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N.J. Officials Agree on School Funds, Delay Equity Debate Until November

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New Jersey lawmakers have settled on a compromise to fund public schools until after the state's legislative and gubernatorial elections in November.

Gov. James J. Florio, who helped work out the agreement, was expected to sign the law.

"This was the compromise we brokered with them; this was the compromise we sought,'' said Jo Gladding, Mr. Florio's spokeswoman.

The bill passed by the legislature last month marks the first step toward replacing the controversial Quality Education Act. Designed to bring poor urban districts up to financial par with their wealthier suburban counterparts, as mandated by the state supreme court, the school-finance law and the tax increases that funded it provoked an electoral backlash that cost Democrats control of both legislative chambers in the 1991 elections.

While the agreement resolves the level of funding for the 1993-94 school year, a bipartisan commission will be created to address future funding.

Made up of six legislative appointees, six gubernatorial appointees, and three representatives from the New Jersey Associations for Public Schools, the panel is to submit its recommendations Nov. 15--two weeks after voters go to the polls.

"I guess everyone wanted to resolve the problem and not make it a political issue,'' said Assemblyman John A. Rocco, the Republican chairman of the House education committee. "Politicizing schools is not healthy for anyone.''

Under the accord hammered out by the Democratic Governor, Republican legislators, and a coalition of education groups, public schools will get a $292 million boost in state aid for the 1993-94 school year.

The state's 30 poor urban systems, known as special-needs districts, will receive $165 million of the new money. Although the total amount is slightly more than what the special-needs districts would have received through the Q.E.A., $50 million of it is earmarked for capital improvements.

The new one-year accord also provides a $46 million increase for middle-income districts and refrains from cutting back on state aid to the wealthiest districts.

The agreement also overturns a controversial section of the Q.E.A. by making the state responsible for the employer's contribution to the teacher-pension fund. To the outrage of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, the earlier law had called for a shift of pension costs to the districts.

A Compromise For All

Although members of the Democratic leadership voted in favor of the bill, they noted that the funding package for 1993-94 does not satisfy the supreme court's mandate to equalize spending among districts.

Sen. John A. Lynch, the Senate minority leader, said he hoped the newly created commission would address the inequity.

"I believe this plan is flawed as were other funding plans,'' Mr. Lynch said, "but its advantages outweigh its shortcomings.''

Nor did the chairmen of the Senate and General Assembly education committees, who had held a series of hearings before writing their legislation, get all that they wanted.

"A compromise is a compromise,'' said Mr. Rocco."I guess no one is happy ultimately. The most important thing we thought we could do was [stop the] further deterioration of good middle-income districts.''

Mr. Rocco said the education committees' bill also would have made full-day kindergarten mandatory in the special-needs districts, which maintain they do not have the space. The compromise bill suggests that districts use their share of the capital-improvement money for facilities to accommodate full-day kindergartens.

Education groups lauded the temporary measure and the willingness of all the parties to work together. "People were very magnanimous on all sides,'' said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "I think they are tired of fighting over state aid. They want a permanent solution.''

What the education groups found particularly appealing is that for the first time in years districts will know well in advance how much state aid to expect.

Assemblyman Rocco said state revenues are likely to fall short of what is needed to pay for the additional aid, but not so short that a tax hike will be needed.

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