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3-11-15 Education in the News

The Record - Gov. Christie's budget getting scrutiny at public hearing

MARCH 10, 2015, 11:32 AM    LAST UPDATED: TUESDAY, MARCH 10, 2015, 4:57 PM


There were small requests — $1.4 million for domestic violence programs and $11 million for housing for the developmentally disabled — and larger ticket items like restoring $148 million in aid to hospitals and much more to extend the Hudson/Bergen Light Rail into Bergen County.

For three hours Tuesday members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee heard from more than 30 residents, organizations, unions and elected officials about the implications of Governor Christie’s proposed $33.8 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year. It was the first of five public hearings behing held by Senate and Assembly committees as they consider the governor’s proposal.

Almost everyone who testified during the hearing at Bergen Community College in Paramus came seeking additional state funding. One resident, George Rath of Tenafly, came to advocate for increasing the state’s gas tax to fund needed transportation infrastructure projects. Several people as well as representatives from the New Jersey Education Association asked senators to look into the financial implications of new state standardized tests on state and local school budgets.

Most of the testimony focused on helping some of the state’s most fragile residents – the developmentally disabled, people battling addiction and the poor.

“We urge you to remember the state budget is more than a fiscal plan,” said Sister Patricia Codey, president of Catholic Health Care Partnerships of New Jersey. “It reflects our values as a society and we urge you not to neglect the needs of the least among us.”

Codey was one of a few health care representatives who urged the committee to reconsider Christie’s plan to cut $148 million in charity care aid for hospitals who treat the uninsured. Christie’s administration has said less aid is needed because more New Jerseyans have enrolled in insurance and note the budget includes a $45 million increase in doctor reimbursements through the state’s Medicaid program, New Jersey FamilyCare.

Earl Lipphardt, senior director of Integrity Inc., was surrounded by 30 clients undergoing treatment for substance abuse.

Lipphardt, whose program is based in Newark, urged the state to consider funding transitional housing for people who just completed treatment programs. He said Integrity received a grant in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy that has funded 48 recovery housing slots, but that money is about to run out. Lipphardt said the slots have served as an “experiment” proving people are more easily able to become productive members of society with the proper support.

“The clients who are with me today are not going to have those opportunities and they’re going to go back to being couch homeless,” he said. “Their cycle of addiction is going to be infinitely harder to break.”

Several lawmakers on the panel said they would try to help, noting that Christie has made combating addiction a priority.

“The faces that we’re looking at really are the faces of the budget,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, chairman of the committee. “Government has an obligation to look after some of our most vulnerable folks in society.”

There was also testimony from several providers of services for the developmentally disabled as well as relatives of people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Robert Hage, board president of The Arc of New Jersey, said the state isn’t doing enough to address the growing number of people – like his daughter – who have developmental disabilities and are waiting for housing. There are more than 7,000 people on that list and 3,600 who are considered priorities because they’re facing imminent peril or at risk of becoming homeless, he said. The Arc of New Jersey requested an additional $11 million be added to the budget to take 330 more people off the waiting lists.

“I am contacted by parents who are in their 70s and 80s who are waiting for their child to reach the top of the waiting list,” he said. “Those families don’t want to wait until it’s too late. They don’t want to become ill or unexpectedly pass away without knowing their loved one has transitioned into a safe environment.”

Email: hayes@northjersey.com

NJ Spotlight – AT FIRST PUBLIC HEARING ON BUDGET, FOCUS ON WHAT'S MISSING, WHAT'S NEEDED…Speakers present Senate panel with list of items ranging from familiar -- school funding, transportation, pension benefits -- to substance-abuse treatment and others more easily overlooked


The focus at the first public hearing on Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed $33.8 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year was as much on what’s missing from his budget as what’s in it.

Speaker after speaker during yesterday’s hearing at Bergen Community College in Paramus asked members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to consider increasing funding for their particular area of interest, whether it was school funding, substance-abuse treatment, transportation, or something else.

“The state budget is more than a fiscal plan,” said Sister Patricia Codey, president of Catholic Healthcare Partnerships of New Jersey. “It reflects our values as a society.”

Codey spoke during the hearing, which started in the morning and lasted well into the afternoon, against a $148 million cut in charity-care funding for hospitals that’s been proposed in the budget Christie put forward last month. She questioned the notion that Medicaid expansion in New Jersey is easing the reliance on the state’s aid.

