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8-2-15 Flat funding, rising taxesforce Jersey schools To Cut

Press of Atlantic City - Flat funding, rising taxes force South Jersey schools to cut

Sunday, August 2, 2015 10:45 am DIANE D’AMICO, Staff Writer

“We really need to hit the reset button now,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents suburban districts. “If we even tried to run the state aid formula now, there would be big winners and losers just based on enrollment shifts…We have to start having the discussion of how to get out of this ever-deepening hole.”

There will be no new math books in Egg Harbor Township schools this year.Students who participate in high school athletic teams or clubs pay a $100 annual fee.Preschool and even full-day kindergarten are on a wish list likely to remain unfulfilled.“We can’t even begin to go there,” said school board member and parent Peter Castellano.Education is downsizing in New Jersey, and schools are feeling the pinch even as local property taxes continue to rise.Perennially flat state aid, increasing expenses, and a 2 percent cap on increases in the local property-tax levy are forcing tough choices at the district level and increasing inequitable spending.“We really need to hit the reset button now,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents suburban districts. “If we even tried to run the state aid formula now, there would be big winners and losers just based on enrollment shifts.”Nowhere is this more obvious than in Egg Harbor Township, once among the fastest-growing municipalities in the state.But state education funding has never kept up with enrollment, which increased almost 35 percent, to nearly 8,000 students, between 2000 and 2007.Casino closings have led to enrollment dipping to 7,600 students, but new affordable-housing mandates could again bring in more familiesThe School Reform Funding Act of 2008 promised a more equitable distribution of funds based on student needs. It fell victim to the recession and has been replaced by a largely “flat funding” model that seems to treat everyone equally but actually benefits shrinking districts while penalizing those with growing enrollment or need.Annual state operating aid has been almost flat, hovering just below $8 billion. Fully funding the school-aid formula would cost another $1 billion per year.Meanwhile, the total property taxes New Jersey residents pay to support their local schools has increased from $12.7 billion in 2009 to $14 billion in 2014, according to state data. But with the cap, that’s only about half the growth rate of the previous five years. In 2004, local taxpayers contributed $10.2 billion to their schools.In 2001, state aid made up 60 percent of the Egg Harbor Township School District’s budget. In 2015, it is less than 40 percent.Egg Harbor Township’s $40 million in state aid for 2015-16 is less than the almost $41 million the district got five years ago. If the formula were fully funded, the district would get an extra $8 million this school year. Since 2009 it has been underfunded by $84 million.During the same five years, local school property taxes have increased about $10 million to almost $76 million.Today, the district is one of more than 200 in the state considered to be spending “below adequacy,” based on the formula.No one expects the state to add more funding, especially with its $83 billion pension shortfall crisis.“You see big shifts in aid for schools going to the pensions,” said Gordon MacInness of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a former assistant education commissioner. “It eats into the support for local districts. It’s a dire situation because the state is in financial shambles.”Meanwhile, the state has mandated more services. Districts had to accommodate new PARCC computer-based state tests, a new teacher evaluation system and increasing special-education costs. Staff salaries are growing more slowly, but raises still average just over 2 percent a year, and there are annual increases in health benefit costs.In Egg Harbor Township, the Community Partnership, an organization founded in 2006 to help fund capital expenses, contributed $30,000 last year to pay for one of four new computer labs at the Joyanne Miller School so the school would be ready for the PARCC.Superintendent Scott McCartney said the line between what the school district should pay for and what the foundation will fund has shifted more to necessities.“In the early days, I’d say, ‘No, that’s the district’s responsibility,’” McCartney said. “But I’ve had to refocus to protect programs.” a piano and installed new playground equipment. This year it is funding another computer lab at Alder Avenue Middle School.“These are things the budget can’t handle any more,” Donovan said. “Our focus is how many children can we affect.”Parents interviewed said the district has maintained a good education for their students, but they see the impact in other ways. Many have stepped up to help raise money.Bob and Shae Dailyda’s sons play baseball and are in the band, so they pay the activity fee and participate in the booster clubs.“The booster clubs are now doing full-time fundraising to sustain the programs,” Shae Dailyda said.Tracey Wiser, who has a daughter in fifth grade, is active in the Community Partnership and school parent clubs. She said with so many families struggling, even fundraising has its limits.“We had a talent show and were very careful about the ticket prices because we wanted families to be able to attend,” she said.Almost half of all students in the district are eligible for the federal free-lunch program, up from less than 30 percent a decade ago. More than 700 properties within the school district are in some stage of foreclosure.School board member Castellano has seen the impact of cuts on his two daughters, ages 15 and 12. The older one got instrumental-music instruction starting in fourth grade. The younger one had to wait another year. The older girl got Spanish starting in first grade, the younger did not. Both will see fewer course offerings at the high school.Despite the cuts, the local tax levy has gone up to the cap each year. Those increases have maintained the core programs, so far.“The taxes do keep going up,” said Bob Dailyda. “But that’s the price we pay to have the kids well educated.”The district now has 100 fewer staff members than it did five years ago. A proposal to privatize paraprofessionals created major controversy this year and was abandoned, but at a cost of three staff members.Special-education costs continue to climb as districts work to meet the mandate to keep more students in their hometown schools.Castellano said special-education students make up about 13 percent of the enrollment but cost at least 25 percent of the budget. The district’s recognized autism program has actually encouraged families to move into the district.McCartney said balancing a budget has come down to cutting individual items.“There is no low-hanging fruit anymore,” he said. “We are down to not buying a school bus, a snowblower, a tuba. When I can’t buy math books, core items, there’s not much more I can do.”“The formula is hitting the fan,” Strickland said. “We have to start having the discussion of how to get out of this ever-deepening hole.”Contact: 609-272-7241 DDamico@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDamico


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