where the schools generally perform very well deal with the gaps in learning in its cities, some of which are deeply impoverished?

The A.P. falls for an an obsolete truism in New Jersey: while learning gaps may have once indeed been limited to deeply impoverished cities, they now appear in deeply impoverished rural and suburban areas too. The former logic drove the original Abbott decisions and may have been appropriate 30 years ago. Not any more.

The Express-Times calls the decision “a devastating blow” to the Abbott districts, and quotes Phillipsburg Superintendent Mark Miller: “It’s going to be a tough road ahead.”

The Daily Journal calls it, um, devastating:

But Thursday’s ruling will be devastating in the coming years to students and taxpayers in special needs districts, such as Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton. In the so-called Abbott districts, the ruling means more deep cuts to staff and programs. Think property taxes are high now, just wait? It will mean property taxes in the poorer urban districts could skyrocket to make up for the loss in millions of dollars in state aid just so the schools can maintain current class sizes and educational programs. We see nothing but tough decisions ahead for school administrators and boards in Vineland and Millville and other special needs districts.

MyCentralJersey damns with faint praise, calling the School Funding Reform Act “one of the few things Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration has gotten right.”

The Record entones
, “Abbott is dead:”

In some cases, education has improved over time: through more teachers and smaller classes, widespread access to quality preschool and increases in test scores, particularly in the early grades. In such districts, the money was spent wisely and Abbott worked. But not in all. In those cases, the court could not overcome the entrenched power of cronyism or the hindrances of poverty itself. We will never know exactly how much of the money was beneficial to the children and how much was wasted.

Abbott is dead. All hail S.F.R.A. Here’s a couple of other nuggets to chew on:

1) S.F.R.A. is a conceptual improvement over Abbott because it acknowledges that our poor kids are not confined to 31 cities. But another piece of funding reform is just as important: the new regulations issued eight months ago by the D.O.E., fondly knows as N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-1 or, more formally, The Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures. The two, S.F.R.A. and 6A, work in concert. 6A attempts to rein in our profligate cost per pupil by establishing an “adequacy formula;” it says “here’s how much each district should be spending for a thorough and efficient education, and if you don’t stay within those parameters we’ll cite you on QSAC (the monitoring rubric each school district is graded on).” Every school district has to prove to the D.O.E. that they are within the parameters for everything from snacks for school board members to professional development for teachers. Every district is the same, says 6A, whether you live in Short Hills or Hamilton. With the Court’s approval of S.F.R.A. the 31 urban districts which got special treatment are now grouped together with the other 575 or so other N.J. districts

2)The adequacy formula established by the D.O.E. is still very high because our educational infrastructure, such as it is, is wildly inefficient: 616 school districts, with consolidation an apparent pipedream. There’s been some slight flogging of the smallest ones, like threats to lose state aid. They couldn’t care less, though, because the State contributes so little to wealthier districts. It’s going to take more political will to deal with this than is apparent in the current landscape

3) Even with the damper effect of the adequacy formula, New Jersey still can’t afford to offer services to all our poor kids comparable to those offered in the Formerly-Known-As-Abbott Districts: full-day preschools, after school services, Saturday academies, summer schools. Corzine intended, as recently as this past Fall, to fund preschools for all poor children. Plans were made, budgets forecast, facilities identified. But then the funding got cut back, cut back again, and then the whole thing got chucked due to lack of funding.

S.F.R.A. is better than Abbott. But it doesn’t come near to addressing our fiscal woes due to a inefficient and poorly managed educational system.

Consolidation Kerfuffle:
The Asbury Park Press reports that Assemblyman Joseph Cryan faced a tough crowd in Spring Lake, where he tried unsuccessfully to argue that consolidation of school districts is financially wise, given that there’s a potential $365 million savings at stake.

Spring Lake School District in Monmouth County has one K-8 elementary school with 335 students. It’s got a school board, a superintendent, separate bargaining agreements, the whole kit and caboodle: a perfect candidate for consolidation. But the rules governing consolidation of school districts mandate that if any one district within a proposal votes “no,” the whole deal is off. Count Spring Lake out:

“We don’t trust the government anymore,” said Donna Ayers-Vorbach, 48, of Manasquan. “We are fearful this will be decided by a liberal Supreme Court.”

In other (non)consolidation news, the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARC) met on Thursday and agreed that one of the major roadblocks in the way of “doughnut-hole mergers” is the presence of separate school districts. For example, Delran and Riverside are a potential merger, as is Beverly and Edgewater Park, but that would mean consolidating school districts. No deal, reports the Burlington County Times.

Health Insurance Premium Alert:
As if losing one state aid payment and having another deferred wasn’t bad enough news for N.J. school districts, State Pension Director Fred Beaver announced that health insurance premiums for more than 250 school districts could go up by more than 20%. Reports the Star-Ledger,

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said districts that have already based their budgets on previous 4 percent increases are alarmed by Beaver’s announcement.

“Coming midway through the school budget cycle, in January 2010, double-digit rate increases will present severe budgeting difficulties for the school districts enrolled in the plan,” he said.

The Dysfunctional School Board Award of the Week…

…goes to Pleasantville School District in Atlantic County. Former School President Jayson Adams was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for conspiring with a company he thought was an insurance brokerage firm to buy school board votes for an insurance contract. He also has to forfeit the $62,000 he received in bribes. Four other school board members were also arrested, reports the Press of Atlantic City.

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