N.J. SC orders $500M to poor school districts

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 25, 2011


TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a ruling Tuesday, said $500 million in additional funds should go to the state's poorest school districts next year under the state School Funding Reform Act.

However, the Court's 3-2 ruling in the long-running Abbott v. Burke case did not include funding for all school districts statewide. According to the Star-Ledger, full funding would have cost $1.7 billion.

Two years ago, the State asked the Court to be relieved of the orders that required parity funding and supplemental funding for children in the so-called "Abbott districts" in exchange for providing funding to those districts in accordance with SFRA.

The State persuaded the Court to give it the benefit of the doubt that SFRA would work as promised and would provide adequate resources for the provision of educational services sufficient to enable pupils to master the Core Curriculum Content Standards.

The Court granted the State relief from those remedial orders that bound it to the parity remedy for the pupils from the Abbott districts, and authorized the State to implement in Abbott districts SFRA's level of funding.

The exchange of remedial orders correcting constitutional deprivations for the State's alternative -- SFRA funding -- did not alter the constitutional underpinnings of the replacement relief. The Court's grant of relief came with the express caveats of required full funding and the mandatory retooling of SFRA's formulaic parts at designated mileposts in the formula's implementation.

When the Court granted the State the relief it requested, it was not asked to allow and did not authorize the State to replace the parity remedy with some version of SFRA or an underfunded version of the formula.

"In respect of the failure to provide full funding under SFRA's formula to Abbott districts, the State's action amounts to nothing less than a reneging on the representations it made when it was allowed to exchange SFRA funding for the parity remedy. Thus, the State has breached the very premise underlying the grant of relief it secured with Abbott XX," the Court wrote.

However, the State argued that the Court must defer to the Legislature because the legislative authority over appropriations is plenary pursuant to the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution.

"Although it is true that past decisions of this Court have recognized the Legislature's authority to work a modification of other statutes through the adoption of an annual appropriations act, a different question is presented here," the Court wrote.

"The State seeks, through the legislative power over appropriations, to diminish the Abbott districts' pupils' right to funding required for their receipt of a thorough and efficient education after representing to this Court that it would not do so in order to achieve a release from the parity remedy requirement. In such circumstances, the State may not use the appropriations power as a shield to its responsibilities."

The Court further ordered that whether or not the formula is fully funded on a statewide basis, the State "nevertheless must undertake a look-back analysis that is meaningful and relevant for the Abbott districts so that SFRA continues to operate optimally and as intended in future years for pupils in those districts."

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia authored the Court's 59-page majority opinion.

Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto filed a separate, dissenting opinion. He said three votes to grant relief are insufficient because a minimum of four votes is required to grant a substantive motion and that, on jurisprudential grounds, such relief should not be granted on a 3-2 vote.

Justice Helen E. Hoens also filed a separate, dissenting opinion, saying the plaintiffs' motion must be denied for three reasons: 1) the evidence in the record is insufficient to meet the high standard required for the extraordinary relief of an order in aid of litigant's rights; 2) there is insufficient support for the Special Master's findings that less than full funding of the SFRA formula prevented school districts from delivering a constitutionally adequate education; and 3) the relief demanded of the Court treads on the constitutional prerogatives of the Legislature and the executive branch.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Virginia Long did not participate in the decision.

Former state Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General Peter Verniero had argued on behalf of the defendants, Fred G. Burke, commissioner of education; Edward G. Hofgesang, director of budget and accounting; Clifford A. Goldman, state treasurer; and the state Board of Education.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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