Singleton unveils legislation to boost aid to underfunded school districts

 Assemblyman Troy Singleton has introduced legislation to award $50 million in more state aid to 80 of New Jersey's most underfunded school districts.

Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, introduced the bill Thursday, saying that the extra aid was still well below what the districts should receive under the state's school funding formula, but that it was an action the state could afford to take this year while lawmakers pursue more substantial changes to address the issue.

Eight Burlington County districts would qualify for additional aid under the proposed legislation: Bordentown Regional ($474,710); Burlington Township ($727,664); Chesterfield ($139,555); Delran ($567,186); Edgewater Park ($324,920); Maple Shade ($717,098); Medford Lakes ($99,762); New Hanover ($43,342); North Hanover ($346,690); Northern Burlington County Regional ($387,091) and Riverside ($406,150).

"This is the first step in a long journey to correct this issue. During the budget hearings, we heard a lot from residents of various communities on this topic," Singleton said Friday. "The fix will require a broader conversation about the public financing of education in our state."

At issue is the amount of state aid awarded to school districts and the state's failure to distribute the money according to its 2008 funding formula, which was signed into law by Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

The formula was designed to provide districts with aid based on their enrollment, wealth and populations of impoverished and other special needs students. But the state has never had enough money to provide every district with all the aid called for under the formula.

The Department of Education would need an additional $900 million to fully fund the formula for all districts, officials have said.

In recent years, no district has lost aid and most received small increases. However, those districts that experienced large enrollment increases did not receive the additional aid they may have needed, while others continued to receive large sums of extra money, called "adjustment aid," despite losing students.

The issue is not a new one, but it received significant attention during budget hearings this year as school leaders, teachers and parents from chronically underfunded districts have demanded a more equitable distribution of available funding. Both officials and parents from Bordentown Regional, Chesterfield and Delran attended state budget hearings to draw attention to the inequities.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, and Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, have said they are writing legislation to redistribute millions of dollars in adjustment aid from school districts that have experienced enrollment losses in recent years to those that have been underfunded.

Their measure has not yet been unveiled and would not likely adjust the aid for the upcoming school year, which will begin July 1.

With that in mind, Singleton said he introduced his measure to provide extra aid to districts in the upcoming school year. Rather than readjust the existing aid awards, his bill calls for the $50 million to come from the state's property tax relief funds.

"I felt that it was important to do something in this budget cycle to demonstrate our commitment to fixing the funding inequities," Singleton said, adding that the $50 million appropriation amounts to about 0.14 percent of the total state budget.

"It would require us to shift some priorities, but the biggest priorities that I hear from taxpayers is to reduce their property taxes and support New Jersey's education system. This proposal does both," he said.

The bill calls for creating a state aid category called "supplemental under adequacy aid" for districts that are deemed underfunded because of their education spending, property valuation or enrollment increases. The districts would be ranked, and aid would be divided based on those rankings and their projected enrollment.

No district would receive more than $2 million in additional aid. The legislation is similar to a bill Singleton proposed in 2014.


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