Munn Case Could Threaten State Education Aid Formula

STATE — The indictment of Elizabeth School Board President Marie Munn on charges of theft by deception and tampering with public records related to a free lunch scandal could give Republican lawmakers the issue they need to unravel the state’s school aid formula.

The number of students enrolled in the federal free lunch program helps determine how much funding school districts qualify for from the state. Under New Jersey’s school funding formula, state aid is increased between $4,700 and $5,700 for each student enrolled in the lunch program.

Last June, the state auditor released a report determining that more than 2,700 children enrolled in the program in 2010 should not have qualified for a free or reduced-cost lunch. “There is a significant error rate,” said state auditor Stephen M. Eells. “It’s not accurate by a long shot, and I don’t think we should be using it to determine state aid.”

“After scratching beneath the surface on the shame of obtaining a free lunch under false pretenses, we need to recognize this investigation also reveals a component of the school funding formula that is flawed,” said Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, (R-Sussex/Warren/Morris.)

“We would be foolish to believe this abuse of taxpayer funds is confined to Elizabeth,” said Assemblywoman Alison McHose, (R-Sussex/Warren/Morris.) “The ramifications of intentionally submitting false information have consequences for all students throughout New Jersey. Deserving students are having more than their lunch money stolen. They may be missing out on other educational resources that unscrupulous people have no compunction about taking, and as a result, property taxpayers are not receiving the relief they need.”

Republicans have long sought to decouple state money from needy districts. A 2011 proposal pushed by Senate Republicans would have shifted $300 million to suburban school districts by cutting back preschool for the state’s neediest students. Representatives of suburban districts that have long felt shortchanged by the state’s funding.

State Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren/Hunterdon) advocates a school funding plan that would provide districts with the same amount of school aid per child, regardless of whether they serve a high-income or low-income community. This would likely leave low-income residents with a more difficult burden of paying for a good education for their children.

Under Gov. Chris Christie’s complicated formula for state aid New Jersey public schools, some of the state’s larger urban districts will be hit the hardest in actual dollars, with Camden for instance losing $5.5 million (2 percent) and East Orange $2.9 million (1.7 percent). Four out of five school districts will receive more funding next year, but even there the increases will not be enough to restore state aid to the levels it was at before Christie took office.

While the school funding formula approved by the state Supreme Court requires per pupil aid for students from low income families in high poverty schools to be 57 percent higher than for students who are not from low income families, the Chrisite administration proposes reducing that to 46 percent.

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