Lawmaker, State Monitor: Cutting School Aid Was Mistake

Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-12th) tells the Jackson Board of Education that state aid cuts are the state’s mistake. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  JACKSON – A local lawmaker, a state monitor, members of the township Board of Education and several administrators all agreed: the problem concerning the school district’s slash in state aid funding can be placed squarely on the state itself and not the district.

  The district borrowed $10 million to patch the hole in the current year budget created by the lack of state funding. Jackson was one of several districts that lost aid when the state switched to a new funding formula referred to as S-2.

  As a requirement of the loan, the state required a monitor to oversee those funds. They appointed Carole Knopp-Morris, 85, who has served as a state monitor for more than a decade. Prior to working for the Department of Education, Morris served as a superintendent, executive superintendent of schools and assistant superintendent.

  Morris said the school district has shown no fiscal mismanagement. The numbers calculated by the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) for the S-2 state aid formula didn’t add up to what the district should have been receiving in state aid funding.

  “It is not a fiscal problem but a revenue problem here,” Morris said.

  “Will you advocate for us to show S-2 isn’t working?” School Board Vice President Tina Kas asked Morris. She said that were Morris to present her findings it would back up what school districts like Jackson have been telling Governor Phil Murphy and lawmakers in Trenton for years.

  Morris replied that state monitors generally don’t take part in testifying before legislative boards.

  Morris began working in the Jackson school district on a part-time basis and her work is expected to last for a year. It is not known if her time might be extended as the school district is seeking a second loan from the DOE to balance its 2024-25 budget.

  A state monitor can be paid up to $300,000 a year to oversee almost every aspect of a school district’s operations – a cost that the district would have to pick up. Some news publications have reported that Morris is being paid $160,000 a year.

  Legislative District 12 Assemblyman Alex Sauickie introduced legislation calling for state monitor salaries to be covered by the state and not the school districts that are assigned state monitors. Morris has oversight of the district and has been focusing on areas of fiscal management and the expenditure of all of the school district’s funds.

The Jackson Board of Education and school administration have been trying to make up for a lack of state aid. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

Jackson, Plumsted Hit Hard

  Assemblyman Sauickie made a presentation during a recent BOE meeting. He had testified before the Assembly Budget Committee that morning about proposed new state aid cuts to Jackson and cumulative cuts to both Jackson and Plumsted townships.

  He repeated much of his testimony during his presentation to the Board saying, “the state aid funds coming back to these school districts are disproportionate to income taxes being paid to the state. In District 12 the overall loss this year was $1.5 million and while the 16 districts I represent did see slight increases, two districts, Old Bridge saw a cut of $2.5 million and Jackson for the seventh year in a row, saw a cut of $4.5 million.”

  “The Plumsted School District in Ocean County saw an increase but I wanted to make sure this body understands the cumulative effect of the last seven years and it will be Jackson and Plumsted that I specifically call out today,” the lawmaker added during his testimony.

  “The crux of the problem starts with the Department of Education’s determination of equalization aid. That calculation drives the funding of other line items and in the case of Jackson the DOE said the district was overfunded by $16 million. This seems to be the root of the problem,” he said.

  Sauickie continued, “in Jackson, the high schools now have classrooms 30 to one. In Plumsted it is 28 to one, at all levels. These are far from recommended ratios and now is the worse time for these schools to be working under these levels.”

  He also noted that Jackson’s cuts since S-2 was enacted had reached the $20 million mark and that the DOE’s own report shows the district “enrollment is flat. In that time the district cut over 200 positions, certain sports no longer exist and for the first time in its history the district had to last year take out a $10 million loan.”

  Sauickie told the Assembly committee that cumulative cuts to the Plumsted school district led to their request to also take out a loan to the DOE. “Please carefully review the budget for items that might otherwise help them in funding items such as transportation and special education taking into account not just this year, but the cumulative effects.”

Board President Testifies

  Board President Giuseppe Palmeri also testified in Trenton concerning the S2 funding issue and the school district’s cuts in funding. “S2 started seven years ago. At the time the Jackson School District received $46 million in state aid.”

  He added, “seven years later we now receive $23 million which is a 50% cut. Our student enrollment went down by 15% but we were cut by 50%. I’m not pointing fingers with this. I honestly think the S2 formula was rolled out with the best intentions.”

  Palmeri said S2 hasn’t worked for every district and Jackson was one that was hurt by it. He noted this was the first time in history Jackson has had to take out a loan with the state and that the only other district in Ocean County was Lakewood. He noted the state monitor and two previous auditors and the Ocean County Superintendent all found the school district “all concluded we don’t have a spending problem we have a revenue problem.”