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New Jersey Supreme Court Orders Some School Funds Restored

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered Governor Chris Christie to increase aid to the state’s poorest school districts by $500 million next fiscal year, while saying it couldn’t order the $1.6 billion advocates wanted.

The court ruled 3-2 that current spending levels violated the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, which lays out a formula to support the districts. Christie, a first-term Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to honor their constitutional obligations to adequately fund the 31 poorest school systems, known as Abbott districts, the court said.

“Their right to full funding is a constitutional mandate,” the Trenton-based court ruled. “Schoolchildren from the Abbott districts cannot be deprived of the full SFRA funding.”

The majority, citing the Office of Legislative Services, estimated that it would cost $500 million to fully fund the poorest districts in the budget that starts in July. The Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocate for the poorest districts, asked the Supreme Court to restore $1.6 billion to all school districts statewide.

Separation of Powers

Christie, 48, said he would follow the court’s order, which he called bad education and fiscal policy. The decision oversteps the separation of powers and usurps the authority of the governor and Legislature to set spending levels, he said.

“I’ve gotta comply with what the court ordered because I have a constitutional obligation to do so,” Christie said today at a news conference in Trenton. “The ball is now fully in the Legislature’s court.”

The $500 million is about how much more tax revenue Christie’s treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, said last week the state would have through June 2012 than he predicted in February. The treasurer attributed the windfall to rising income-tax collections, and said it should be used to increase property-tax rebates and the state’s pension contribution.

Christie had previously said that the education cuts were needed to balance the budget and that the court should let him resolve the question with the Legislature. He warned of “unthinkable” reductions in other state programs if the court ruled against him.

July 1 Deadline

The governor, who cut $1.3 billion of school aid since taking office in January 2010, said the decision leaves lawmakers with just over a month to reconcile the budget and pass a balanced plan by a July 1 constitutional deadline.

Giving more money to the Abbott districts won’t improve them, Christie said. The governor is pushing to change teacher tenure, link pay to performance and make it easier to fire educators deemed ineffective.

“This will just be another $500 million in taxpayer money that will be thrown at the Abbott districts and still, ninth-graders in Newark still have a 23 percent chance of graduating - - whether we spend another $500 million or not,” Christie said.

The court, which previously upheld the constitutionality of the 2008 funding formula, ruled that it wouldn’t order a restoration of spending in the current budget year. Had the SFRA been fully funded, districts would have received $8.45 billion in school funding in the current budget instead of the $6.85 billion allocated, according to the ruling.

‘Conscious and Calculated’

“The state made a conscious and calculated decision to underfund the SFRA formula when enacting” the current budget, the majority ruled. “It was not inadvertent or a mistaken exercise of governmental authority. It directly contravened representations made by the state when procuring relief from prior judicial remedial orders.”

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, a Republican appointee, wrote the majority opinion. She was joined by Judge Edwin Stern, a lower-court judge sitting temporarily. Justice Barry Albin, a Democrat, wrote a separate, concurring opinion. Justice Robert Rivera-Soto, a Republican who plans to retire in September, dissented, as did Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a Democrat who worked in former Governor Jon Corzine’s administration when the 2008 school-aid formula was developed, and Justice Virginia Long, a Republican, didn’t participate in the vote.

‘Same Disadvantages’

Albin, in his separate opinion, said he would order funding for all 205 school districts that weren’t receiving enough money to provide a “thorough and efficient education.” Those districts “were constitutionally shortchanged” by a total of $972.9 million for fiscal 2011, Albin wrote.

“The at-risk children in the 187 underfunded non-Abbott districts suffer from the same disadvantages of poverty as the children in the former Abbott districts,” Albin wrote. “I will not deny the remedy of a constitutionally adequate education to at-risk children in 31 districts because I believe the same remedy should be provided to at-risk children in 187 other districts.”

Suburban Districts

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, said the state’s higher-than-projected tax revenue should be used to increase aid to all 205 underfunded districts in light of the decision.

“The governor, who as a candidate promised no school cuts, was well aware that his draconian cuts to education were illegal,” Sweeney said in a statement. “The governor has learned that his actions have consequences. Adequate funding and quality education are not urban-versus-rural or suburban issues. Education is a New Jersey issue.”

The litigation, in a case known as Abbott v. Burke, has vexed governors and lawmakers for three decades.

During arguments to the court, Christie’s lawyer, Peter Verniero, said that ordering funding restored would violate the state’s constitutional obligation to balance the budget.

`Thorough and Efficient'

Education Law Center attorney David G. Sciarra had argued that failing to restore the funding would violate the constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” A state court judge studied the issue and reached the same conclusion in March, saying the next step was up to the Supreme Court.

Sciarra didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Christie as far back as his 2009 campaign accused the seven-member high court of “legislating from the bench” and forcing governors and lawmakers to raise spending to comply with its decisions. Last year, he angered Democrats with a decision to replace Justice John Wallace, the only black and the first sitting justice to be denied tenure since the current state Constitution was adopted in 1947.

Court Truce

That move prompted Sweeney to block Christie’s nominee, Anne Murray Patterson, and led Rabner to name Stern as a temporary replacement for Wallace. Christie and Sweeney ended their impasse earlier this month, agreeing to have Patterson considered for Rivera-Soto’s vacancy instead of Wallace’s.

Christie, 48, has become a national Republican star after battling government unions and slashing spending to close a $10.7 billion deficit without raising taxes. At home, his disapproval rating rose in the past three months.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind from May 16-22 disapproved of his performance as governor, compared with 41 percent in an April survey, the school said. It was Christie’s biggest disapproval rating since he took office.

The case is Abbott v. Burke, M-1293, New Jersey Supreme Court (Trenton).

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