About a dozen people turned up Wednesday at for an afternoon public hearing hosted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s seven-member Education Funding Task Force, which was seeking public input as it reviews the state’s school funding formula.
The task force, which was established by executive order in March, was charged with evaluating the use of the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program as a measure for “at-risk” students, exploring the viability of alternative measures and providing recommendations to address aspects of the school funding formula that are susceptible to fraud and abuse, according to state education officials.
The task force was specifically directed to consider “economically effective” measures of student poverty, “educationally sound” measures of defining at-risk students, identifying areas of the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) that are susceptible to fraud, abuse or “outside manipulation” and making recommendations to Christie to address those abuses.
In early April, now Fort Lee Superintendent of Schools Steven Engravalle was among representatives from the public and private sectors , but he was unable to attend Wednesday’s hearing.
Secretary of Higher Education and former Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks, who chairs the task force, was joined Wednesday by two other members, Stern & Kilcullen partner John P. Inglesino and St. Benedict’s Prep Headmaster and Essex County Vocational and Technical Schools Board president Rev. Edwin D. Leahy.
Hendricks acknowledged Engravalle’s “contribution to the task force and his graciousness in making this facility available.”
Speakers, who were asked to submit their comments in writing as well, were limited to three minutes, and Hendricks said members of the task force would not respond or make any remarks.
“But I want to assure you that we will listen attentively,” Hendricks said. “We will review whatever comments you have; we will certainly share them with the absentee members of the task force. Everything will be given full and careful consideration.”
Only three members of the public actually got up to speak at the hearing, although several others said they had or would submit comments by email or regular mail.
Fort Lee resident David Sarnoff addressed the way the hearing was publicized, saying he only found out about it because an email had been forwarded to him.
“If you really, truly want to encourage broad public support at these meetings and input, it was very difficult to find out that this meeting existed until very shortly before it occurred,” Sarnoff said. “If there could just be more of a lead up in local media or through school district email systems, I think you would have much greater and substantive turnout.”
Teaneck resident Sarah Rappoport, a member of Save our Schools NJ, which she described as “a bipartisan grassroots organization,” did know about the meeting and came with prepared comments.
Rappoport called the “supposed significant abuse” of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program “a myth, perpetuated for political reasons, in order to undermine school funding for children living in poverty.”
She said an audit that found that 37 percent of program recipients were ineligible was inaccurate because the “majority of people who were found to be ineligible” were actually those who, for various reasons, did not respond to a letter requesting additional documents.
“So the 37 percent we have all heard so much about, which supposedly represents cheating in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, is really 28 percent,” Rappoport concluded. “And even that 28 percent actually consists of a tiny sample of a very small group of families right on the edge of qualifying for the program, who mostly failed to send back the necessary forms.”
Offering another perspective was Fort Lee resident and former state Assembly candidate Keith Jensen, who noted that his primary focus during his campaign was the Fair School Funding Plan.
“Not a lot of people really understand that [about] 60 percent of your taxes go toward education, and of that only 20 percent stays locally,” Jensen said. “The rest of it is sent to Trenton and dispersed as they see fit, primarily to those towns and municipalities that are Abbott Districts.”
Jensen, who was successful in getting the Fort Lee Board of Education supporting “fair distribution of state aid for education” in October but has thus far been unable to persuade the Fort Lee Mayor and Council to follow suit, said that under SFRA, a “typical” school district would get slightly more than $5,000 per student “if you designate them as needing free and reduced lunch.”
“There’s an incentive for educators or administrators to qualify students to be at risk,” said Jensen, who told Patch after the meeting that he would continue to push the borough’s governing body to pass a resolution supporting Fair School Funding.
“This is nothing more than a resolution that says we don’t agree,” he said. “The lion’s share of taxes goes towards schools, but not the schools in town.”
Wednesday’s public hearing was the first of just two the Education Funding Task Force will hold in the state. A second hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 3 p.m. in Civic Hall on the Camden Community College Blackwood Campus in Blackwood, NJ.
Comments can also be submitted via email or by regular mail to the following address:
Education Transformation Task Force, c/o Department of Education, 100 Riverview Plaza, PO Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625.