Saturday, December 15, 2007

State School Funding Hard to Decipher

There is a lot more to the school funding story than the fact that Plainfield is slated to get a 2 percent increase under a proposed new formula, but after spending a few hours trying to line up some of the issues, I gave up. The last straw was realizing the aid figures in the new report don’t agree with state aid figures posted on another section of the Department of Education web site.

There used to be a lot more citizen participation in both the school district and municipal budget process. Later it dwindled to the point where even some board members complained they didn’t have access to the full budget. Now that neither the city nor the district have permanent financial staff in place, it’s going to be even harder to find out what is going on and what the new formula means to taxpayers.

Plainfield has had the same local school tax levy for many years, $17,683,906. It has gone up slightly as the value of all city property has decreased. State aid ($99,967,767 for 2007-08) makes up most of the district’s funding. Officials had warned that this proportion would change as suburban districts put pressure on legislators for more funds. In the new formula, that appears to be happening in Union County.

The new funding formula shows a 2 percent increase in funding for Plainfield even though it indicates a 6 percent reduction in the number of students. My comparison of 2004 enrollment with the current pupil count shows a 16 percent drop. But the district’s figures don’t reflect the number of Plainfield students in charter schools. The formula is applied per pupil and charter schools are public schools that receive something like 90 percent of district per-pupil cost. It would be nice to see the numbers lined up in a more comprehensible way.

In 2007-08, Plainfield had a zero increase in funding, so 2 percent is still better than nothing. The unknown factor is how soon the local tax levy will increase and by how much. Taxpayers better keep an eye on the 2008-09 budget process.

--Bernice Paglia


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