Time is ripe for poorer districts to contribute

Friday, March 10, 2006
Tom Moran, Star Ledger - Tom Moran

David Sciarra is a lefty lawyer whose mission in life is to help urban kids get a decent education.

And he's very good at it. For a decade or so, he's been beating the state over the head in court, forcing Trenton to send a flood of money to the poorest school districts, known as Abbotts.

That money has helped poor kids catch up to suburban kids on reading and math scores. Among fourth graders, the gap has been cut in half.

But these days, Sciarra is a nervous fellow.

Because while the urban schools have gotten more and more money, the suburban districts have not. Their basic aid has been virtually frozen since 2002, sending their property taxes soaring.

Sciarra knows that suburban legislators, the majority in New Jersey, won't let this go on forever. It is a political time bomb, and he wants to defuse it.

Which brings us to his surprising recommendation: Sciarra now believes that some of the healthier Abbott districts should lighten the state's load by raising their own property taxes. Hoboken, that yuppie haven, is only the most obvious case.

So now Sciarra, the man who brought billions of dollars to the cities, says some of them are making out a bit too well.

"If an Abbott district can contribute more funds because property values have gone up, they need to do so," Sciarra says. "We have to adjust."

The next move is up to Gov. Jon Corzine, who now faces a test of his political gumption.

He is traveling the state this week warning people to brace themselves for tough budget moves. Now we'll see if that includes some of the heavily Democratic Abbott districts.

Gordon MacInnes, the assistant education commissioner charged with running the Abbott programs, recommended recently that Corzine take the leap.

"There are a number of districts that can afford to raise their taxes," MacInnes says. "This is not a fair system now. I don't think it's sustainable over time. You may get to the stage where the Legislature just won't budge, and then you'll have a constitutional crisis."

But he knows it will be tough. It's been tried before.

In 2003, the state ordered 11 Abbott districts, including Newark and Elizabeth, to raise their taxes by a combined $26 million a year. A few days later, the McGreevey administration reversed the order.

"After they got a few phone calls, they folded," says MacInnes.

Corzine seems to be a more serious fellow. And the pressure to change has grown since 2003.

"This is a wound that gets worse every year," says Lynne Strickland, head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents more than 100 suburban districts.

Strickland and her coalition have been remarkably supportive of the Abbott programs over the years. But it's getting harder for her to hold that alliance together.

"Things have gotten better in a lot of Abbott districts," she says. "They need to contribute more. Fair is fair."

Even if it raises only a modest sum, she believes it would relieve the political pressure. The state could divert the savings to special education program in the suburbs.

Sciarra, who's with the Education Law Center, would take only a small step in this direction by requiring tax hikes in the five or six districts with tax burdens below the state average. And he is pushing for an increase in aid to all districts this year, against all odds.

If Corzine tries to freeze aid to the Abbott districts this year, as he may, you can expect that Sciarra will go back to court. That, he says, would shortchange the kids by forcing cutbacks in programs.

The tax argument concerns only who should pay the bills. And on that question, Sciarra is more flexible.

He doesn't represent Abbott district taxpayers, after all.

His clients are the kids.

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