Governor Invited To Toms River To Talk School Budget Cuts

Children were encouraged to write letters to state decision makers. (Photo courtesy Toms River Regional School District)
Children were encouraged to write letters to state decision makers. (Photo courtesy Toms River Regional School District)

TOMS RIVER – School district representatives have met with state officials several times over the past few months, but now they also want the governor to come to them.

The meetings have been over legislation that has changed the way state aid is given to schools. The law, S-2, will cut approximately $83 million in state aid over the next six years to Toms River, including $2.8 million in the 2019-2020 budget. Senate President Steve Sweeney has said that districts like Toms River were overfunded, and with declining enrollment, they don’t need as much aid. Other districts that were considered underfunded received more aid.

Superintendent David Healy observed that whenever there’s a press conference, it’s held at a district that received more money. But it’s never at a community that lost money.

He invited the governor, Department of Education Commissioner, Speaker of the House, and Senate President to “come to Toms River and hold a town hall in arguably the community that has been impacted the most.

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“We shouldn’t be pitting one child against another child or one district against another,” he said. Two-thirds of the districts were winners, in terms of funding, and “there should be no losers.”

A few children of teachers brought the letters up during the Board of Education meeting. (Photo by Chris Lundy)
A few children of teachers brought the letters up during the Board of Education meeting. (Photo by Chris Lundy)

Since the bill was introduced, district staff have had multiple in-person meetings with state officials, he said.

“We remain hopeful that our efforts will have dividends,” he said. “I can assure you we’re being heard.”

The district sent 27 school buses to Trenton on March 5. They expect even more at an April 30 rally, at the courthouse annex, at 10:30 a.m.

They will deliver more than 30,000 letters written by children, staff, and community members, in a scene reminiscent of “Miracle On 34th Street.”

At a recent Board of Education meeting, a letter was read to the crowd to give an example of what the letters entail. The student was concerned about athletics being cut due to the loss in funding. She explained how many of her friends come from playing sports.

“I want to do sports just like other kids in middle school,” the student wrote. “If you were a good governor, you would change your mind on this decision.”

Following up on this, Healy said that the biggest window of time for children to get into trouble is between 3 and 6 p.m. These are times that they are home alone. Afterschool athletics and clubs help keep them focused on positive things. Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer and Toms River Police Chief Mitch Little have said to him that they want these programs to continue, to keep kids out of trouble during the worst opioid epidemic the county has ever seen.

Two Hooper Avenue Elementary School teachers, Karen Husenica and Jennifer Zieser, spoke about the letter writing campaign during the meeting.

“We teach our students every day about speaking up for what is right and being problem solvers. I felt and hoped that Governor Murphy would be more responsive to the 16,000 little voices of our Toms River school community. Our students, kindergartners through seniors in high school, have eagerly embraced the opportunity to become involved in the campaign to save our schools,” their statement read. “The decimation to our community, schools, and others like us will be something that taxpayers statewide will see as his doing, all while he had the opportunity to be the fixer of the problem.”

The letters will be in bags hand-decorated by district kids. (Photo courtesy Toms River Regional School District)
The letters will be in bags hand-decorated by district kids. (Photo courtesy Toms River Regional School District)

Ed Keller, the principal of High School North, said that when students are brought to Trenton, they come from all walks of life “because we wanted them to see all our faces.”

Scott Campbell, president of the Toms River Education Association, spoke about how the school system is always one of the strongholds of a community. If it fails, you’re going to see more dollar stores and thrift shops in town. The district joined more than 70 others in a lawsuit urging the state to fix its flawed funding formula. The district is urging lawmakers for a joint legislative committee to be immediately convened, with an aggressive timeline, to solve these problems.