When it comes to the nearly 200 school districts losing state aid despite the overall increase in education funding, the state Department of Education has maintained an open door — meeting with districts and lawmakers to hear their concerns about impacts on programs and taxes.

But an open wallet? That’s another story.

Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, in testimony to the Assembly Budget Committee, emphasized that 368 school districts will see an increase in aid next year, under the second step of a seven-year phase-in of changes to the funding formula that added around a half-billion dollars so far.

“That said, it is not lost on me or the department that some districts still face tough budgetary decisions,” Repollet said.

Representatives from many of those districts — superintendents, teachers, parents and students — provided a dominant voice at public hearings on the budget.

The state Department of Education can provide emergency aid to districts facing fiscal distress but doesn’t do so freely. Its first step is having county business administrators sit with districts to look at using surplus, federal funding or spending cuts.

In the current fiscal year, the first under the changing formula, 35 of 48 applications for emergency funding were turned down. The state disbursed $6.8 million in emergency aid in all, down from around $21.4 million a year earlier and $11.9 million in fiscal 2017.

“They had to demonstrate there was fiscal distress. And I think that’s the keyword we’re going to start using, fiscal distress, because it’s a difference between tightening up,” Repollet said.

“Well, I’m sure there are plenty of districts that are going to have fiscal distress,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic.

Wimberly said the Paterson school district was underfunded by $280 million between 2011 and 2018 and laid off 526 staff members. He said the district is proposing to lay off another 226 workers this year. Most of the district’s increase in state aid gets forwarded to charter schools.

“And you have everybody from every part of the state with concerns, those who have received adequate funding and those consider that they’ve been underfunded,” Wimberly said.

Repollet said the Department of Education’s goal is to help districts “better adapt to the ever-evolving fiscal and demographic realities.” He knows there have been discussions about further changes but said that the NJDOE is going to follow the formula as written.

“Because the formula is the law,” Repollet said.

Wimberly specifically questioned a $30 million increase in state aid to Lakewood – an extra $6.1 million in additional transportation aid, $8.9 million in additional special education categorical aid and $15 million in a new aid category, provisional stabilization aid, for which no other school district qualifies.

Wimberly said there has to be a fairer way, given that larger districts in need aren’t seeing similar increases.

“And you look at the same issues when it comes to special needs students, when you talk about transportation. It’s just concerning.”

Repollet said Lakewood is a unique situation that has been in fiscal distress for years, enrolling around 6,000 students in its public schools but having 34,000 to 35,000 nonpublic school students.

“Just to be clear, there is no other district in the country that has an imbalance of students in district versus nonpublic districts,” Repollet said.

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