“These cuts will provide additional problems for our hospitals and our state,” Codey said.

She was among the more than two dozen people who spoke during the hearing, the first in a series that will be held this month as lawmakers begin to more closely evaluate Christie’s budget proposal. The next hearing, hosted by the Assembly Budget Committee, is scheduled for today in Collingswood.

The gatherings offer lawmakers a chance to hear directly from citizens and groups that represent a particular interest in New Jersey.

“These meetings are to hear your concerns and guide us on what your additional needs may be,” explained Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) yesterday.

Questions about school funding, pensions

Among the first to testify in Paramus was Sean Spiller, treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association. He said Christie’s proposed budget holds back about $1 billion in spending for the state’s school-funding formula.

He also raised concerns about the state's public-employee pension system, which has a funding gap of between $37 billion and $83 billion. A 2011 reform law forced teachers and other public employees to contribute more for their healthcare and pensions, but Christie has gone back on another component of the reform effort, which was to increase state contributions into the pension system.

Christie’s budget includes $1.3 billion for the pension system, not the roughly $3 billion he previously committed the state to paying.

“We believe the governor should live up to the law he promoted and signed,” Spiller said.

Also raising concerns about funding was Janna Chernetz, a senior policy analyst at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. She said the $600 million in borrowed funds the state is planning to spend on transportation projects in the next fiscal year is inadequate.

Christie promised in 2011 to increase “pay-as-you-go” transportation funding in the annual state budget, but he’s been unable to do so as revenue projections have trailed his growth estimates over the past several years. His proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes no “pay-as-you-go” component, leaving only the borrowed funds.

She also said too much money from New Jersey Transit’s capital budget is being used to fund operations, which means even less investment in infrastructure. The agency is also considering its first fare hike since 2010.

“The funding structure is broken,” she said.

Support for gas-tax increase

George Rath, a resident of Tenafly, told the lawmakers the solution for transportation spending is hiking the state’s gas tax. At 14.5 cents, New Jersey has one of the lowest gas taxes in the country. And beginning July 1, all of the money that’s generated by that tax will go to paying off the state Transportation Trust Fund’s debt, with no money left over for new road, bridge, and rail projects.

Christie, a Republican, and Democratic legislative leaders have been discussing a way to replenish the fund, and a gas-tax hike remains on the table.

“I know it will take a lot of courage because it’s a hot political issue,” Rath said. “I think it will be a good thing for the citizens of New Jersey.”

But others told the lawmakers they should consider cutting taxes.

Susan Barbey, a resident of Ridgewood, urged the committee to address the state’s so-called “death taxes.” New Jersey is one of only two states that levies both an estate tax and an inheritance tax, and the two bring in a combined $750 million in revenue annually.

Barbey said lawmakers should elevate the threshold of the estate tax, which starts at $675,000, lower than any other state’s.

“This tax is clubbing the middle class to death,” Barbey said. “You all have to do something about it.”

She also said the inheritance tax is not levied against estates, but “against people.”

“This tax alone is a wakeup call to just how bad dying in New Jersey is,” Barbey said.

The state’s implementation of student PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing was also a concern voiced by several residents who spoke during the hearing, including Kim Barron of Mahwah.

The mother of a 14-year-old high school student, she questioned whether federal curriculum standards are leading teachers to focus too much on test results.

“My concern is, that means teachers’ hands are tied and they aren’t allowed to educate students according to each individual’s needs,” she said.

Susan Cauldwell, from the organization Save Our Schools NJ, said school districts are also being forced to spend money to comply with PARCC and federal Common Core mandates.

“This committee should seriously consider eliminating both,” Cauldwell said. “Doing so will not only halt the spending, but will also let teachers go back to teaching, instead of prepping students for the PARCC tests.”

But the most emotional moment of the hearing came when Earl Lipphardt, senior director of Integrity House in Newark, stepped forward with about 30 different people recovering from addiction. He said money for transitional housing for those receiving treatment that’s been provided through federal grants the state has received in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy is running out.

“What these folks are going to need is supportive housing,” Lipphardt said. “We have women who, for the first time in their lives, are living independently and safe.”

Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) said big-ticket items like the pension system and Transportation Trust Fund get much of the attention, but “these faces that we’re looking at are the faces of the budget.”

