The Union City Board of Education receives more funding from the state than all of Sussex County, highlighting the feast or famine nature of school funding in New Jersey. Is it fair?
According to figures from the state Department of Education, the UC BOE will receive $181,132,094 in state aid for 13,761 students for the 2017-2018 scholastic year.
In comparison, all of Sussex County, which consists of 25 municipalities, will get $110,596,714 from the NJ DOE for 21,638 students for the current scholastic year.
Furthermore, there are currently 10 school districts in New Jersey, ranging from Bergen to Gloucester Counties, that have filed or are in the process of filing litigation against the state DOE in order to force more balanced school funding.
Those 10 public school districts receive just $55,593,978 for a combined student population of 19,684.
All of that doesn’t sit well with Joe Blaettler, a former Union City deputy chief of police who is state Senator (D-33)/Union City Mayor Brian Stack’s most definitive adversary, who sat down with Hudson County View to go over the figures earlier this month.
“The taxpayers of New Jersey gave Union City $181 million for education. Now you’ve got to keep in mind: Union City is one-square mile, it’s a one-square mile municipality in the State of New Jersey,” Blaettler began.
” … When you look at the 10 districts [filing suit], even though they have 6,000 more students, they’re receiving $125 million less [than UC BOE] in state funding. I then looked at the entire County of Sussex. This is one county out of 21. They have almost 8,000 students and they receive $70 million less than Union City.”
Blaettler was quick to lay the blame at Stack’s feet, citing his influence as a state Senator: he is the vice chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and is also the chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee.
” … To me, this is too much power in the hands of one person and I believe, because of Brian Stack, he’s able to use his power in Trenton to divert extra money into [the] Union City district at the expense of state taxpayers.”
However, Jeff Bennett, a former South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education Trustee who runs a popular NJ Educational Aid blog, largely shied away from the political elements of the complicated issue during a phone interview with HCV and tried to put everything into perspective.
“If I was talking to someone, who was upset with New Jersey’s overall high property taxes, I’d agree with someone like Joe Blaettler: 60 percent of state operating aid goes to the Abbott Districts. Abbotts get 100% state funding for construction, non-Abbotts are lucky to get 30 percent,” he explained.
“From that perspective, I would agree, but the electorate has empowered the Democrats in New Jersey for 20 years. The Republicans would have to win some significant state elections to change that.”
The UC BOE is slightly underfunded according to School Funding Reform Act standards, currently at 81.6 percent (the state average is about 86 percent).
With that said, Bennett notes that their fair share, the amount in school taxes the SFRA says a district is capable of paying, is $49.5 million vs. a $15.4 million budgeted levy – the tax levy set by the local BOE – a more significant percentage gap than in Jersey City.
Furthermore, if state Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) school funding plan, which would phase out adjustment aid – which ensures every district receives at least the same amount of aid it did before the SFRA was enact in 2008 – and force local payment in lieu of taxes agreements to contribute a percentage to their public schools.
If enacted, UC BOE would likely receive more state funding.
In June, Sweeney and then-Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto reached a $171 million deal on school funding: adding an extra $100 million to K-12 funding, $25 million to expand pre-K programs and reallocating $46 million in pre-existing funding to the state’s neediest districts (h/t NJ Advance Media).
The money allocated for pre-existing funding was ultimately scaled down to $31 million.
Sweeney, who supports the lawsuits to alter state aid, is considered a close political ally of Stack.
Independent of state funding, Blaettler also questioned shared service agreements between the City of Union City and their BOE, particularly the school district paying the city nearly $1.6 million for crossing guards and just over half a million dollars for special police officers.
Blaettler, now the president of East Coast Private Investigations, also declined to say if he was researching this topic on his own or if a client had hired him to do so.
A spokesman for the UC BOE did not return an inquiry seeking comment.
In the event that Sweeney’s school funding plan is fully realized, not everyone would be as fortunate as Union City.
Neighboring Jersey City, where the Heights and Downtown are part of Stack’s Senate district, would see a drastic decrease.
Bennett says this is a necessity if the state is ever going to take balanced school funding seriously.
“Jersey City has a moral obligation to pay, according to its wealth, a fair share to educate its children. Jersey City has to carry the same obligation that other towns in New Jersey shoulder,” he added.
When the most recent state budget was approved in July, Jersey City Public Schools lost approximately $8.4 million in state funding, while Union City’s school district gained roughly $2.1 million.
A spokesman from the NJ DOE did not return an email seeking comment.