- Associated Press - Saturday, April 6, 2019

TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) - Some of the largest regional, suburban school districts across the state - once champions of fiscal efficiency and low per-pupil costs - are now preparing to slash jobs and trim spending on books and programs.

Administrators in these schools, like Lacey Township School District and Toms River Regional, are telling teachers and special education staff to brace for possible layoffs. Other administrators, like the superintendent in Old Bridge Township Public Schools, are talking about selling buildings to close budget holes.

At the same time, school taxes are set to rise in these communities.

The culprit is millions of dollars in cuts to state aid. Since 2018, Trenton lawmakers have redirected money from large suburban districts - considered “overfunded” by the state - to needier, faster-growing school districts.

As a result, “programs will be cut and reduced, critical infrastructure work ignored, (and) dozens of staff will be eliminated,” Charles Sampson, superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School District, said in a pleading statement to New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee in Trenton last month.

Sampson and school leaders from the communities facing the deepest cuts are painting grim pictures for their taxpayers and are urging Trenton lawmakers to reconsider shaving tens of millions of dollars from their budgets.

For these districts, the cuts mean swelling class sizes. Teacher layoffs. Neglected buildings. Fewer programs.

That’s a future Jackson taxpayers can expect if cuts continue as planned, said Superintendent Stephen Genco of the Jackson School District.

“The max I can raise in my tax levy is a little over $1.6 million, and I lost $2.3 million (this year),” he said. “So you’re starting almost $700,000 behind the eight-ball.”

Jackson and Freehold Regional, as well as other schools across the state are suing the New Jersey Department of Education and Education Commission Lamont Repollet over the state’s school aid formula. Their lawsuit argues it is “determined arbitrarily and without transparency.”

Seven of the top 10 districts facing the most severe state aid cuts this year are in Monmouth and Ocean counties: Freehold Regional (-$3.8 million), Asbury Park (-$3.4 million), Toms River Regional (-$2.8 million), Brick (-$2.7 million), Jackson ($-2.3 million), Howell (-$1.6 million) and Neptune Township (-$1.6 million).

The other schools facing the severest reductions are Jersey City Public Schools in Hudson County ($-27.2 million), Pemberton Township Schools in Burlington County (-$2.7 million) and Old Bridge Township Public Schools in Middlesex County(-$2.0 million).

The formula is “unfair, not predictable, not equitable,” said attorney Mark Tabakin of the Weiner Law Group of Parsippany, which represents the school districts of Brick, Manalapan-Englishtown, Freehold Regional, Toms River Regional, among others, in the lawsuit. Tabakin said the case is scheduled to go to court in May.

But proponents of the aid formula, known as S2, said these school districts received more than their fair share of state funding for years, despite declining enrollments and increasing needs in other communities.

New Jersey’s school aid formula is considered one of the most progressive in the nation, because it directs extra money to schools for students in poverty, English-language learners, special education needs, and considers the socioeconomic factors of a community, said Jen Cavallaro-Fromm, co-founder of the Fair Funding Action Committee, a group that supports S2.

As S2 cut the budgets of about 30 percent of New Jersey public schools considered “overfunded” by the state, aid was redistributed to some of the neediest and fastest growing districts, schools like those in Red Bank Borough, Long Branch, Atlantic City and Newark.

In fact, about 70 percent of school districts benefit from S2. This year, public K-12 schools in Bergen County will see aid increase by 7 percent, or nearly $18.8 million, according to figures from the New Jersey Department of Education. Passaic County will see school aid rise nearly 4 percent, up $28.5 million. Essex County’s aid to schools will increase $40.6 million, or more than 3 percent. Overall, aid to schools will rise nearly $206 million across the state, or 2.4 percent.

Before S2, Cavallaro-Fromm, who is vice president of the school board at Kingsway Regional High School in Gloucester County, said her school district could not afford new books because its state funding was held low for years.

“We have kids who are forced to sit in two study halls,” because the district could not afford teachers for elective classes, she said.

Residents of her community shouldered more than their fair share of school costs because the district was underfunded by the state for years, Cavallaro-Fromm said.

Since S2, “we brought back 33 district positions,” she said. “We’ve lowered class sizes … For the first time in years … we were able to purchase books.”

But that is little consolation to school administrators who are facing millions of dollars in state aid losses over the next five years. Under S2, the cuts will continue each year through the 2024-25 school year.

Brick Public Schools Superintendent Gerard Dalton said his district is considering cutting 40 or more staff positions this year. Spending on buildings and grounds has been trimmed.

“People may not be understanding the seriousness of this,” said Dalton. “If this continues, programs for children and class sizes will be severely impacted. … If we continue to allow some of our building issues to go unaddressed, that’s also going to impact education and safety for both students and faculty.”

Next door, Toms River Regional is facing similar circumstances. The district plans to raise taxes, cut 80 jobs this year, and trim supply and textbook accounts by 10 percent in order to close a $2.8 million cut in state funding.

District officials expect more than $80 million will be cut from the budget over the next six years.

Toms River Regional Superintendent David Healy, in an email to a reporter, said the state’s funding formula had “material flaws” that should be reviewed. He said Trenton lawmakers should stop cuts until that review of is complete.

“Unless the critical flaws in the formula are addressed and meaningful changes are made, we will be re-living this annual nightmare each year,” Healy said in the email.

Toms River Regional officials announced Monday that they planned to encourage the district’s 15,358 students to write to their state legislators, urging them to restore state aid.

Middletown faces similar pressures. Here, taxes will rise about $86 on average, up to about $5,828 on a home worth $444,180. At the same time, the school district will cut staff training, health care and benefits to fill a $552,000 hole in the budget.

And last month, Lacey sent layoff notices to roughly 70 to 80 paraprofessionals in another effort to manage reductions in their state aid. The district is discussing plans to rehire about half back full-time in an effort to close a $623,000 budget hole.

In Burlington County, Pemberton Township Schools Superintendent Tony Trongone said the district is leaving more than 25 jobs emptied by retirement and resignation unfilled to close a $2.7 million funding cut.

“We also looked for efficiencies in everything we were doing,” Trongone said of the district’s expenses.

But Trongone said larger classes are still likely - and so are higher property taxes in a town with few large commercial properties to ease the burden on homeowners.

Point Pleasant Schools Superintendent Vincent Smith said aid cuts tied to declining enrollment fail to consider other costs.

“It doesn’t matter how many kids you have in the classroom,” he said. The district still must “heat the building and provide the lighting … those things are kind of fixed costs.”

Point Pleasant Schools could lose half of the district’s state funding by the 2024-25 school year because of S2, Smith said.

“Like everybody else, it’s just getting tougher and tougher,” he said.

Genco, the superintendent of Jackson, said he understands the plight of the underfunded school districts.

“I don’t begrudge anybody anything,” he said. “(But) like all towns in the state, everybody was frozen (at aid levels) for seven years,” referring to flat state aid funding under former Gov. Chris Christie.

“I don’t think there’s a district in the entire state that’s ‘overfunded,’” he said.

Districts are also constrained to raise money through local taxpayers, and makeup the state aid losses, because of a two-percent cap on local tax levy increases, Genco said.

The state aid formula “is not accurate,” he said. “They (Trenton lawmakers) need to look at those things… The damage they can cause, you’re not going to recovery from very quickly, if ever.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2Vr4uBh

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com

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