Waretown To Vote On School Tax Increases   

The Frederick A. Priff School is one of two schools that serve the Ocean Township School District. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  WARETOWN – The Ocean Township Board of Education will be asking voters to approve an increase in the district’s tax levy by $840,000 due to budget shortfalls.

  Ocean Township Schools anticipated a reduction in state aid based on funding formula changes that began in 2018. However, district leaders did not expect they would lose 33.83 percent of state aid for the 2022-2023 school year alone.

  School boards are held to a two percent cap on raising taxes to meet their annual budgets. Any additional increases must be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

  The $840,000 increase would allow the district to continue the employment of eight classroom teachers currently funded by expiring federal COVID grant funds.

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  Approval of the tax levy question would also permit the district to keep current class size guidelines of less than 28 students per class in kindergarten through sixth grade. Pre-school classes are funded by a separate grant.

  “The Board discussed the level of funding they were comfortable with in requesting the draft ballot question,” said Steve Terhune, the school district’s business administrator. “That question is now subject to review by the New Jersey Department of Education and is no different than the entire preliminary budget.”

  According to Terhune, the final version of the ballot question, assuming it is approved by the NJ Department of Education, would be voted on by the Board of Education at their Public Budget Hearing on April 25, 2022. If approved at that meeting, the question would appear on the November General Election ballot.

  Board of Education President Dr. Shawn Denning, Jr. said that he was taken by surprise when the district learned they were losing so much money this particular year.

  “We assumed that because of huge surpluses related to COVID that the state would at least give some one-time grants,” said Denning. “We anticipated losing $800-900 thousand this year and were surprised when they took over $1.2 million.”

  Denning said that without the COVID monies the district received, the board had intended to eliminate eleven positions for the 2021-2022 school year.

  Even if voters agree to the $840,000 increase tax levy, the district will need to lay off three teaching positions. Denning said that he personally advocated for a $1 million increase to avoid losing any staff members.

  “The minimum we need to keep the doors open is essentially a 5 percent increase in the levy,” Denning said. “That’s why we need the referendum to pass.”

  “The district has already eliminated a lot of programs and staff that are not in what I would call core essentials to producing an education,” Denning continued. “We are sharing our business administrator, eliminated positions within our staff, and our administrative offices. We’ve eliminated mid-level supervisors. All of our principals also have other duties that typically would be fulfilled by full time administrators.”

  The district previously operated on large surpluses and avoided raising taxes. In recent years, they’ve used their two percent cap every year and have not let any cap expire.

  Ocean Township Schools could become a non-operating sending district if voters decide against the increased tax levy. Alternatively, the state could issue loans that would need to be repaid.

  “We would then become a monitor district, where the state would send out a monitor to control the district,” Denning explained. “And we would need to repay the loans.”

  One of Denning’s fears is that as a non-sending district, Ocean Township might not have voting representation on the board of another district. There are approximately 500 students in Ocean Township Schools who could ultimately become impacted by any unavoidable changes.

  Some have suggested that Ocean Township consolidate with Stafford and LBI schools as a PreK-12 district. However, Denning says that consolidation still does not represent a big cost savings.

  “You still need these geographic schools.” Denning pointed out. “…You don’t have multiple superintendents, but you have other mid-level administrators, assistant superintendents and other middle level managers.”

  As far as the Board of Education selling properties it owns within the township, Terhune said it would be a decision that would need to be made in the future.

  “There is a very structured process in place for a school district looking to sell land, which would include several rounds of local Board of Education approval,” Terhune explained. “It would also require New Jersey Department of Education approval and possibly Pinelands Commission approval depending on the restrictions on the land.”