Spiller testifies on State Budget

On Tuesday, March 21, 2023, NJEA President Sean M. Spiller testified before Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. During this testimony, Spiller praised the pro-public education budget while outlining several organizational priorities that would benefit students and public schools in the coming fiscal year.

Among the top priorities Spiller discussed were the need for increased investments in New Jersey’s Community Colleges, financial support for retired educators who have not received a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for many years, and additional resources pledged toward educator recruitment and retention. He also addressed the urgent need for emergency aid to districts affected by S-2 state aid reductions.

Spiller’s full written testimony can be read below:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on behalf of NJEA’s nearly 200,000 active and retired members who are proud to be part of the best public school system in the nation. Our national ranking is no accident. It is the combination of many factors – but especially of dedicated, highly trained professionals and the state’s commitment to properly fund our public school system with a focus on equity and opportunity. 

We are grateful that in partnership with Governor Murphy, the Legislature has invested in our public system of education after years of underfunding by the previous administration. And while we cannot ever really make up for 8 years of neglect, we are impactfully catching up. We recognize the commitment you have made to continued funding of the School Funding Formula to support k12 education and the investment in preK. 

We also recognize the important commitment you continue to support to make full pension payments, payments that not only rebuild the pension system, but improve our overall economic health and outlook. And we recognize with gratitude the full investment in post-retirement health care. On the topic of healthcare, we would be remiss if we did not express our hope that there will be full and transparent discussion during budget hearings on medical benefit rates, so that we do not have the kind of surprise we encountered last year. 

We do not take any of these investments for granted because we have lived through periods of time when they were not made. We are very grateful for your prioritization of these investments as we know that New Jersey remains a destination for families who know they can get a top-notch public education for their children. 

Our requests for your consideration as you move through the budget process are framed in our recognition of your deep commitment to education and our shared goals that we continue to strive for equity and excellence in every public school in our state. 

And to that end, we want to express our gratitude for the critical funding restoration you moved in S3732. Over 100 districts were facing severe cuts in their state aid, greater than business administrators predicted based on the S2 law, and greater than any district could absorb without drastic cuts, especially as they remain constrained by the 2% cap in a period of immense inflationary pressures. 

These districts would have faced layoffs, larger class sizes, program cuts and loss of support services. As we work to support students coming out of the pandemic, this would have been damaging to our efforts. The funding will provide resources and stability to districts. As the bill continues through its process, we ask you to ensure that the NJDOE provides adjusted state aid notices to the impacted districts immediately as districts must complete their budgets by the beginning of May. 

We thank you for recognizing that while we all agree the formula should be the foundation of funding our schools, there are times and reasons we must do what is right for the students even if it deviates from a previous plan. 

It is in that light that we make our first request for additional funding. New Jersey’s community colleges serve a critical pathway for many to enter the world of higher education and prepare for careers, including in education.  

The Governor’s FY24 proposal flat funds our community colleges yet again at $149.1 million which is the same dollar amount the schools received in FY2009 (after which there was a decrease to $134 million for FY2011 through FY2020). 

We all know that flat funding any year actually is a decrease as fixed costs rise, but especially with the inflation we have experienced over the last year, flat funding is a meaningful loss of funding for our community colleges.   To put it in perspective, $149 million in 2009 dollars would be $208 million in 2023 dollars – a $59 million difference. 

This is a hardship for community colleges that increasingly must find ways to save money, often by an over reliance on part time – adjunct – professors to teach rather than full time faculty. These positions do not include benefits such as health care, nor do they promote the academic collegiality and research that all institutions of higher education strive for. Flat funding also results in reduced offerings to students, larger class sizes as courses are condensed and possibly fewer support services across the campus.

We applaud the investment in CCOG to allow more students to move through community college debt free. But as more students take advantage of the state investment in debt free community college, we must also invest in the institutions where they go. 

The goal has been that the funding for community colleges is roughly 30% state, 30% county and 30% tuition. Right now, the average state contribution is about 20%. We are requesting that the state increase funding $20 million, for a total of $169.1 million dollars for FY24, to put us on a path towards achieving the 30% state contribution level. New Jersey ranks one of the lowest in the nation for investment in community colleges. With nearly 200,000 utilizing our community colleges, we cannot sell them short by flat funding their colleges. 

Our second request also speaks to the challenges of inflation and rising fixed costs, in this instance for our retirees who no longer benefit from a Cost-of-Living Adjustment. Given the current economy – the price increase for everything from gas to eggs – it is easy to understand why people on fixed incomes are struggling. And as we know, for far too many it can be a choice between basics such as food or medicine. Our preference clearly would be the restoration of COLA, but we recognize the impact on the pension fund that it may not be ready to absorb. 

For FY24, therefore, we ask that the Legislature implement a one-time relief for those who are struggling without COLA. We will be glad to work collaboratively with you to determine overall income threshold, the best means to provide relief (direct, tax credit, etc.) and a meaningful amount that the state can afford to provide. This is essential to the well being of thousands of people who spent their career in public service and now are caught in economic winds not of their own making. 

As the state saw the sunset of the CBT this year, foregoing hundreds of millions in revenue, it is hard to answer retirees when they ask why their needs are not as important as million-dollar corporations. So, we ask you to honor their service and recognize their hardship by providing them basic relief this year.

Finally, we would like to note that we are pleased to see funding the Governor’s FY24 budget proposal for the SDA and to address public school recruitment and retention. While the SDA is working on a set of projects with its current funding, we know it is insufficient to address the identified needs. We look forward to working with the legislature to see additional funds put towards school construction in the year ahead. 

Likewise, the Governor’s proposal for staff recruitment and retention is a good start, but insufficient. We request an additional $10 million be invested in developing partnerships between education prep programs and community colleges to strengthen the diverse pipeline of students who start in community colleges, including for our ESPs who may want to gain certification. And we request an additional $2 million for the Culture and Climate Innovation Fund to increase retention through common sense actions such as streamlining and reducing paperwork, increasing collaboration and prep time, and improving professional development to meet the current needs of school staff. 

We stand ready to partner with you through the budget process to arrive at a place that honors your commitment to education with the necessary dollars to see all levels of our education thrive and all of our current, future and retired public school educators have a pathway forward here in New Jersey.

Thank you for your consideration. Please feel free to contact Deborah Cornavaca, Director of Government Relations, if you have questions or would like further information.
dcornavaca@njea.org or 732 692-3860