When the Fort Lee Board of Education passed a resolution on Monday, Sept. 26, supporting “fair distribution of state aid for education,” the board joined the Tenafly School District in supporting a plan District 37 Republican General Assembly candidates Keith Jensen of Fort Lee and John Aslanian of Englewood Cliffs have staunchly advocated for and made one of the major issues of their campaign for state office.
Although the Fort Lee BOE’s resolution does not mention the “Fair School Funding” plan by name, the wording of the resolution is much the same as that of legislation authored by State Sen. Michael Doherty, (R-23) that would “provide an equal amount of school aid for every student in New Jersey, regardless of where they reside,” essentially equalizing school funding across the state based on New Jersey’s current progressive tax system by distributing aid on a per student basis of about $7,400 per pupil.
85 percent of New Jersey school districts would receive an increase in state aid under the Fair School Funding plan, Jensen and Aslanian say, with about $163 million going to the 13 District 37 towns they are seeking to represent.
Under the plan, Fort Lee’s state aid, for example, would increase by about $26 million, while towns like Teaneck and Englewood would see increases of about $27 million and $14 million respectively, Jensen and Aslanian estimate.
“By having the Fort Lee School board execute what they have done and what Tenafly had also endorsed is an absolute success,” Jensen told Patch. “If I end up in office and support the FSF Bill as written, it will reduce our property taxes by a third, and there is presently no other Bill that can cut property taxes like this.”
The additional money, the two candidates say, could be used to cut property taxes, support more programs in schools or both.
“This is strictly a tax dollar issue,” Jensen said. “This is the only—the only—bill in the Legislature that truly addresses lowering property taxes. There’s nothing out there that does this.”
And that, Jensen said, is something he would like to see other boards of education, state legislators and citizens support, “especially in this economy.”
“And the way it’s doing it is not by taking money from poor children,” Jensen said. “It’s not by saying we’re going to destroy the Abbott school ruling because they’re not in need of it. But it’s by addressing the formulas by which they fund the schools across the state. That formula is wrought with fraud and manipulation.”
Jensen identifies several notable examples of such “fraud and manipulation” on the website he created dedicated to Fair School Funding, “School Funding Exposed.”
“The school funding formula is an indecipherable bureaucratic mess that invites litigation,” Aslanian said in a statement. “Money is getting eaten up in drawn out lawsuits as districts fight for more state aid. In the long run, none of this is helping the children.”
In a recent presentation to the Fort Lee Mayor and Council—Jensen requested to make a similar presentation to the Fort Lee Board of Education, but instead emailed board members details with a promise to answer any questions they might have—Jensen compared Fort Lee’s income tax and state aid for schools to that of Asbury Park, a comparison that revealed some eye-popping statistics.
For example, Fort Lee pays four times more into the Income Tax Fund, according to Jensen, but each Asbury Park student receives 60 times more in state school aid—Fort Lee gets $1,517,602 in total state school aid, or $411 per student, compared to Asbury Park’s $57,632,816 total, or $24,885 per student.
But Asbury Park is one of 31 school districts in the state currently identified as Abbott districts, based on a 1985 ruling intended to level the playing field for students in New Jersey’s poorest communities.
Aslanian says he recognizes that some urban areas have social problems that may not exist in suburban towns, but he also believes trying to solve those problems through "massive infusions" of school aid is not working.
“Each year we see millions of taxpayer dollars frittered away in the Abbott Districts by top-heavy administrations, lofty salaries for bureaucrats, wasteful spending, and in some cases, outright fraud,” Aslanian said.
Jensen acknowledged in an article on the website, Save Jersey, that Fair School Funding could result in a reduction in funding to some Abbott districts, but “points to a lack of accountability for some of these problems, and is concerned that the money ‘Is not getting down to the kids,’” according to the article.
“I’m sure they were [in need],” Jensen told Patch, referring to the Abbott ruling identifying the 31 towns. “But I’m sure there were some that were sad they didn’t qualify, and since then, it’s the same 31 towns. I mean, Hoboken is still one of the Abbott districts, and Edison is not. But keeping it home in District 37, we all know about the problem we have with our own overcrowding. We could use some money. We may not qualify as being ‘poor,’ but there could be a very strong argument for Englewood, Teaneck or Hackensack to qualify as an Abbott school. But the present guys who represent them say, ‘No; the money should go down to Newark because they need it more than us.’”
Jensen and Aslanian are challenging the District 37 Democratic incumbents Gordon M. Johnson and Valerie Vainieri Huttle in November’s general election.
Jensen said that due to a “Democratically controlled” state Legislature and the fact that the bill is “not getting a lot of strong support from the Republican side,” the bill has sat “stagnant.”
“It won’t even be heard on the floor because there’s not enough people voicing out that they want it to be heard,” Jensen said. “Whether the people like the bill or not, it addresses property taxes. It addresses corruption in New Jersey education systems. Those two things go hand-in-hand.”
Jensen urges people who want to get a better of idea of “what’s really going on” to see the movie, The Cartel, a clip of which is available on his School Funding Exposed website.
“[The Cartel] points out how not only is New Jersey the most expensive school district in the country, but it could be in the world,” Jensen said.
As for Fort Lee’s passage of a resolution supporting “fair distribution of state aid for education,” Jensen said it shows the school board “identified that there is a problem, and that they want it to be addressed.”
“It’s what I was hoping for,” he said. “But what I won’t know is how much they get behind it.”
He explained that he wants the board not only to send a copy of the resolution to Gov. Chris Christie, a stipulation that’s included in the resolution, but to state legislators and other boards of education. He would also like to see the Fort Lee Mayor and Council pass a similar resolution.
“At least tell them that there’s a problem, and they need to address it,” Jensen said. “Because right now, they’re not even looking at it. I’m happy [the Fort Lee BOE] passed it. Now I want them to run with it. If they don’t run with it, it won’t go anywhere.”
Below is a look at what other District 37 and selected Bergen County school districts are estimated to receive in additional school aid, according to Jensen and Aslanian, if the Fair School Funding bill is passed:
Alpine: $1.6 million
Bogota: $4 million
Cresskill: $12 million
Englewood Cliffs: $3 million
Hackensack: $25 million
Leonia: $8 million
Northvale: $4 million
Palisades Park: $11 million
Tenafly: $27 million
Other Bergen County Towns
Fair Lawn: $33 million
Franklin Lakes: $10 million
Glen Rock: $18 million
Hasbrouck Heights: $12 million
Mahwah: $24 million
New Milford: $15 million
Oradell: $6 million
Paramus: $30 million
Ridgewood: $43 million
Westwood: $20 million
Wyckoff: $16.7 million