TOMS RIVER — In a rare move, one of the state's 21 county prosecutors has waded into a school funding debate.

Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer, who Gov. Phil Murphy appointed to the post in the fall, sent an open letter on Thursday warning that state aid cuts to the school district in this county seat would be "a grave concern" that could lead to youth crime and drug abuse.

The Toms River school district is among 200 that would see aid reductions in the proposed state budget.

The state spending plan would add $206 million in funding but redirects about $90 million from some districts to others that have been underfunded. The reshuffling of aid means that some districts are being forced to raise taxes or cut their budgets.

In Toms River, it's both. The regional district's school board this week adopted a budget that would eliminate 77 employees and raise taxes.

Toms River is expected to lose 4.2% of its aid, or about $2.78 million, in one year.

"This drastic reduction in State aid will result in over 400 staff cuts (83 this year alone), larger class sizes and the eventual elimination of extracurricular activities and athletic programs," Billhimer says in his letter to Murphy.

His full letter is below.

Dear Governor Murphy:

In my capacity as Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the County of Ocean, I am writing to you to express my concern regarding the reduction of State funding for the Toms River Regional School District -- the largest school district in Ocean County. There are over 16,000 students attending 18 schools in Toms River. Toms River Regional School District employs approximately 2,700 people, most of whom reside here in Toms River. The current funding formula will cause the Toms River Schools to lose more than $83,000,000.00 over the next five years. This drastic reduction in State aid will result in over 400 staff cuts (83 this year alone), larger class sizes and the eventual elimination of extracurricular activities and athletic programs.

From a law enforcement perspective, the elimination of extra-curricular activities and athletic programs are of particular concern. Approximately 13,000 students in Toms River Schools participate in extra-curricular activities and/or athletic programs. For these students, their day does not end in the early afternoon. The research is very clear that after school hours tend to be the most generative time for juvenile delinquency and problem behaviors. In fact, during the school week, studies show that juvenile crime peaks between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The importance of after-school extracurricular activities and athletic programs cannot be understated.

I truly believe there is a direct correlation between how adolescents spend their time and juvenile delinquency. Adolescents that spend their after-school time with positive adult supervision exhibit better behavioral outcomes, including fewer delinquent behaviors, better school performance and higher positive aspirations. The ripple effect of the reduction in State aid in Toms River clearly goes beyond the classroom.

Additionally, Toms River is the county seat in Ocean County. We are, collectively, ground zero for the opioid epidemic in New Jersey. Regrettably, we rank highest in the rates of addiction, overdoses and Narcan deployments statewide. More adolescents with less to do during their after-school hours will undermine our most diligent efforts to halt this trend. This is a grave concern.

The potential rise in juvenile delinquency will undoubtedly emanate into our community and have a deleterious effect on the health and well-being of our children. I respectfully request that you take whatever action that is necessary to address these concerns.

Thank you for your attention and courtesies in this regard.

Respectfully,

BRADLEY D. BILLHIMER
OCEAN COUNTY PROSECUTOR
BDB/bla
cc: Honorable Stephen M. Sweeney, Senate President
Honorable Craig J. Coughlin, Speaker of the General Assembly
Honorable Paul A. Sarlo, Chair -- Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee
Dr. Lamont Repollet, Commissioner of Education
Honorable M. Teresa Ruiz, Chair -- Senate Education Committee
Honorable Pamela R. Lampitt, Chair -- Assembly Education Committee
Honorable James W. Holzapfel
Honorable Gregory P. McGuckin
Honorable David W. Wolfe
Superintendent David M. Healy
Assistant Superintendent Debra L. McKenna
Assistant Superintendent James Ricotta, Jr.
Assistant Superintendent Marc A. Natanagara
Members of the Board of Education

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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