School officials expressed near-disbelief while state legislators fumed with outrage over cuts to school funding proposed in Gov. Phil Murphy’s annual budget, despite an increase in education spending by over $1 billion.
“This must be a mistake,” described Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Citta, on his reaction to hearing the news that Trenton would slash the district’s funding by a staggering $14.4 million, representing 32 percent of the district’s total state funding.
“At the moment we are trying to quantify the irreversible damage these cuts will do to our kids in our beloved school community,” said Citta. “Our initial calculation had a worst-case scenario of $2.8 million in aid reduction which, in our planning, was impossible to endure and move forward. So you can imagine our reaction yesterday when we learned of the $14.4 million cut.”
Meanwhile, Brick schools will also suffer a sharp decline in state funding, to the tune of $2.54 million, representing 14.8 percent of its total funding. Other local districts to see the ax fall include Seaside Heights, which will see a $215,059 cut (representing 31 percent of its funding) and Lavallette, which will see a 3 percent cut. Lavallette received minimal state funding even before Murphy’s budget was released Thursday.
“Governor Murphy’s massive school aid cuts to Brick and Toms River are malicious and unnecessary when he’s building a $10 billion budget surplus and putting $1 billion more into schools in other parts of the state,” State Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean) said. “There’s absolutely no reason that schools in Ocean County or anywhere else should have their funding cut when the state is so flush with cash.”
Republicans have accused Murphy of punishing school district in Republican-leaning areas of the state in favor of increases in funding for districts in friendlier political territory.
Brick school officials have already warned that staff reductions are expected for the 2023-24 school year. The latest round of funding cuts will likely have the same effect on neighboring districts, especially Toms River. Murphy, meanwhile, touted his administration’s budget as one which is set on “providing students throughout our state with the world-class education they deserve.”
“This year’s budget proposal demonstrates our ongoing commitment to working towards fully funding our schools, expanding pre-K throughout the state, growing our educator workforce, and promoting the success of our students,” Murphy said in a statement, which was silent on cuts to certain districts.
According to school aid data provided today by the New Jersey Department of Education, nearly half of the school districts in the 10th legislative district, representing northern and central Ocean County, would have funding reduced under the governor’s budget proposal.
“Increased funding for schools shouldn’t come at the expense of other children’s education,” said Assemblyman Gregory P. McGuckin (R-Ocean). “All children deserve a thorough and efficient education, but Murphy’s budget and funding formula picks winners and losers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been taken from Ocean County school districts to increase funding in Democrat districts. If Murphy really wants to address the learning loss all students experienced from his draconian lockdowns, he has to fully fund all schools.”
Assemblyman John Catalano said there is “nothing left for these districts to cut” following a cumulative tens of millions of dollars in state funding cut over the past five years.
“Unless you want classrooms without teachers, the governor’s budget cuts will lead to huge property tax increases in these towns,” Catalano said. “It seems crazy these harmful cuts are being proposed while Governor Murphy is building a $10 billion budget surplus that isn’t helping anyone.”
County officials have also blasted the proposed budget.
“We have seen this time and again,” Ocean County Commissioner Joseph Vicari said. “Ocean County families are burdened with higher school taxes while nearly all of the state aid increases go to the cities.”
Other local districts facing major state-aid cuts include Jackson, Lacey and Stafford townships.
While Ocean County school systems will see sharp reductions in funding, state dollars will flow from Trenton to various capital projects for other districts across the state.
The budget includes $250 million for Schools Development Authority projects, drawing from $1.9 billion appropriated to the Schools Development Authority (SDA) from the Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund last year. The state will also add $832 million in K-12 formula aid statewide for the 2023-24 school year, though none of this funding is slated to go to local districts.
“Governor Murphy’s State budgets have substantially increased investment in New Jersey schools. The proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget continues that historic investment,” said Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting state Commissioner of Education. “Governor Murphy’s spending plan demonstrates the importance of strong educational systems and a commitment to the vitality of our State investment. Moreover, the Fiscal Year 2024 budget focuses on crucial initiatives that our schools, staff, and students so desperately need, ranging from high-impact tutoring to the improvement in the culture and climate of the teaching profession.”
Meanwhile, in Ocean County, officials were grappling with how to absorb the funding cuts while also complying with the state’s 2 percent cap on tax expenditures and levies. The state’s formula, as implemented over the last five years, has found local districts’ property taxes to be too low, with state funding cuts that followed. Several districts have initiated litigation over the issue, beginning with a motion that forced the state to release the funding formula, which Trenton originally argued was proprietary and should not have been made public.
“Rest assured, however, that no stone will be left unturned as we work to resolve what is quite honestly a monumentally unrealistic reduction,” said Citta. “This isn’t a fiscal cliff; this is a fiscal apocalypse.”