A lawsuit that is likely to make its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court was filed by the Jersey City Board of Education on April 24 in an attempt to reverse large cuts in state aid.
The suit claims that the reductions in state aid to education violated a series of state Supreme Court rulings collectively known as “Abbott vs. Burke” that called for “a thorough and efficient” education of all students in the state and mandated large aid packages to some of the neediest cities in the state.
Local officials claim that despite recent years of intense Jersey City development that vastly expanded the city’s tax base, the school district still qualifies for aid as established under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.
“Abbott v. Burke” established special constitutional protections for students in poorer urban districts such as Jersey City.
Of the 30,000 students in the district, 4,500 are special needs or autistic, requiring an individualized education program, and about 4,000 require enrollment in an English-as-second language program. More than 20,000 of the students come from poor and low income families and qualify for free or subsidized lunch, one of the standards that establishes need in a district.
Shanna Givens, a mother of two, is one of the principals in this lawsuit. While one of her sons has already graduated, she said, her youngest son needs occupational therapy. She said cuts in aid put this program at risk, and would force her to seek private therapy.
Christie began cuts
The suit has asked the courts to immediately halt cuts that amount to more than $200 million over the next five years, and to make up for shortfalls in aid that have been ongoing since 2009 when Gov. Christopher Christie began reductions in aid to education.
“This massive reduction in state education aid is arbitrary, capricious and signals a complete abandonment of the state’s constitution responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient education to Jersey City students,” said Board President Sudhan Thomas, who was joined by parents, school administrators, and teachers union officials at a press conference to announce the filing.
The suit was filed in Hudson County Superior Court and seeks to overturn the $27 million cut in state aid in the current school year that could lead to more than 415 layoffs of teachers and other drastic changes in the school district.
These changes could include increased class sizes, the possible closing of some schools, and combining staff and student populations to reduce costs, Thomas said.
Overall, the district faces a more than $100 million budget gap. Part of this may be filled with a new city payroll tax, but the funds collected will only make a dent in the problem. Jersey City taxpayers are already bracing for an anticipated steep hike in school taxes.
Over the next five years, the cuts in state aid will amount to about $180 million, but will have an even greater impact. Because of lack of adequate funding over the last decade, the underfunding could lead to more layoffs as well as cutting extracurricular programs, including athletic programs and after school programs.
Christie largely ignored a report issued in 2008 that recommended specific funding requirements for Jersey City and other urban districts around the state.
These recommendations were codified into law by the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Jersey City was paid about $750 million less than what the report said the district should have received.
Jersey City schools have not been fully funded at a constitutionally-required level since the 2008-2009 school year, Thomas said, the first year the reform act was implemented.
Thomas also noted that Christie did even more damage when the state imposed a 2 percent spending cap on the districts. This meant districts could not raise taxes locally to make up for the shortfall.
Thomas noted that decisions on spending were not governed by local school officials, but by the state Department of Education, which took control over the Jersey School District in 1988 and did not relinquish control until October 2018.
The state was controlling the school district as the same time it was short changing the schools of aid, Thomas said.
Thomas, however, said the final blow came this year, when an agreement on the state level under Gov. Phil Murphy cut Adjustment Aid.
The School Funding Reform Act of 2008 was seen as an extremely complicated school-funding formula to determine how much money the state should give to each school district and how much should be raised by local taxes.
In an attempt to simplify and make a fairer distribution of funds, Gov. Murphy signed new reform into law in 2018.
This action resulted in a massive elimination of adjustment aid — money that districts had been receiving on top of their formula funding.
“This litigation is about the state’s failure to provide a thorough and efficient education to the students of Jersey City due to the decades-long drought of funding and unconstitutional application of the law,” said Angelo Genova, the lead attorney for the school district.
The Board of Education planned to file this lawsuit when it heard about the proposed cuts late last year. The district had anticipated a $3.5 million loss of state aid for 2018-19 due to the state’s new funding formula. But a surprise came when the district lost an additional $1.8 million promised by Gov. Murphy last March.
The loss of aid for the upcoming school year is only the first in a series of cuts the district expects over the next six years, reducing aid to local schools by $180 million from the current aid of $410 million, which Thomas called unconstitutional.
While eight other school districts are suing the state Department of Education over planned cuts in their school budgets, Jersey City’s suit will not be part of those cases.
“We’re doing this on our own,” said Thomas. “Jersey City has a unique situation.”
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org