In a unanimous decision, a three-judge Appeals Court has ruled the NJ Department of Education had no authority to remove $124 million in previously approved K-12 supplemental programs from Abbott districts’ current (2003-04) budgets. The Court ordered NJDOE to restore these funds in 10 days.
Twenty-one Abbott districts claimed that NJDOE violated a July 2003 NJ Supreme Court order by not maintaining all programs, services and positions “approved” in 2002-03 in this year’s budgets. Instead, the NJDOE calculated the budgets based on “actual” expenditures, resulting in the $124 million budget cut. The cut would have eliminated not only supplemental programs, but also instructional staff, contrary to NJDOE representations to the Supreme Court. Districts would also be prevented from filling needed vacant positions, and be forced to employ substitutes and part-time staff rather than hire permanent, qualified teachers.
The districts used the appeals process established in the Abbott V (1998) decision to block NJDOE from cutting their budgets. Education Law Center counsel David Sciarra “commended” the districts “for vigorously representing the needs of their students.” ELC, on behalf of the Abbott students, participated as amicus curiae supporting the districts’ position.
The Appeals Court concluded that the NJDOE budget cut “could not be reconciled” with the “unequivocal directive” in the Supreme Court’s July 2003 maintenance budget order. The Court also found that the Supreme Court, in defining maintenance at the approved level, “adopted” the proposal made by ELC counsel at oral argument last July.
“Districts now have the green light to hire qualified teachers, reading coaches and math tutors, and provide after school, drop-out prevention and other needed supplemental programs,” Mr. Sciarra said. “It’s unfortunate students have waited six months for these programs while NJDOE tried to defend its illegal budget cut in court. This delay is inexcusable,” Mr. Sciarra added.
The Appeals Court also ruled that districts must have “a reasonable opportunity” to justify any expenditure the NJDOE asserts is “ineffective or inefficient” when compared to other districts. According to Mr. Sciarra, “the ruling sends a strong message: raw spending differences alone do not prove a program is inefficient. NJDOE must also evaluate each district’s students, facilities, and other particularized factors that impact upon program cost.” To execute this mandate, NJDOE must adopt regulations “with more specific standards,” and ensure budget staff “have the professional training, experience and competence” to make particularized program and funding decisions.
The ruling involves only K-12 supplemental funds. As mandated by the Abbott decisions, the Legislature has increased foundation funding to keep pace with suburban district spending of $10,700 per pupil, and has provided over $400 million, or nearly $10,000 per child, to fund Abbott preschool programs for an estimated 42,000 three- and four-year olds.
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