Jefferson Township High School faculty, students, and parents took to the high school on Tuesday night in a united effort to save their school from further aid slashes caused by S-2.
JTHS is one of many schools affected by the bill’s cutdown on state funding. Thus, the school community, united by the guidance of the PTA, came together to address letters to officials seeking a stop and review of the funding reform bill.
“We’re very fortunate to have such a supportive community,” assistant Superintendent Roger Jinks said of the attendance. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure our students aren’t impacted.”
Letters were addressed to both local and state officials, including Governor Phil Murphy. Another addressee, Senator Joseph Pennacchio, was in attendance and was visibly impressed by the turnout. So high was the audience in JTHS’ cafeteria that the event was briefly delayed when more copies of the letters had to be made to accommodate the arriving support.
Also turning out for the event were Jefferson’s Mayor Eric Wilsusen, Business Administrator Debra Millikin, and councilwomen Melissa Senatore and Kim Finnegan.
Senator Pennacchio, the Republican representative of New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District, was visibly pleased at the turnout and that Tuesday’s display would start a conversation.
“I’m impressed…and concerned,” said Pennacchio, who mentioned he is engaged in dealing with a similar crisis in West Milford. “There are further ways to help, moving forward. Letters to the editor, call the governor’s office, express yourself at meetings. Let the administration know (how you feel).
“This is something that we have to go to Trenton with. I’ll speak to the powers that be and see that we can get this rectified,” he added.
Introduced by state Senate President Steve Sweeney, S-2 was passed in summer 2018. The process calculates a difference between the school district’s total state aid allocation in the current budget year and the pre-budget year. Districts with a positive differential are labeled “overfunded” and receive reduced state funding. Sweeney was among those addressed letters during Tuesday’s proceedings.
The Jefferson Township Board of Education meeting on February 17 spotlighted the effect S-2’s cutdowns have had on the area. In a presentation hosted by superintendent Jeanne Howe, Jefferson’s cumulative losses in state aid could exceed $38 million by the 2024-25 school year. Visible losses in the school community include the elimination of instructional and support positions and the removal or outright cancellation of facility renovations.
“These are things we don’t want to lose: our sense of community, our sense of pride for being Jefferson Falcons,” PTA President Jen Schorr said. “We’re super excited that this many people turned out. Everyone took it very seriously. We’re super excited that the senator came out, that he understands how important it is to everyone in Jefferson.”
Howe was sure to put the crisis at bay in specific terms.
“The biggest problem with S-2 is the devastating, long-term effects it’s going to have on our school system and our community,” Howe said. “We’re losing $9.8 million. Those cuts are going to be devastating to our school district. I can’t say that enough. When you look at what $9.8 million is, it is catastrophic.”
However, she, along with the rest of the board members in attendance, including Jinks and School Business Administrator Rita Giacchi, were inspired by the attendance and the community’s response. One of the most inspiring aspects, several attendees noted, was the involvement of young people. JTHS high school students were on hand and even had a partial hand in writing the letters. Parents brought their young children with them as well, providing an early civics lesson. Troha mentioned that recent alumni also returned to help the cause.
“It is fantastic to see that our youth is here this evening,” Howe said. “It teaches them our foundations of government, that if you speak up, hopefully you can make a difference. It empowers them. This is their future of education here in Jefferson.”
Members of the board emphasized, however, that while the letters have been sealed and addressed, there is still plenty of work to be done. The plan is to start things off in Oak Ridge, but elevate the battle all the way to Trenton.
“We’re going to continue to write legislators, keep informing them of what’s going on,” Howe said of the future. “We’re going to keep requesting meetings with all members and all branches of government to let them know what we’re facing in Jefferson.
“Write letters. (The public can) let the legislators know that they’re displeased with their role in S-2, that these cuts are catastrophic, that they’re going to hurt our schools and our community. It’s a way to get involved and let people know how displeased they are,” Howe said.
The Jefferson Township Board of Education next meets on March 16.