Just days after parents were shocked by the news of a school closing and the dire financial straits in which the Brick school district has found itself due to state funding cuts, dozens of residents urged the township council to intervene.
The council is limited in terms of any direct action it can take to mitigate the damage caused by the $22 million the state plans to take away from the district each year after a seven-year draw-down, but Mayor John Ducey and council members pledged their support. The municipal budget – which funds police, public works and other services – cannot be commingled with the school budget. By law, the school district is its own entity and the township is its own entity, however Ducey said he has attempted to lobby top state officials, up to Gov. Phil Murphy, and has thus far been unsuccessful.
“It is having very real, dire consequences for Brick schools, its children and its taxpayers,” Board of Education President Stephanie Wohlrab told the mayor and council, calling the funding cuts “catastrophic” for the township. “Hopefully this will shine a beacon of light on this unfair, back-room deal with taxpayer dollars.”
The school district is expected to organize a rally in Trenton in January, Wohlrab said, and municipal officials said they would attend. Also, Ducey said he will use social media to help spread word of the effect the cuts would have on the township and tag state officials in the posts. Meanwhile, the council is planning to pass resolutions urging the legislature to pass two pending bills – one which would make the state’s funding formula public and another that would prevent cuts from being levied upon school districts whose residents were affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Ducey also shined light into conversations he has had with officials, including state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. Specifically, he pointed to one conversation at an event in Long Branch where Sweeney, the architect of the bill that cut Brick’s funding, was in attendance.
“He said you should’ve been cutting and raising taxes all along, and now you’re going to pay the piper,” Ducey recalled.
Sweeney’s bill cut so-called “adjustment aid” to school districts in which the formula (which remains a secret) calculates taxes are too low. Brick, according to proponents of Sweeney’s measure, is too wealthy a community to receive the level of funding it was receiving, and should have imposed higher property taxes upon residents to compensate. Others, however, hold that the funding cuts were politically targeted and values children differently depending on the town in which they live.
Ducey said he supports a plan to fully equalize school funding for every student in the state, a proposal from former Republican Gov. Chris Christie that never picked up traction in the Democrat-controlled legislature while Christie was running a presidential campaign.
“We need our children treated the same as every other child in this state,” said Ducey. “We’re not secondhand citizens because we live in Brick and they think we’re millionaires. If we have to go to the Supreme Court, we’ll go to the Supreme Court.”
The mayor also took a swipe at legislation passed this week that would provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and policies Murphy has enacted that provide millions in college grants to people in the country illegally.
“Kids are here, legally, were born here, and you’re taking money away from them to give to people who are here illegally?” the mayor asked rhetorically. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Parents ferociously applauded the mayor’s lengthy remarks on funding and begged the township to intervene in whatever way it could.
“I’m here because I promised my daughter I wouldn’t stop fighting,” said Melissa Munnings, whose child attends Herbertsville School, which will close and be converted to a preschool due to the state’s funding cuts. “I’m here because we need your help. We’ve had some pretty terrible and scary things happen recently in and around our schools, and it was comforting to see how you responded to those situations. I feel that closing this school is creating a divide.”
Larry Reid, a former school board member, said more action must be taken.
“I’ve seen these other demonstrations where they put out the address of the governor and people camp outside his house and protest,” said Reid. “That’s where this is going next.”
Officials did not seem keen on supporting a bill pending in the legislature that would allow districts like Brick to raise property taxes above the state’s 2 percent cap to make up for the entire loss of funding from Trenton. In Brick, that would equate to a staggering 19 percent school property tax hike. One resident said she may not be able to afford to remain in Brick if the cost of living continues to rise.
“Education is worthy of investing in, but at the same time, increased rent doesn’t make things easier for residents here,” said Roxanne Jones.
While municipal officials are largely separated from the school funding debate, Brick’s elected leaders said they would be proactive in the campaign to change the funding formula and fully fund Brick schools.
“I think we have day one of a movement,” said Councilman Art Halloran, reacting to the large attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting. “We have a movement now, and if we stay together and consistent, we can make something happen.”
Brick’s school budgets will continue to lose state funding for another five years, part of a seven year cycle, until the full $22 million cut is in place. Over the entire cycle, it is estimated that $95 million in cumulative losses will decimate the district. Acting Superintendent Sean Cranston said it is likely that an additional school will close, many AP classes will be eliminated, and sports may have to move to a “pay to play” system.
When Wohlrab, from the audience, said a rally was being organized for Jan. 9, Ducey offered his support.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Let’s storm it!”