LACEY – Local school administrators introduced the district’s 2023-2024 tentative budget to an audience large enough to require use of an overflow meeting room.
“It’s a balanced budget, but it’s an awful budget,” shared Superintendent of Schools Dr. Vanessa R. Pereira. “In the past two weeks, we were forced to revise it and reduce it drastically.”
Changes came after the district learned that instead of losing an anticipated $2 million in state aid, cuts for the 2023-2024 school year would be nearly doubled. The reduction comes on top of five previous years of decreased state aid and culminates in the 2024-2025 school year for total state funding losses of over $13 million.
District leaders said the state aid reductions and other financial obligations contributed to an almost $10 million deficit for next year’s budget. More than $6 million of the shortfalls are attributable to salary increases, heightened costs for health benefits, special education and transportation.
Bills introduced in both branches of the state legislature could lessen the financial blow with a total of $102,784,455 moved from the Property Tax Relief Fund to the Department of Education. The local district’s portion of the supplemental school aid is set at $2,619,533 pending approval.
Meanwhile, the existing set of numbers used to calculate the proposed budget calls for layoffs, co-curricular and athletic program cuts, and will most likely result in larger class sizes. Other reduced line items include instructional and non-instructional supplies, staff professional development expenses, and home instructional costs. Some programs falling under the special education umbrella will also experience lesser funding as a result of the shortfalls.
“Drastic staffing reductions in all areas will be made, resulting in the increase of K-12 class sizes at every school,” Pereira wrote in a letter to district families. “All non-tenured certificated staff members have been notified and all full-time paraprofessionals have been informed of a proposed change in status.”
Personnel reduction accounts for the largest savings in the budget, with 73 certificated positions earmarked for layoffs. Paraprofessionals and health aides employed by the district would move from full time to part time and lose their health benefits. Other jobs will also be eliminated, including full-time positions through attrition.
Lacey was approved for a full-funding of a preschool program that will begin next year. The moneys from that program cannot be used for K-12 students.
The district intends to realign schools with Lanoka Harbor, Cedar Creek, and Forked River Schools classes for grades 1-5. Mill Pond School will be used for Pre-K -kindergarten students. The Middle School will welcome sixth graders to join those in grades 7 and 8.
Students, staff members, and parents were among the many people who spoke during the time allotted for public comments. A 16-year-old student who walked to the podium with his paraprofessional behind him, received a standing ovation.
“I have had six different paraprofessionals before I was even in first grade,” said Jacob Bahooshian. “I can’t function without a consistent paraprofessional by my side.”
Jacob said that a prior “reduction in force” caused his previous paraprofessional to leave the district. He doesn’t want that to happen again and have his education adversely affected.
As Debbie Chinique stood beside Jacob, her connection to her student was evident. Her face exhibited pride as she admitted that Jacob gave her the courage to also speak in the public forum.
Saying that she’s enjoyed her time at the district working with special education families, Chinique emphasized the role paraprofessionals play in providing structure and consistency.
“I had the privilege of watching Jake grow up and become a fierce advocate for himself,” said Chinique. “I’ve seen him expand his horizons and do a lot of things that people did not expect him to do.”
Many of the other students and parents who spoke on behalf of the paraprofessionals echoed similar sentiments. One mom credited her child’s para with helping him speak his first words.
The loss of health benefits acts as a point of major contention for many of the paraprofessionals. A number of the staff members faced with reduced hours and a lapse in coverage have worked for the district for more than 20 years. Some have experienced recent medical issues and shuddered at the idea that they could be without insurance.
Rosemary Bowen said she considered herself a veteran paraprofessional, with over 24 years at the Lanoka Harbor School. Bowen suffered a debilitating stroke just weeks ago that required her to be airlifted to the hospital.
“One of my first questions to my team of doctors was when I would be able to return to work because that’s how important my job has been,” Bowen shared. “I only ask the Lacey Township School District value our dedication to the community and the children by keeping us full time…because our dedication is not part time.”
Some of the questions raised at the meeting concerned the cancellation of arts and athletic programs. District leaders said no concrete plans have been put into place regarding elimination of particular activities.
According to Sharon Silvia, the district’s Business Administrator, the per pupil cost for Lacey students is $15,771 as compared to the state’s median cost of $17,008 in 2022.
Silvia also said Lacey Township Schools rank third from the bottom for K-12 districts when it comes to administrative costs.
The first round of state funding cuts dates back to the 2018-2019 school year when the district lost $586,000 in state aid. Senate Bill S-2 made it legal for the state to redistribute aid according to a heavily disputed formula that deemed some communities as not contributing their “fair share” and others in need of additional funds.
This year alone, Lacey Schools received the tenth largest dollar decrease in state funding throughout the state. Three other Ocean County districts also made the top ten list.
Local school districts are not permitted to raise property taxes more than 2 percent on an annual basis. A referendum may be placed on the ballot asking voters to approve increases in excess of the two percent. This has not yet been suggested as an action plan by the Lacey Board. The Township of Ocean (Waretown) School District was able to hold onto eight teachers last year after voters approved an increase in the tax levy by $840,000.
Lacey’s 2023-2024 tentative budget is set at $72,181,044, down by 16.51 percent from the 2022-2023 budget of $86,459,868.
Operating revenue for the Lacey Township School District’s 2022-2023 revised budget totaled $75,362,869. The 2023-2024 tentative budget shows reduced operating revenues of $66,669,473.
“When we take the taxes raised, and then compare that with the assessed value,” said Silvia. “The school tax rate for 2023 will be 1.394 percent.”
Silvia said the increase equates to about $5 per month based on the average house assessment in the community.
Looking For Solutions
Even before legislators proposed the supplemental aid that is still pending approval, the district began exploring resources. Senator Chris Connors and Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin have both offered their support at the state level. The Township Committee has also met with school representatives to work with them on a plan.
Pereira and other Ocean County superintendents recently met with the Commissioner of Education. They learned there is no mechanism that allows for amnesty.
Adequacy aid would help districts like Lacey that cannot come up with their local cost share without going over the two percent tax cap. Seven other school districts are due to receive that aid.
A link on the district’s website provides contact information for those who wish to send letters to advocate on behalf of students.