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State-Aid Cuts Would Be 'Disaster,' N.J. Educators Say

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Fiscal steps proposed by Gov. James J. Florio to ease New Jersey's projected $600-million budget shortfall will lead to severe cuts in state school aid that could be "nothing short of disaster" for school districts, educators there warned last week.

In his $12.1-billion budget proposal, Governor Florio sought a total of $3.7 billion for K-12 education in fiscal 1991. Although that amount represents a $71-million increase over the current year, it would provide only 84 percent of the full-funding amount under the current formula for state-aid distribution.

James P. Connerton, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said "disaster is not too strong a word" for school districts that will experience cuts in state aid far beyond what they had anticipated.

Many districts have based their spending plans, he said, on the expectation that they would receive about 90 percent or more of their full-funding amount, as they have in recent years.

The njea is hoping to convince the Governor, who also has called for substantial increases in state income and sales taxes, to ask the legislature to put those hikes into effect sooner to help districts particularly hurt by the proposal, Mr. Connerton added.

Two such school districts--East Windsor Regional and Mattawan-Aberdeen--last month filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposed 1991 state-aid distribution.

The suit contends that the lower level of state aid will result in an "intolerable" burden on local taxpayers.

The state appellate court last week denied the districts' request for emergency relief, while at the same time also denying the state's request to dismiss the suit.

The ruling left the issue open pending the result of a separate lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, challenging the constitutionality of the state funding formula on broader grounds. A decision by the state supreme court in that case is expected at any time.

Edgar C. Thomas Jr., chief school administrator for East Windsor, said the district will seek an emergency hearing before the state supreme court.

The lawsuit, he asserted, is not related to the Abbott case, in that the districts are seeking relief for their particular budget problems.

State aid for the East Windsor district in 1991 would be reduced by $1.5 million below its current amount under the Governor's plan, Mr. Thomas noted.

The two districts' lawsuit--which is the first to challenge state aid for a specific year--is seeking relief from the state to ease the burden on local taxpayers. But even with state relief, Mr. Thomas said, his and most other districts across the state will be forced to seek a significant increase in local property taxes.

"Under the current formula, the burden of education will fall the heaviest on the property-poor districts, and that's just unfair--for schools or taxpayers," he contended.

Thomas B. Corchoran, the Governor's education adviser, said Mr. Florio had no alternative but to cut state aid this year.

Although the Governor is "sympathetic," because the administration of Gov. Thomas H. Kean did not deal with the deficit when it became known to budget officials last year, Mr. Corchoran said, schools must face the same "difficult choices" as other state agencies.

The state will not be able to offer more money to education without the tax increases, Mr. Corchoran contended, adding that they would not have been possible before this month, when local districts must plan their budgets in time for school-board elections to be held April 24.

In his budget address to the legislature last month, Governor Florio also said he will revamp the state-aid distribution formula by establishing a "foundation level" of state support for each district.

Education groups have hailed Mr. Florio's plans to seek changes in the funding formula. But they have urged him not to ignore the effects of proposed cuts this year.

Mr. Connerton of the njea said the association wants the proposed increases in sales and income taxes to take effect in September of this year, rather than January 1991, with the extra four months of revenue earmarked for the schools.

But Mr. Corchoran noted that revenue would still not be raised in time to offset cuts this year.

The concern over state aid, however, has softened the blow of budget cuts in other areas of education.

Mr. Florio has proposed eliminating some of the hallmark programs of his predecessor, Mr. Kean.

Missing from the Florio budget request is $400,000 for a demonstration project that would have allowed parents in four districts to choose which schools their children attend.

Mr. Florio also cut $150,000 for the state "report card" program, $269,000 for development of core-course proficiencies in certain subject areas, and a $75,000 alternative-school project.

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said that, although the group supported many of Mr. Kean's programs, "in such a tight budget year, we can't really protest."

He acknowledged that Mr. Kean had helped bring New Jersey a national reputation as an "education state," but did so at great cost, leaving Mr. Florio with the current school-funding difficulties.

Mr. Connerton pointed out that it was Governor Kean's education proposals that "helped create the fiscal problem we have now."

"Why should we exacerbate it?" by demanding that the new Governor follow suit, he asked.

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