TOMS RIVER – With millions of dollars at stake – as well as the loss of sports, extracurricular activities, full day kindergarten, music and art programs – hundreds of students, parents, staff and public officials came to Trenton to let their voices be heard: We need our funding.
The message was made clear as it was chanted, yelled and called out by students and adults on the front steps of the governor’s office at 225 W State St. in Trenton, which was filled with protestors bearing signs, posters, their school district attire and a whole lot of unity.
This was not the first protest against S-2, a bill that is reducing state aid by more than $70 million over the course of several years. It was proposed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and signed by the governor.
Thirty buses were part of the entourage to Trenton. Most were school buses but resident Marie Penigross-Walling, who works for the Brick Township School District, chartered a bus which had nearly 30 members of her group T.R.U.S.T. (Toms River United Stronger Together). Township police led the buses out from the school but did not escort them all the way to Trenton as was alleged by a talk show host which stirred the ire of Walling and those on the bus. Walling attempted to correct that error with a phone call to the talk show host but that call was cut off.
Another sticking point for members of T.R.U.S.T. and those present to get the governor to restore deep cuts in funding was a recent statement Governor Phil Murphy made in response to his “Ask The Governor” program where he was quoted as saying “We cannot allow (school) systems like yours to be hung out to dry.”
Walling and others said they felt that was exactly what the governor was doing to the Toms River Regional Schools.
On December 9, a day prior to the rally, the state released emergency aid to some of the districts. The district requested the emergency aid in hopes that it would cover the cuts and save programs and school staff.
According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s emergency aid final determination letter, the district will receive $854,634. They had requested $4,473,821, which district officials said was the minimum amount needed to get through this year unscathed.
“What we were given was hush money,” Walling said of the $854,634.
Educators, students, parents, police and municipal officials have been vocal about the governor’s response to the matter and the S-2 formula overall which many say is flawed and is based on inaccurate and dated information.
“If you go to the grocery store and have a $100 grocery bill and you are holding a $20 bill you aren’t going to walk out with all your groceries,” Walling said. “We haven’t heard back from the governor yet. He can provide the $4.4 million in emergency aid we have requested.”
A request for more information from the State Department of Education on how the $854,634 figure was reached was not returned by press time.
The group has also been critical to pending legislation being introduced that would “solve” the problem of unfair funding by redirecting the burden on taxpayers.
Like Walling, Dawn Bassano was another parent who was on the bus and ready to carry a sign. “I have children in the district and am very involved. We need to bring out our message.”
Janette Weisneck of Beachwood boarded the bus with her great-granddaughter Isabella Jones. “I am doing this for her. She was on the cheer team last year and the band and she joined the choir this year. These are programs that would be cut.
“My kids went to Toms River South High School. Beachwood is part of the school district. I read that Ocean County school districts have the lowest spending dollars paid per student. The state government never manages money well. There are wants and there are needs and these are needs,” Weisneck said.
“For kids to be successful these days they need to be well rounded and these activities develop leadership skills and build self-confidence. This isn’t a hand out,” Weisneck said.
Jessica Capone and Doreen Burns sported their Toms River School District covers and carried a West Dover Elementary School Blue Jays banner once they disembarked from the bus and found their position on the crowded, noisy grounds of the Governor’s Office.
“This is politics at its worst,” Burns said. She added that she felt the cuts were being directed at “highly Republican (school) districts.” Murphy is a Democrat. “Toms River hasn’t been right since Superstorm Sandy. We operate so efficiently but we are being penalized for being successful. Students apply to colleges and they are looking at how well-rounded they are but this will be taking that away from them. They are playing dirty with kids.”
Olivia Salecki, 15, is a 10th grader at Toms River East High School. “I’m a member of the Interact Club and they are trying to take that away. They are trying to take away anything fun in the school.”
She stood beside 11th graders, Toms River HS East brothers Sean and Collin Mirabile, 16, who echoed her views. “I play soccer, track and volleyball. High school would be a lot more empty without that and so many other things that would be fun,” Sean Mirabile said.
His brother Collin said “school is about getting an education but it would also feel like a prison without these things.”
“It lets you express yourself,” Oliva Salecki added.
That viewpoint was also expressed by a famous alumni of Toms River High School North in the form of television and film actress Piper Perabo who was also vocal about the need for the funding to be restored. The actress met with drama students at Toms River High School North which was the launch point for the 30 plus buses that came to Trenton.
While at the rally Perabo said, “Schools aren’t just about books; it’s about social evolution.” Perabo was very active in the high school’s drama program when she was a student. She went on to star in the film “Coyote Ugly” and starred in the series “Covert Affairs.” She was arrested during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and received a disorderly charge and paid a $35 fine for seeking to make a statement opposing Cavanaugh’s selection to the bench. She had no such problem during the rally as she supported the students.
Toms River mayor elect Maurice “Mo” Hill was also at the rally, he told JerseyShoreOnline.com “The impact is going to be devastating to us. We have to give up kindergarten and extracurricular activities. It will affect the quality education of our children and grandchildren…I have four grandchildren in the system and a daughter who is a teacher. We need an equitable distribution of the school aid that fairly funds all the districts and doesn’t give Toms River a cut like this. Two years in a row and more cuts like this, it’s going to be devastating. It’s not sustainable.”
School Superintendent David M. Healy said he was proud of all the students, staff and parents who came out for the day’s rally.
He noted that Karen Rowe who was present at the rally with her son Avery a student of Toms River HS North, was a special education teacher whose job was cut “during last year’s cut. We lost 107 staff members. We have a great district and they do their jobs.”
Avery Rowe, 16, said of the rally that “I hope what we did today helps and it’s important that we show how we feel. I play soccer and run track and belong to two clubs. One of those clubs is the 2022 Club which helps with prom funding. A lot of students I know say that if we lose sports and the clubs they’d want to transfer to other schools.”
“I sub in the district as a basic skills teacher. Last year my job was cut. I’m proud of our district. I think it is the best in New Jersey,” Karen Rowe said.