Phil Murphy Faced Anger And Tears At A Town Hall. Here's How He Reacted.

The town hall crowd showed up Wednesday night in Willingboro to lambaste Gov. Phil Murphy over how New Jersey will dole out aid to public schools in his first state budget proposal.  

There was worry and anger. Some told Murphy he had let them down. One woman cried, and her 7-year-old son asked the Democratic governor why he likes "Jersey City more" than his south Jersey school district. 

Murphy's response was immediate. 

"I'm mad as heck, and I want to change this, too," Murphy said during the event at a recreational center.

He promised the crowd of worried educators, parents, and young students that he will work with state lawmakers to revamp the state's oft-criticized school funding scheme.

In fact, Murphy said, he will broach the topic during a meeting with legislative leaders Thursday.

Murphy promised on the campaign trail to fully fund the state's 10-year-old school funding formula -- though his first budget plan, unveiled last month, does not do so right away. 

Instead, he has proposed sending $283 million in additional aid to school districts -- the largest bump in a decade. Murphy says that's the first step in a four-year ramp-up to full funding.

About 94 percent of districts will see an increase in aid, while none will see a decrease.

But critics say Murphy's budget gives only small increases to districts that are underfunded according to the formula and too much to districts that are overfunded.

Many of those critics hail from south Jersey towns, where schools are often underfunded, especially compared to more populous urban districts.

Wednesday's town hall in Willingboro, a Burlington County township, was near two of the districts that have been the most vocal on the issue: Kingsway regional in Gloucester County and Chesterfield in Burlington.

Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm, a Kingsway school board member, said her district is being "shortchanged" by $20 million a year in aid. She warned that could lead to job losses and program cuts "because our school aid is not reflective of our population."

"We were all extremely proud to go into the booth to vote for you, governor," Cavallaro-Fromm told Murphy. "We voted for you because we believed in your promise for a stronger and fairer New Jersey. But we all felt let down by your school aid numbers."

Anita Dowlat, a parent from Chesterfield, noted how students in her district took time from their spring break this week to voice concern about the numbers at a recent legislative hearing on the budget. 

"It makes me really emotional," a tearful Dowlat told Murphy. "These kids are worth more than 20 percent funding."

Her son, second-grader Braylin, also pressed Murphy.

"I came home the other day, and my mom said Jersey City is getting $1.8 million and we're getting $41,000," Braylin said. "So I asked her, 'Why does the governor like Jersey City more and give more money to Jersey City?'"

Murphy responded that he's "not falling into the trap" of pitting "one community versus another."

But, he stressed, the situation is "completely unacceptable."

Part of the blame, Murphy said, is that New Jersey is "digging out" after his predecessor, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, underfunded schools by $9 billion over the last eight years.

Plus, Murphy said, he is basing the aid in his budget on the 2008 state law that established the weighted formula in which school funding is based.

"The point is: It has to change, right?" Murphy said. "Count me as an ally to make this change."

But, Murphy noted, he needs the state Legislature to vote to amend the law. He said school funding will be "a big topic" in his meeting with top lawmakers Thursday -- though he did not give details as to what changes might happen.

"I want to make sure you say we finally have somebody who will work with the Legislature," Murphy said. "I'm all in. You have my word on that. We're going to do everything we can to get this done."

"I know you all want us to get there tomorrow," he added. "I'm gonna get there as fast as I can. Help is on the way."

State lawmakers have also signaled that they're willing to revise the school funding in Murphy's proposed budget. 

The Legislature has until June 30 to make changes to Murphy's proposal. Murphy can line-item veto any changes before the budget must be signed into law July 1. 

"We will fix that inequity in the final budget," state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said during a budget hearing at Rowan University in Glassboro on Tuesday.

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