An emphasis was placed on how state aid cuts will significantly affect programs, staffing, and class size during the Board of Education meeting on March 18.
New Jersey Assembly member BettyLou DeCroce (R-26) had reached out to school superintendent Jeanne Howe earlier this month to see how Jefferson is handling the $554,620 reduction in state aid over the 2018-2019 school year and the $1.2 million cut slated for 2019-2020.
Howe read her letter crafted in response to DeCroce’s inquiry, which touted the district’s achievements despite no increases in state aid the last few years. She also outlined how the projected cuts will affect Jefferson schools moving forward:
- Elimination of structural and support positions
- Removal of all facility improvement projects
- Reduction in already sparse supply accounts
- Reduction of staff professional development money
- Discontinuation of upgrades to student laptops, impacting the overall technology device management program
- Postponement of the purchase of two buses, impacting the overall fleet management program
- Realignment of central office and building support staff
- Initiation of tuition for the inclusive preschool/disabled program.
Howe’s letter resumed, “If our district continues to realize future budget cuts as outlined in Senate Bill 2 (S-2), the impact to our district will be catastrophic. We will be forced to reduce programs and staff, eliminate some athletic programs, reduce co-curricular activities, consider pay-to-play, reduce courtesy busing, and increase class size, among other cuts.”
Business administrator Dora Zeno told attendees that two years ago, Jefferson had $15 million in aid, and it will be down to less than $6 million by the year 2025. “You can imagine what kind of impact that will have if this legislation does not change,” she said.
New Jersey Senate president Steve Sweeney (D-3) sponsored the S-2 school aid reform bill, which was developed to phase out the adjustment aid (also known as the “hold harmless” provision) that has allowed some districts to receive more aid than others. It also eliminates growth caps, purportedly so that districts with growing enrollments can receive more funding. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law in July 2018. At that time, Insider NJ quoted Sweeney as saying that “state aid will now be distributed according to each district’s property tax wealth, its ability to pay, enrollment changes, and the special needs of its schoolchildren – which is the way the formula is supposed to work.”
Zeno admitted that the district has seen declining enrollments, but added that state aid has held flat for the last several years because of the hold harmless provision. That aid was then used to subsidize new programs such as engineering and robotics, among many other enhancements and new technology.
According to the Department of Education (DOE), Jefferson is overfunded and above “adequacy.” Every district is supposed to get enough funding through state aid and local taxes to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for every child (adequacy budget). Zeno stated that the definition is based on an antiquated threshold developed in the 1970s – when students needed only a desk, a chair, and an instructor – and does not take into account the costs for special education, vocational school, transportation, and special programs.
Jefferson is not the only town feeling the pinch. According to NJ Spotlight, eight school districts are suing the Department of Education because of the cuts. “Brick, Jackson, Manalapan-Englishtown, Toms River Regional (which includes petitioners Borough of South Toms River, Borough of Beachwood, and Borough of Pine Beach), Lacey, Freehold Regional, Weymouth, Ocean Township, and an individual taxpayer are petitioning the state regarding their school aid, alleging the changes to the formula are unconstitutional and are forcing them to shutter programs, fire teachers, and increase class sizes.”
How Will Programs Continue?
Zeno explained that the high school is hosting the Academy for Environmental Science, which is estimated to garner $120,000. The board also voted unanimously to approve the installation of natural gas, which is expected to reduce the current fuel cost by two-thirds. Other belt-tightening measures will be taken, but the majority of expenses will be funded through a 2% tax levy on residents, raising $43,163,523. The 2018 tax levy increase of $41,487,430 required on average $126 more per household from residents’ pockets; a similar increase should be expected if the current budget passes.
The good news is that some projects covered under the referendum that was passed in 2018 are coming in under budget. This allows other projects to be completed, but the fund’s use is strictly defined within the referendum and cannot be used to finance courses or programs.
Lake Hopatcong resident Bob Larson questioned how New Jersey calculates the “ability to pay.” While admitting that he has not followed the topic closely, he stated, “It seems that a system such as Jefferson’s, which already appears to operate under a fairly lean budget compared to other districts, will be hit harder and unfairly. Hopefully, the district looks seriously at cutting top-heavy administration costs.”
Resident Jennifer Aponte was shocked at the news of the cuts. She told The Jefferson Chronicle, “If taxes rise to pay for the cuts, people will move out of the township. I am already seeing many people leave New Jersey for a better standard of living. I tell people that Jefferson is an affordable, great place to live, but now I wonder – for how long?”
No attendees spoke regarding the budget during the public portion of the meeting.
To review superintendent Howe’s letter in full, visit www.jefftwp.org. The BOE public hearing on the 2019-2020 budget will be held on April 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the high school media room.