Cuts to school funding on the part of the state have already resulted in larger class sizes, staff layoffs and – decided Thursday night – the demise of Herbertsville Elementary School except for preschool classes.
District officials warned that it is likely a second school will close in the coming five school years, each of which will have its funding reduced by more than $4 million until a permanent $22 million cut is applied. The cuts are a product of S-2, a bill that was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy as part of an agreement with state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). For taxpayers, the district is legally obligated to raise taxes to the maximum allowed by law, 2 percent, each year for seven years. But even those tax hikes will not recoup all of the funding lost from the state. That’s where things get scary.
James Edwards, the district’s business administrator, went over the potential costs of a bill that is gaining steam in the state legislature. Instead of restoring funding to districts like Brick, the state may allow the districts to simply ignore the cap and raise local property taxes to the equivalent amount of money being cut.
“They’ve arrived at the idea that we’re a wealthy community and they want to give us the ability to raise taxes,” said Edwards. “Believe me, it’s not what I’d prefer.”
The board would not be obligated by law to raise taxes under the legislation, but officials may not be left with a choice if class sizes balloon to well over 30 students, sports programs are cut and staff is let go. In the worst-case scenario of township taxpayers absorbing the entire $22 million cut within their property tax bills, school taxes would rise by a staggering 18.97 percent.
For the owner of a home worth $295,100, the township average, taxes would instantly rise by $603. Owners of homes worth more than the average would see even higher increases on scale.
The worst part, besides the bill: “That does not get us where we need to be for 2021 because there’s no accounting of increased costs,” Edwards said, explaining that raising taxes by $22 million would only recoup the current level of state aid and would not cover general cost increases such as salaries and benefits, equipment, building maintenance and other factors.
Brick requested emergency aid from the state to stem the tide of budget slashing, but was fully denied, being offered $0. Ironically, the stated reason for denial was the district’s efficiency in spending. Brick has one of the lowest per-pupil costs for administration in the state, Edwards said. Also, the state denied the aid based on the fact that Brick’s school district had a balanced budget this year – but the budget must be balanced by law, and it took more than 60 staff reductions to find that balance. Also, the state did not look kindly on the fact that some money was dedicated to building maintenance.
“In their view we should have just put it toward the operating [budget],” Edwards said.
Acting Superintendent Sean Cranston said he was planning on getting more active online and with legislators to make Brick’s case. He urged members of the community to use the hashtag #SaveBrickSchools on social media and send tweets to Murphy, Sweeney and the state education commissioner Lamont Repollet.
“It’s one little thing, but if we blow up his account, maybe he won’t read it, but someone will read it,” said Cranston. “We’re a big community – we control a lot of Ocean County.”
The lingering question is, if the state does pass the bill, would Brick’s Board of Education members utilize it to raise taxes?
“I have a hard time talking about a significant tax increase without having a reason why,” said Board President Stephanie Wohlrab. “To date I haven’t seen a formula that states we’re below adequacy.”
The state has refused to turn over its funding formula, claiming the formula is proprietary. Brick is pursuing litigation that would force the state to turn over the data, and northern Ocean County’s members of the state Senate and Assembly have sponsored a bill mandating that the formula be made public. The bill has not seen movement since it was proposed.
In the short term, changes are coming to the Brick district above and beyond the end of traditional classes at Herbertsville School.
“If we have an AP class with seven kids in it, we’re not going to be running it next year,” said Cranston.
Also, “30 to 32 children in a classroom is going to be the norm,” said Susan McNamara, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation for the district. Officials are also looking into offering large, lecture-style history classes.
Rumblings in Trenton suggest the bill allowing taxes to be raised beyond the cap is being “fast tracked,” said Edwards.
“The solution the state is coming up with is, ‘raise your local taxes,'” he said.