TRENTON – For months, Toms River residents have been asking what the rationale is for declining state aid to the school district. Now, the Senate members making the decisions are asking, too.
Toms River school officials and students descended upon Trenton during a Senate Budget Committee Hearing to protest the cuts in aid. As it stands now, the district will lose approximately $83 million in state aid over the next six years, 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.
Immediate reinstatement of the aid is only the first step. The entire funding formula is flawed, district officials assert, and has been for some time. The district is urging lawmakers for a joint legislative committee to be immediately convened, with an aggressive timeline, to fix it.
Superintendent David Healy said that at the hearing, members of the Senate Budget Committee started asking questions about why the funding had been doled out in the way it was. For example, they wanted to know why preschool expansion was funded, but not state mandated programs.
The State has maintained that the exact formula for how the money was distributed is “proprietary,” and therefore cannot be shared. Officials have declined the district’s Open Public Records Act request.
If they refuse to explain how $6.5 billion in aid was distributed, it calls into question the entire process, Healy said.
Outside the hearing, officials gave speeches and students held banners and chanted S.O.S. – Save Our Schools. Inside, ten students delivered about 30,000 handwritten letters from students and community members detailing how the cuts are going to impact them. They were organized by Hooper Avenue Elementary School teachers Karen Husenica and Jennifer Zieser and placed on the dais at the meeting in a scene invoking “Miracle on 34th Street.”
“The kids give me hope,” Healy said. “They’re the voices everyone is going to listen to.”
But they’re not the only ones. The community has really united behind this cause, he said. From the students, up through the teachers and the administration, and state organizations such as the New Jersey Education Association. The group in Trenton was joined by Councilman Maurice Hill and Board of Education members Jennifer Howe, Joseph Nardini, Anna Polozzo, and Ginny Rhine. The district officials weren’t just speaking for themselves, but on behalf of more than 70 other districts that were slighted and that have banded together in a coalition.
Previously, the district had mounted a similar march at the State Assembly Budget Committee hearing.