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Brick’s ‘Dire’ School Budget Fails Vote, Would Have Shed 50 Staff and Raised Taxes

Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)

The Board of Education failed last week on a vote to adopt the 2024-25 school budget, though the grueling spending plan that has been widely derided as unfair to Brick students and taxpayers may come back to the board for a second vote, wherein a member of the current board majority may elect to vote in favor of its passage.

The 2024-25 school spending plan represents the final year of state funding cuts that has become known as the “S-2” plan, named for the bill that ordered them under a deal hatched between Gov. Phil Murphy and former Senate President Steven Sweeney. The bill has been disastrous for Brick Township’s school district, sending class sizes into the 30s in some grade levels and forcing the district to shed 350 positions – more than 20 percent of its total workforce – in five years. Meanwhile, officials have complained that urban districts, more politically-friendly to the Democratic majority in Trenton, have received millions at the cost of suburban districts such as Brick.

At last week’s meeting, a group of three board members who ran on a politically conservative platform voted against adopting the $162,235,456 spending plan that would raise school property taxes by 2.99 percent. The current board majority, while technically non-partisan, is led by Democratic fundraiser Stephanie Wohlrab who serves as president. A Wohlrab ally, Nicole Siebert, was not present at the meeting, leaving a six member board divided between two equal factions. A 3-3 tie vote did not achieve a majority and, therefore, failed.

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The budget will now be sent to the Ocean County Executive Superintendent of Schools, who will determine the next steps, though district Business Administrator James Edwards predicted the county schools chief could remand the budget back to the board for a full vote in May. Siebert’s vote, in that case, would become the deciding vote, assuming all seven board members were present. The budget cannot be modified between now and the next meeting, meaning an identical budget would be up for a vote, notwithstanding any potential legislation from the state that is passed in the interim.

Specifically, the 2024-25 spending plan would eliminate 50 positions, 35 of which are considered instructional. Positions being eliminated are calculated by “full time equivalency,” meaning the positions do not always comport exactly with the number of individuals who could face layoffs. Altogether, the budget eliminated 12 high school teachers, 11 middle school teachers, and 12 preschool and elementary school teachers. It also eliminates 7.5 basic skills teachers and 8.5 support personnel.

Superintendent Thomas Farrell said he is hopeful the cuts will be attained through attrition rather than layoffs, however layoff notices will be distributed to all non-tenured teachers.

The district will add, however, two preschool staff members as well as two preschool aides, one high school autism teacher and one elementary school autism teacher, plus one high school English language teacher to serve non-English speaking students and six part-time bus drivers.

Class sizes would increase under the plan, ranging from a low of 21 students per class and a high of 38 students per class at the elementary level. State law only sets a class size limit – 25 students – for kindergarten, though this can be increased with the presence of an aide in the classroom. Middle school class size averages will be 25 to 29 at both Lake Riviera Middle School and Veterans Memorial Middle School, depending on the grade level. In high school, the average number of students per core subject area will be around 25. Brick Township High School is predicted to have an enrollment of 1,222 students with 26 per class, while Brick Memorial High School will see a student population of 1,274 with an average of 23 students per class, according to Susan MacNamara, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation for the district.

“This is a budget that is fiscally responsible, but at the same time, very dire,” said Farrell, who admitted that while his staff were successful in balancing the budget for next school year, it is not one he is proud of.

“This is not a budget I am proud of, as we’ve had to cut staff and instructional positions,” he said, adding that he would no longer consider the district’s two high schools to be “comprehensive” high schools due to the number of electives and programs that have had to be cut over the six years since the Murphy-Sweeney plan was put into place by the state.

“They did not fully fund special education aid or transportation aid, which are Brick’s two biggest areas,” said Farrell. “But still, there are some urban school districts that get $100 million in state aid and they average almost $30,000 per student just in their state aid, while we in Brick average just about $2,500 per student.”

The per-student state funding, alone, in these districts is more than what Brick spends in total per pupil, said Farrell.

“I’ve been quoted as saying fully funding a formula that is antiquated and flawed is the definition of insanity,” he said. “The state fully funds what is called equalization aid, however that is something Brick does not get because we are considered too wealthy.”

Brick taxpayers, according to the state’s current formula, should be paying more $57 million in additional property taxation toward the school district.

Under the budget that failed to attract enough board member support, the district’s total operating expenditures would rise from $160,370,747 to $162,235,456 from the current school year to the 2024-25 school year, up 1.16 percent. The total operating expenses of the district will increase by 2.01 percent.

The local tax levy will rise by 2.99 percent – nearly a full percentage point over the state’s 2 percent cap – thanks to legislation that allows school district’s in precarious financial positions such as Brick to introduce larger tax increases. Controversially, Gov. Phil Murphy has remarked that districts affected by the formula he signed into law should close schools or eliminate sports programs, however Brick has managed to avoid both. There have been rumblings that the state legislature could, at some point before the state’s fiscal year ends in June, authorize districts facing scenarios like Brick’s to raise school taxes by a staggering 9.99 percent, however that legislation has not picked up steam.

The tax increase also reflects the sunsetting of federal pandemic-era programs that represented a temporary influx of revenue.

Brick schools continue to be funded “under adequacy,” now by more than $26 million as compared to the $17 million in the prior year, Farrell said. As the School Funding Reform Act continues to consider Brick a wealthy school district, the amount of “local share” – the cost burden imposed on local taxpayers – continues to be below the state’s determination for Brick, now by over $57 million.

During a public comment portion of the meeting, resident Marc Vazquez suggested asking the Brick Township Municipal Utilities Authority for a one-time influx of funding, as the water-sewer agency provided to the municipal government. That item cannot be legally added given the date, officials said. Vazquez also suggested eliminating supervisory positions, such as vice principals, rather than classroom teachers, however Farrell said Brick is already starved for administrators and has the lowest administrative cost per pupil in the entire state.

“Four of our six elementary schools do not have assistant principals,” said Farrell, explaining that these supervisors often deal with state mandates on bullying and special education, plus programs for non-English speaking students.

Brick’s non-English speaking student population has grown from less than 100 to over 600 over the last six years, and students speak 18 languages natively. This group of students, known as “English Language Learners” in state education parlance, represents a special concern, as the positions being eliminated will make it more difficult to educate those children.

When the budget came to a vote, the conservative faction of the board, consisting of Frances DiBenedictis, Madeline Iannarone and Mike Mesmer voted against the plan. Wohlrab, and board members Victoria Pakala, along with Alison Kennedy, voted in favor of it. Siebert was absent from the meeting.

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