Closing schools, dying towns: Aid cuts in focus at budget hearing
TRENTON — Public hearings on New Jersey’s budget are usually sprawling affairs, with scores of people seeking additional funding for dozens of disparate priorities across a full day of testimony.
This year’s first hearing was a little different. While there was still lobbying for a range of topics, a few people came mostly to say thanks for the additional school funding their districts are receiving under a phased-in change that began last year.
However, they were drowned out by people opposed to those same school-aid changes – saying that while it’s nice long-underfunded districts are getting more money that it’s creating an existential crisis for the one-third of districts that will lose around $600 million combined over eight years.
Courtney Matash, a teacher in the North Warren Regional School District, moved in 2016 to Blairstown from Bloomfield, the rare Millennial moving to a rural area. Now that she had been told her job might be cut, she has put on hold plans to start a family and is considering moving.
“Why do I want to reside in a community with a school where programs are being cut?” Matash said. “I want my unborn children to have as many opportunities as other schools have, which, unfortunately, North Warren will not be able to provide in the near future.”
“These changes make me feel that my children will not be receiving the same education as children in other public schools in New Jersey, so why stay in Blairstown? The biggest question I ask myself is: Why should I stay in a community that is going to die because of these cuts?” she said.
In Old Bridge, Cheesequake Elementary School is slated to be closed as the district braces for $15 million in cuts over six years. The head of the local teachers’ union, Tim O’Neill, said people in that area have started putting their houses up for sale as a result. Among those soon could be Clay Barton.
“All I ask is that someone takes a closer look at the formula, find a more reasonable and proportionate way to ensure proper funding to districts in need without destroying others to do it,” Barton said.
Barton said he moved back to New Jersey from his native Tennessee after college because it felt like home and “made my peace with the high taxes and cost of living here because I wanted to kids to grow up here and experience for themselves all the things that make New Jersey great.”
“I’m extremely proud that I was able to afford a home in Old Bridge but for the first time in all my years here, I’m seriously considering packing up and leaving New Jersey for good,” Barton said.
Old Bridge resident Stefanie Babits said her district’s plan to hire a private contractor to replace the staff’s 160 paraprofessionals would be harmful to the 16 percent of students in town who have special needs.
“Our most vulnerable student population should not be the first group targeted by budget cuts, which is what is happening,” Babits said. “There is nothing fair in a formula that serves to negatively impact my nonverbal 8-year-old son and the thousands of other special-needs children in this state.”
In all, school funding dominated more than one-fourth of the nearly five-hour hearing – the focus of 17 of the roughly 60 people who testified.
Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm of the Fair Funding Action Committee, who is also the vice president of the Kingsway Regional school board, said the additional funding from last year’s changes has enabled her school district to hire 33 faculty members and reduce class sizes.
“When fully funded and fairly distributed, the SFRA is truly representative of a school’s need and their ability to provide a thorough and efficient education,” Cavallaro-Fromm said. “Bringing every district to 100 percent of their legal entitlement under the law, no more and no less, is both fair and responsible.”
Beachwood resident Karen Luff said local residents are already paying their fair share and was one of many questioning the state’s formula for determining that.
“Instead of sending my children to schools where they have the means to reach high goals, I have to tell them that because of state legislation, they don’t deserve it,” Luff said. “This is exactly how I interpret your feelings for our children when I see the deep financial cuts that are being made toward their education.”
Freehold Regional High School District Superintendent Chuck Sampson said the fair-share calculation is highly volatile because its "wealth multipliers" don’t consistently interpret income and property value, leading to wild swings. His district was once considered under adequacy but now faces $25 million in aid cuts over six years.
“Put simply, the manner through local fair share is calculated is neither equitable nor predictable,” Sampson said.
In all, seven school superintendents testified.
Manville schools Superintendent Robert Beers said increases in state aid to his district have already enabled it to add 20 faculty positions, put a dent in a $20 million maintenance backlog and provided tax relief to residents who were paying 29 percent more than what the state deems to be their local fair share.
“We don’t want to see any students suffer from a loss in funding,” Beers said. “However, I challenge all of the over-aided districts to walk a mile in the shoes of a chronically underfunded district like ours.”
Pitman schools Superintendent Patrick McAleer said the revised formula isn’t thoughtful or deliberate and risks creating “educational have-nots” in districts like his.
“A funding mechanism that creates winners and losers and imposes draconian cuts that hurt hundreds of thousands of children statewide is no solution at all,” McAleer said.
North Warren Regional schools Superintendent Sara Bilotti said her district will be devastated by the cuts, amounting to 25 percent of the overall budget once fully implemented.
“That means that by the year 2025, if there’s no relief, we will not be able to operate,” Bilotti said. “That’s terrifying to us. It’s terrifying to my staff and to my students and to our community.”
North Warren Regional teacher James Bridge, who fears the German program in which he teaches wouldn’t survive, said the cuts “feel like an act of hatred.”
“My own state government has cratered my school district without warning and without aid or assistance in figuring out how to recover from this serious loss,” Bridge said.
“Regardless of your political stripe, wrecking a school district financially without warning and without remedy in the mark of bad government,” he said.
A few ideas are being considered, mostly rooted in allowing towns where state aid is being cut to increase property taxes to make up for it.
Currently, that’s difficult to do because of a 2 percent cap on levy increases. In some growing towns, taxes are actually going down at the same time as teachers are being cut because the growth in taxes can’t keep up with the reductions in aid.
One idea is to allow districts to exceed the 2 percent cap until their local “fair share” of funding meets the benchmarks in the state’s funding formula.
Hillsborough’s “local fair share” is increasing 5 percent a year, but the tax levy can only increase 2 percent a year, said schools Superintendent Jorden Schiff. He said the average property tax bill is actually going down at the same time the district is planning to cut 50 staff members and that “it just seems obvious” districts deemed as not meeting their “fair share” should be able to raise taxes to make up aid losses.
“If we were just flat, not giving an increase, we would be able to save close to a dozen jobs, and the community would support that,” Schiff said. “We’re taxing to our max, and we can’t get to that local fair share.”
Another idea involves the “cap bank.” When a local government raises its tax levy less than the allowable 2 percent, the unused portion can be banked for up to three years, allowing it to raise taxes by more than 2 percent in a given year. Expired credits for unused tax increases might be restored through 2025.
“If the goal of S-2 and the fair funding formula is to put the responsibility back on the taxpayers, let our taxpayers support that,” said Old Bridge schools Superintendent David Cittadino.
“Cuts in state aid without giving the district tools to adjust doesn’t fix the funding problem,” said Tim O’Neill, a teacher and president of the Old Bridge Education Association. “It just shifts the problem from town to town, always hurting the students.”
Despite the school-funding fix approved last year, it appears the issue could dominate debate again.
“This state school funding formula haunts this Legislature from year to year to year,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester.