BRICK – Members of the school community attended the most recent Township Council meeting to ask the governing body for help and support in challenging a $22 million cut in state aid over a seven-year period.
The district is going into the third year of the budget cuts, and parents are finally seeing how dire the situation is after the school administration recently announced that Herbertsville Elementary School would be closing.
School administrators, Board of Education members and about two dozen parents wearing green t-shirts that said “Save Our Schools” attended the council meeting, which was the first time a significant number of members of the school community have organized over the budget cuts that were announced in July 2018.
The state will not reveal the funding formula used to calculate and allocate state aid to school districts, despite multiple public record requests from Brick and other districts that are considered to be overfunded. The Department of Education has said the wealth calculations contained within the funding formula are “proprietary.”
Addressing the council and mayor, Board of Education President Stephanie Wohlrab said the state arbitrarily determines how much money is allocated to each school district without regard to district need or ability to pay.
As a result, state funding was increased to some school districts and cut from others, including Brick, which has suffered “catastrophic reductions,” she said.
The incremental cuts have so far resulted in a reduction to administrative, teacher and support staff positions, the elimination of educational course offerings, various co-curricular electives, extracurricular activities, and a school closure, she said.
The closure of Herbertsville Elementary School would have a ripple effect and would result in larger class sizes and “very real dire consequences for Brick schools, its children and its taxpayers,” Wohlrab said.
Brick is once again filing an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request for the funding formula, but this time would be filing a joint request with 25-50 other school districts to the Commissioner of Education and the Department of the Treasury to obtain the information, which should be available as a public record, she said.
If the state refuses to comply with the OPRA request, Brick and the other districts would file an appeal with the Superior Court to compel the state to disclose the records.
“We are asking you, Mayor and Council, to continue to work with us in seeking equity and transparency,” Wohlrab said.
Addressing the governing body, acting Superintendent of Schools Sean Cranston said that State Senate President Stephen Sweeney wants to propose a bill that would allow local school districts to raise taxes over the 2 percent cap to make up for the funding shortfall.
“I am here tonight to ask you to continue the fight with us in demanding that the state release the [funding] formula,” he said.
If the state had determined that residents of Brick are being undertaxed, taxpayers deserve to know how that conclusion was reached, Cranston said.
Former Board of Education member Larry Reid said it is “an absolute disgrace” that the state is withholding the formula.
“It’s outrageous, and you’re friendly with him, he swore you in here,” Reid said to Mayor John G. Ducey. “It’s outrageous that he gets away with this.”
Ducey said that as Mayor, “if you’re not friendly with the governor of the state, that’s a big mistake. There’s (Department of Transportation) grants, there’s work to be done…but at the same time, if he tries to hurt Brick I fight him on every issue.”
Ducey said it was “awesome” to see the number of people from the school community at the council meeting, because when he attended a march on Trenton last year, only one single parent came.
“I’ll tell you what, as mayor of this town it was embarrassing for me,” he said. “As a mayor, that was a rough day. I couldn’t believe it.”
Toms River had over 30 buses and hundreds of people at the rally, and Brick had 30-something people who were all part of the school district administration except for himself and one parent.
Ducey gave the crowd a civic lesson and explained that the school district and the municipal government are two separate entities with their own governing bodies and separate budgets.
“The state is stealing money from our kids, and treating our kids different than they’re treating another kid who lives in another town,” the mayor said. “That is crazy. It’s the worst thing I ever heard.”
He said he met with Governor Murphy on the school funding issue. The governor said he wanted to close the government last year over the school funding issue.
“He didn’t do it. He backed out. He gave in to Steve Sweeney. And that’s on Murphy. But now it’s on all of us to change everybody’s mind,” Ducey said.
The Mayor met with Senator Sweeney in Long Branch and Toms River. “He said ‘[the residents of Brick] don’t deserve it. You should have been cutting, raising taxes all along, and you guys didn’t do it and now you’re gonna pay the piper,’” he said.
Ducey said the backbone of any town in the school system. He said people move to towns for their school systems.
The Mayor recalled a conversation he had with NJ Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet.
“I said what the heck can we do? You’re killing our school system and destroying our families. His answer was ‘what’s the problem? How come you’re losing the money?’”
Ducey said with the loss of ratables after Superstorm Sandy, taxes are already “sky-high,” and there is an increase in students with free and reduced cost lunches.
“Do you think our income is so high because we have oceanfront property and homes of high value?” he asked Repollet. “They think we have millionaires all over the place. We’re a blue collar town,” Ducey said.
The mayor said the residents of Brick should “storm Trenton. Let’s get the buses together and go out there and say listen, we’re for real. We’re Brick, we’re together as one town and let’s change these things.”
The Township Council passed a resolution asking for the funding formula and asked for a new formula that’s fair, that gives the same amount of money to every student in the state, he said.
“It fell on deaf ears. For the state to not turn over the funding formula is illegal,” Ducey said.