Asserting that Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget will hurt New Jersey schools, a panel of state legislators and educators came together Tuesday night in Bloomfield to urge residents to demand more funding for the education system, even if it means fewer tax cuts.
Stressing that the time to act is now, the panel said people should write, call or visit their city and state representatives to demand more support for the state’s educational system. The panelists included state Sen. Ronald Rice, state Assem. Ralph Caputo, state Assem. Mila Jasey and “Save Our Schools New Jersey” founder Julia Sass-Rubin.
Presenting what they admitted was a bleak outlook for education if Christie’s projected tax cuts become a reality, Rice said the proposal “would save 95% of taxpayers an average of $218” yearly. He stressed, however, the small tax savings were certain to have detrimental long-term effects that would be hard to fix later.
“It translates into higher crime for the township,” he said, citing some schools in Newark with such insubstantial funding that they were forced to close down. “When they cut out academic programs . . . and took away the support systems for these kids, they became gangbangers . . . and [the residents] moved out.”
Bloomfield Board of Education President Mary Shaughnessy noted in a letter to Patch prior to the meeting districts have still not recovered from the $820 million in funding Christie cut from public schools in 2010. But while the 2013 proposed budget slightly increases the base amount of per-pupil spending across the state, it would ultimately reduce funding to districts that serve a substantial number of poor students (currently, 45% of Bloomfield students qualify for free and reduced lunch) and students with limited English proficiency, according to Shaughnessy. Christie's plan would also penalize districts with an attendance rate lower than 96%, indirectly targeting impoverished school populations.
In essence, the panelists' message was a hard one to deliver: Christie wants to give you money. Don't take it.
“Obviously all of us would love to get money back,” Sass-Rubin said. “The challenge is, who’s going to get cut to make up for that tax cuts? . . . It’s the schools that are going to take a hit. Either the property taxes get cut or the quality of your children’s education goes down. I’m willing to forsake two, three, four hundred dollars [in tax breaks]. I would much rather aggregate that money and take care of our future, which is our kids.”
Sass-Rubin noted Christie took $476 million from the school reserves to balance the state budget in 2010, then slashed education funding by $1.6 billion in 2011 and $855 million in 2012.
"This year's state budget proposes to change the funding formula," she said, noting the governor planned to significantly lower funding for children who receive free or reduced lunch and children who are "limited English proficient."
She added the governor intended to slowly "phase in" the new funding formula anyway, meaning all schools in the state would effectively be underfunded over the next five years.
As the meeting wore on, the gloomy prospect of losing yet more state education money made for some tense exchanges.
“We choose to underfund our schools,” said one man who stood up to speak during the Q & A portion of the meeting. “We choose to give our millionaires money back . . . by allowing our elected officials to do this.” He characterized Christie as a "bully."
Rice answered, “We’re going to continue to fight this battle. I’m not allowing this bully to push me around.”
He added, “I’ll leave the Legislature and die before I sign off on Acting Commissioner [Christopher] Cerf.”
Lawmakers have so far balked at confirming Cerf, who is Christie’s nominee as education commissioner.
“I’m glad Sen. Rice admitted you guys let Christie bully you around,” countered former Bloomfield bord of education member Matt Yar. “And what are you going to do about it? You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to vote no.’ You’ve got to come up with a better solution than just saying no.”
Bloomfield schoolteacher John Shanagher weighed in as well, telling the panel, “I hear you telling us that we need to write to the Senate President and to the Speaker, who have been abysmally lacking in this. I just find that they bluster, they talk and then they roll over and crawl into a corner when the governor roars.”
Caputo, a former educator, replied, “We know we have to move fast . . . We’ll be in Trenton tomorrow, we’re going to have a caucus and we’re going to be discussing the budget, so we’re going to be doing our part.”
All of the panelists urged members of the community to reach out to their government representatives as the best means of taking action.
“We actually crashed Commissioner Cerf’s email last week because we had so many people sign a petition that was emailed to all the legislators and to him,” smiled Sass-Rubin. “He got something like 3,500 emails in one week. That’spowerful.”
“Go on the internet, call the Statehouse,” said Rice. “Tell your neighbors what’s going on. The reality is that we have to become vocal. If you know lobbyists, talk to them. Send emails, text messages, wrote editorials. Call [FM radio station NJ]101.5 . . . it’s a one-sided [radio] station . . .[so] they’re going to yell at you and tell you to shut up, but you’ve made your point. Those are the things you’re going to have to do.”
“Definitely reach out to your mayor, your business administrator, your superintendent and your board of ed President and the members of the town council,” advised Jasey, adding town councils can draft resolutions in support of their constituents that can be sent directly to their state representatives.
Panelists repeatedly made the argument a substandard school system, in addition to negatively impacting children, would cause property values to plummet, a position Bloomfield resident Peter Tom agreed with.
“You use your education system as a competitive advantage,” he said after the meeting. “The best people in town, people who can afford to get the best education for their kids, will stay. Otherwise they’ll leave. It’s a downward spiral.”
Save Our Schools New Jersey drafted the following letter Patch readers can send to their district legislators, Senate President Sweeney & Assembly Speaker Oliver (see contact information below):
I, __________________________________, reject the changes to the current school funding formula (SFRA) in Governor Christie’s proposed FY2013 State budget.
I, __________________________________, support restoring funding for those school districts whose funding was reduced in the proposed FY2013 State budget.
Send correspondence to:
New Jersey Senate and Assembly Leadership:
Senate President Steve Sweeney
SenSweeney@njleg.org (856) 251-9801
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver
AswOliver@njleg.org (973) 395-1166
27th District Legislators: (Caldwell, Chatham Township, East Hanover, Essex Fells, Florham Park, Hanover, Harding, Livingston, Madison, Maplewood, Millburn, Roseland, South Orange and West Orange):
Sen. Richard Codey SenCodey@njleg.org (973) 535-5017
Assem. Mila M. Jasey AswJasey@njleg.org (973) 762-1886
Assem. John F. McKeon AsmMcKeon@njleg.org (973) 377-1606
28th District Legislators: (Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington, Newark, Nutley)
Senator Ron Rice SenRice@njleg.org (973) 371-5665
Assem. Ralph R. Caputo AsmCaputo@njleg.org (973) 450-0484
Assem. Cleopatra Tucker AswTucker@njleg.org (973) 926-4320
29th District Legislators: (Belleville, Newark)
Senator Theresa Ruiz SenRuiz@njleg.org (973) 484-1000
Assemblyman Albert Coutinho AsmCoutinho@njleg.org (973) 589-0713
Assemblywoman Grace Spencer AswSpencer@njleg.org (973) 624-1730
34th District Legislators: (Clifton, East Orange, Montclair, Orange)
Senator Nia Gill SenGill@njleg.org (973) 509-0388
Assemblyman Thomas Giblin AsmGiblin@njleg.org (973) 779-3125
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver AswOliver@njleg.org (973) 395-1166
Note: See attached PDF that charts the underfunding of NJ public schools in the 27th, 28th, 29th & 34th Legislative Districts, as proposed by Governor Christie’s in his FY 2013 State Budget.