Watch: Toms River Regional Superintendent David Healy discusses the school's state aid cuts and letter writing campaign.Hundreds of teaching jobs lost. Increasing class sizes. After-school program cuts. Larger property tax bills.Tens of thousands of students and taxpayers are facing a future of shrinking school budgets and rising school taxes, if they live in portions of New Jersey where state aid is shriveling under a legislative funding formula known as "S2."The bipartisan measure adopted last year and championed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Cumberland, has diverted more state aid to long-underfunded, needy school districts. The problem, say some school leaders, is that the money was cut from the budgets of wealthier districts.
Toms River Regional Superintendent David M. Healy discusses community's response to his letter asking residents to write letters asking for more state aid. Jean Mikle, @jeanmikle
Most of New Jersey's 577 school districts received increases in state aid last year under Gov. Phil Murphy's budget, but about 30 percent — or 172 school districts — saw reductions instead.Statewide, many districts were able to fill budget holes last year using surplus money. That option has evaporated in some districts, portending deeper cuts in classroom offerings."Our district will be nothing short of gutted and fully decimated if something does not change with regards to the allocation of school aid," Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent David Healy wrote in a letter to parents earlier this month.Healy, joined by school administrators, parents and elected officials from across New Jersey, will protest S2 in front of the Statehouse in Trenton on Tuesday, where they will rally before Murphy's 2020 budget address. Murphy is expected to discuss changes to state school aid.
The S2 formula cut $2.4 million from Toms River Regional's budget last year, and is expected to slash another $2 million or more from the budget again this year, Healy said. The district is facing a cumulative $80 million in state aid funding cuts over the next six years, the superintendent said.Other districts — Old Bridge Township Public Schools, Freehold Regional High School District, Brick Township Public Schools, to name just a few — are similarly facing millions of dollars in cuts to state aid.Administrators in these districts say they are considering a variety of cost-cutting measures, such as eliminating nonvarsity athletics, nonmandated programs, courtesy and late busing, as well as cutting staff and co-curricular activities.Career academies: The best education tax money can buy?Carol Birnbaum, of the Lenape Regional High School District in Shamong, Burlington County, said her nearly 7,000-student district is facing a cumulative $8.3 million slash in state aid over the next six years."For the last several years, we have been operating at a maintenance budget," she said. "We've been cutting things all along."
A+ in Shore schools: Honoring the best in educationProponents of S2 have justified such cuts to state aid, pointing out that many of the districts facing reductions have experienced long-term drops in student enrollment.Birnbaum said that is true of Lenape Regional, where student enrollment has dropped 10 percent; however, state aid is dropping 30 percent as a result, she said. "There's only so much we can ask them (local taxpayers) to continue to pay to make up this deficit," she said.Many of these school districts cannot raise local taxes to offset the cuts; their ability to raise local tax levies is constrained by a 2 percent cap on annual increases. They say this leaves them little choice but to slash staff and programs.Officials at Brick Township Public Schools are considering cutting 290 staff positions over the next six years if aid continues to drop under S2, Superintendent Gerard Dalton said. Class sizes could swell to 30 students. Sports and clubs could be trimmed or eliminated.
Watch: Brick Mayor John G. Ducey discusses the state funding cuts affecting Brick schools during a municipal meeting last year.But Jeff Bennett, research director of the Fair Funding Action Committee, said the state aid formula is fair because schools like Toms River and Brick have received more than their fair share of state funding for years. As enrollment in these schools and others like them dropped, state aid did not decline in kind, he said.At the same time, state aid did not rise fast enough in districts with growing student populations to keep up, which created funding shortages in some needy schools, Bennett said.As a result, redistributing state aid was necessary and fair, he said."It's simple, but New Jersey is broke," Bennett wrote in an email to the Asbury Park Press. "We are bankrupt. We are a fiscal disaster. The existing K-12 ... aid stream is not sustainable. There is no way New Jersey will ever have enough money to fairly fund, let alone fully fund, all districts without redistribution."Yet, it leaves districts like Old Bridge Township Public Schools with difficult decisions. Superintendent David Cittadino said his school system is considering closing its Cheesequake Elementary School on Route 34 and selling its property to close a S2-triggered budget hole.The district also is considering selling its transportation maintenance hub on Route 9 and cutting staff, including the district's paraprofessionals who help students with special needs, he said.
Mayor John G. Ducey discusses why Brick Township Public Schools are planning to sue New Jersey. Amanda Oglesby, @OglesbyAPP
"Over the next five years, we’re expected to receive a reduction in state aid of $12 million," Cittadino said. "We’re looking for every opportunity where we can still have services for our students and still save money."Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High School District, said he plans to fight S2 and what he said are flaws in its formula. His district — which has more than 10,000 students spread across six high schools — is facing possible cumulative cuts of $25 million in state aid, he said.Education: Lakewood SCHI school founder guilty on 2 counts, acquitted on 3"Even if we tax to the maximum, there will be a $8 million hole that cannot be filled," said Sampson. "We think the reduction will be catastrophic here because we're already operating at pretty extreme efficiency." Sampson said Freehold Regional's per-pupil costs are already $3,000 under the state average.
Classes in the high schools are now at 25 to 30 students per class, and could get larger under the cuts, he said. The district might be forced to trim some programs, cut staff and make changes to transportation, he said.“A district like this should be held up like a model, rather than sort of systematically dismantled," Sampson said.Bennett, the research director of the Fair Funding Action Committee, said districts facing cuts should consider closing schools and merging with larger districts to save money.He noted that they can also raise taxes beyond the state-mandated 2 percent tax levy cap to close these budget holes, if voters approve the measures through a referendum."Toms River, Brick and others need to make some difficult decisions about spending money more efficiently and/or prepare their voters to accept higher tax levies," Bennett said in his email. "I know it's a nightmare, but it's New Jersey's reality and we all have to share in the pain."Columnists: Murphy must take off rose-colored glasses on budgetEnvironment: Pinelands pipeline in doubt after B.L. England owner quits natural gas planPolitics: Toms River condemns 'hatred, bigotry and prejudice,' but not Rise Up Ocean CountyThe Asbury Park Press brings you in-depth coverage of local schools and important education issues. Please consider subscribing to support the work of our journalists.Amanda Oglesby: @OglesbyAPP; 732-557-5701; firstname.lastname@example.org
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