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Editor’s Note: This article was updated with a joint statement from Auth and Schepisi at 3:41 p.m. It was updated again at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday with additional figures showing the effect of the new state funding formula over its seven-year phase-in.
Democratic Assembly candidates in the 39th legislative district attacked Republican incumbents over school funding Tuesday.
Westwood Mayor John Birkner Jr. and Emerson Councilman Gerald Falotico attacked Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi and Assemblyman Bob Auth over abstentions the latter two made on a school funding bill that Democrats approved last year.
“We send our elected officials down to Trenton to lead by voting on the issues that matter to our communities, like tax relief and supporting our schools,” Birkner said. “It’s beyond disappointing that Assemblymembers Auth and Schepisi failed their constituents by choosing to abstain on this critical bill.”
The new school funding formula, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last July, increased funding for at least 19 of the district’s 23 towns.
In their attack, Birkner and Falotico cited a recently-published list of 30 towns with the highest local school taxes. Seven of the 39th district’s towns — Closter, Woodcliff Lake, River Vale, Harrington Park, Haworth, Old Tappan, Upper Saddle River and Demarest — made the list.
But, while the Bergen County portions of the district came out ahead under the new school funding formula, the same wasn’t true for the Passaic County towns Schepisi and Auth represent.
“These guys don’t even understand anything. It’s all about shiny press releases with them,” Schepisi said. “The reason for the abstention was we were essentially being asked to do a Sophie’s choice of pitting some of our towns against others, so while S2 did provide a slight increase in aid to some of our communities, it was to the detriment of the three Passaic towns that we represent.”
Those three towns — Bloomingdale, Ringwood and Wanaque — saw their state aid cut by $164,372 in the 2019 fiscal year. Lakeland Regional School District, which serves portions of Ringwood and Wanaque, received $141,692 less in state aid that year.
The seven Bergen towns saw their aid rise by $695,155, meaning that state aid to the 39th fell by $389,091 just between those 10 towns.
That number rises further when the district’s 13 other towns are added to the tally, but the state’s new funding formula works on a seven-year phase in.
Over that period, Bloomingdale will see its funding drop by $584,010. Ringwood will lose roughly $1.2 million, and Wanaque will have its aid cut by $876,087.
Lakeland will see its funding drop by $2,920,764 over the seven-year period.
“At a time when we are facing a crisis of affordability in North Jersey, making it especially hard for senior citizens to remain in their homes, we should be looking for every opportunity to get the tax dollars we send to Trenton back into our district — not running away from those opportunities,” Falotico said.
Auth, in a joint statement with Schepisi, followed the assemblywoman’s line, saying the two could not support a plan that would hurt some of the districts town while hitting Birkner and Falotico for taxes in their own towns.
“While this bill may have increased aid for some school districts, it also cut nearly $6 million for other schools in our community. We could not support a plan that pits local student against local student, or local school against local school, and find it distressing that our opponents pledged to do just that,” the two said.
“We on the other hand, have been fighting, without the support of Mr. Falotico and Mr. Birkner, for fair school funding for all of our residents. Of course, property taxes in both Emerson and Westwood increased during Mr. Falotico and Mr. Birkner’s watch, so we understand their willingness to say anything to change the focus from their failed records.”
Though Republicans have easily held control of the 39th district’s Assembly seats since 1979, when State Sen. Gerald Cardinale first entered the legislature as an Assemblyman, their margins there have shrunk considerably since the election of President Donald Trump.
In 2015, the last year where Assembly seats were at the top of the ticket, Schepisi beat the closest Democratic challenger by 11 points. Auth won by about nine points.
Those margins fell to four points for Schepisi and three points for Auth in 2017.
There’s little to indicate that the incumbents’ abstentions were politically motivated.
Though the district’s three Passaic County towns broke for the Republicans by a little more than 1,100 votes in 2015, the incumbents won the three towns by fewer than 300 votes in 2017.
“As people representing a district as a whole, I really did not feel it appropriate to harm three of our Passaic communities for a slight bump up that was, in the scheme of the amount of state funding that is provided, appropriate in our Bergen communities,” Schepisi said. “It’s a much more complicated issue than whoever they paid to draft a press release for them, because I can say with reasonable certainty none of them understand the complexity of the issue.”