N.J. Panel Fails To Back Any Funding Option

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A New Jersey panel that has been working over the past year to draft a consensus school-finance program outside of partisan political channels found itself last week once again unable to produce much besides gridlock.

The Education Funding Review Commission, appointed by former Gov. James J. Florio, scheduled a meeting for next week after being unable to agree on any new option at what was supposed to have been its final meeting.

The 15-member panel voted down all three funding plans that were before it.

The group's work reflects the complexity and political contentiousness of school finance in New Jersey, where the issue has long preoccupied state lawmakers and judges.

Commission members last week pledged to abide by the most recent court ruling, which calls for greater state funding for the state's 30 poorest school districts.

"Where it all breaks down is what to do with the others,'' explained Margaret Goertz, the commission's vice chairwoman and a professor and senior research fellow at Rutgers University.

Three Plans Rejected

The panel, which came close to turning the issue over to the legislature without any resolution, will try at least once more.

Originally charged with issuing a report by last November, the commission now has gone well past the point when its work could help lawmakers during this legislative session.

The commission's troubles mirror New Jersey's own experience over the past two decades. Since 1990, when the state supreme court rejected the existing school-funding system, lawmakers have passed two major finance plans, the latest of which was rejected by a state superior-court judge last fall. The case is now before the supreme court.

Consideration of the three plans before the commission last week underscored problems posed by the issues of cost and equalization between rich and poor schools.

One plan, which is backed by the state's largest education organizations, aims for lower property taxes and higher foundation funding. It would set per-pupil funding at the average amount spent by the state's wealthiest districts, currently $7,883. The figure is about $1,000 above the current state average.

The proposal would require 70 percent of school costs to be paid by the state, with property-tax relief reducing the local tax burden. Officials estimate the scheme would cost an extra $2.8 billion in its first year.

A lower-cost plan, proposed by the commission's chairman, Albert Burstein, would set lower foundation funding but seek to close the disparities between wealthy and other districts. He estimated the plan's first-year cost at $780 million.

A compromise plan, offered by Ms. Goertz, would raise funding in the state's poorest districts to the $7,883 level proposed by the first plan, while setting funding for other districts at a slightly lower level. It would cost an extra $1.2 billion.

By the meeting's end, however, all of the plans had been voted down. The most popular idea among commission members appeared to be a considerably more radical proposal to require the state to pay all of the costs of local districts.

As deliberations over school finance continued, education officials learned last month that fewer than 100 of the state's 600 districts will receive an increase in state funding next year.

Aid Cuts Announced

Moreover, the state notified more than half of the districts that they will see funding cuts for the 1994-95 school year.

While the news led to expected complaints from many local school administrators, state officials argued that schools had fared relatively well given the state's overall budget situation.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who was elected last fall on a pledge to cut taxes and reduce government spending, called for level funding of schools in her budget request.

School officials said the aid cuts will make it difficult for many local schools to meet the obligations of increasing teacher contracts and higher costs, which will probably lead to boosts in property taxes and yet more grumbling over the state's school-finance system.

For members of the finance commission, experience has shown that their task only grows harder.

"It's basically back to the drawing board, and I don't know where we can begin to build consensus,'' Ms. Goertz said. "There is a split on how much people think we need to spend to have a thorough and efficient education.''

"I don't think the members of the commission want a deadlock,'' she added. "At the end of the meeting, nobody said they wouldn't come back. I guess that's good news.''

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