Several other lawmakers also offered encouragement to those standing behind Lipphardt after he finished testifying.

“I think we need to do whatever we can to find those dollars to help you,” said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson).

“All of us, Republicans and Democrats, are working together,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex).

The Senate panel’s next public hearing on Christie’s budget will be held on March 25 at Rowan College at Gloucester County in Sewell. In addition to today’s Assembly Budget Committee hearing at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, that panel will also hold budget hearings at Passaic County Community College in Paterson on March 18, and at the State House Annex in Trenton on March 24.

After the public hearings are finished, lawmakers will hear more details about the budget from Christie administration officials during a series of public meetings in Trenton. At the conclusion of the process, they can either adopt Christie’s budget proposal unchanged or send the governor their own budget bill, something they did last year after they could not strike a deal with Christie on the state contribution to the pension system.

Lawmakers and the governor have until July 1 -- a deadline set by the state constitution -- to adopt a new budget.


NJ Spotlight - CAMDEN TEACHER PACT RINGS TRUE – WITHOUT BELLS, WHISTLES OF EARLIER DEALS…Contract awards 2 percent pay hike and retroactive pay, while state wins more instructional time and more flexible classroom scheduling


When the state-controlled Newark school district settled its teacher contract three years ago, a press conference was held to celebrate a new and innovative aspect of the deal: It included a provision for awarding bonuses to outstanding teachers.

In another state-run district, Paterson’s new teacher contract two years later earned its own plaudits, this time for a hard-fought deal that eliminated automatic pay raises.


Newark Contract Marks High Point for Christie Education Agenda

New Pact in Paterson Gives Teachers Extra Pay Tied to Performance

Yesterday, in the newest district added to the state’s rolls, Camden and its teachers union more quietly announced a tentative contract agreement that was markedly conventional in its bargaining give-and-take: it calls for a longer and more flexible schedule for the schools, while giving district employees a decent raise – and retroactive pay. It includes no pay based on performance and calls for no significant changes in the salary guides.

“The contract negotiated is a fair and equitable contract for both sides,” said Myron Plotkin, the 1,500-member union’s negotiator with the New Jersey Education Association. “While neither side got all that it wanted, both sides were successful in obtaining changes that were beneficial to its goals in the negotiations.”

Added Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard: “We’re very excited to have reached an agreement with the union. This new contract empowers teachers and our other employees with the support they need to help our students while also assuring our students benefit from increased learning time during the school day. Our agreement is a significant step forward for our schools and families.”

Achieving the deal was no small feat. The union went two years without a new contract, and the agreement for the two separate contracts – one covering 2013-15 and the other 2015-18 -- was reached as the state-run district faces perilous fiscal times that last year saw more than 200 teachers and other staff laid off.

The final deal was hammered out after a 15-hour session last week, said the parties in their joint announcement. The rank-and-file union members approved it this weekend.

But as much as Gov. Chris Christie has played up the Camden takeover as one of his administration’s big education accomplishments, the teacher contract proved a far less eventful deal than what his administration reached in Newark and Paterson under his watch.

In Newark, the district agreed to the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for teachers, along with a process for teachers to evaluate each other. That agreement is set to expire this summer, amid deep divisions between the district and the Newark Teachers Union over how well that agreement has been carried out -- and there is no sign yet of the two sides even agreeing to begin contract talks.

In Paterson, the incentives in that district’s new contract were not explicit bonuses but instead doubled pay increases for teachers evaluated as “highly effective.” Even so, the contract was only narrowly approved by the union membership.

In Camden, while district and state officials confirmed there were no such pieces in the new contract, an apparent retreat for the administration, they also cited significant gains for both sides.

For the teachers, they will get a 2 percent raise – roughly matching the average raises in the state – and will also get retroactive pay for the years without a new contract, district officials said. Starting pay for teachers was set for $53,184 and tops out at $103,446, and community coordinators in schools also saw significant raises.

For the district, it was instructional time extended by two weeks, as well as more flexibility in scheduling to accommodate additional professional development and block schedules for students, officials said.

The Christie administration issued a statement praising the deal.

“This is another positive step for Camden,” said David Saenz, an education department spokesman. “We’re pleased that Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and the Camden Education Association have reached an agreement.”