Toms River Regional school officials came out swinging Tuesday over an editorial sent to several New Jersey newspaper by state Sen. Stephen Sweeney over the weekend, with the aim of garnering support for a budget deal he made with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
The agreement between the state’s two most powerful Democratic legislators would cut $3.3 million in state funding to Toms River schools, which will inevitably lead to cuts in programs and staff, officials have said. If the budget is not modified before the July 1, 2017 state budget deadline, local officials – including some Democrats – have called for Gov. Chris Christie to veto the budget.
Sources in Trenton, however, have been reportedly saying Christie may go along with the school funding plan if Democrats allow his administration to use $300 million in surplus from Horizon Blue Cross-Blue Shield toward substance abuse treatment programs.
The Board of Education, in a response published below, said the formula assumes Toms River taxpayers do not pay high enough property taxes to fund their schools, all while the district spends less than others of its size.
Sweeney, in his editorial, took aim at so-called “adjustment aid,” which was included in a 2008 school funding reform bill that guaranteed no individual district would lose funding in in the future. Toms River was one of the districts that received such aid, which would be cut under Sweeney’s plan. In theory, the adjustment aid is in place because the formula assumes Toms River residents are not paying enough in school taxes to support their district, and aid remains steady, regardless of enrollment levels or real estate valuations.
“As a result, the state has been paying out hundreds of millions of dollar in state aid to school districts for tens of thousands of students who are no longer there and shortchanging other districts by not providing a dime for the tens of thousands of new students they have added,” Sweeney wrote.
The board, however, said Sweeney is on the wrong side of the issue.
“The formula unjustly portrays lower-spending districts like Toms River Regional as not paying our ‘fair share’ in taxes when in fact we do pay our fair share,” said the response, adding that districts with per-pupil costs double those of Toms River are receiving more aid, while his spendthrift district is losing funding for its students.
Sweeney’s weekend editorial can be read here.
The board’s response can be found below:
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Regarding the June 25, 2017 commentary in the Asbury Park Press from Senator Steve Sweeney, the public is led to believe that the Toms River Regional School District is losing $3.3 million in state school aid because of decreases in enrollments over time. The decrease in enrollments for many districts is factual, but the way that impacts a district’s aid cannot be truly ascertained until the critical flaws in the State Aid formula are addressed once and for all. Not to mention, each and every year a district’s adequacy budget is calculated based on updated enrollments. For example, even at updated enrollments, Toms River Regional is $31 million under adequacy and has the 4th lowest total cost per pupil ($16,319) in the state for districts over 3,500 students. The flaws in the formula are known to these same legislators, yet they choose to plow forward trying to push numbers through what is clearly a critically flawed formula.
In terms of trying to justify their new aid proposal, can the same legislators explain how it is possible that aid increases would be given to districts who have total per pupil costs over $29,000 already (compared to $16,319 in Toms River Regional)? This highlights one of the critical flaws with the State Aid formula- it allows for unlimited per pupil costs, and gives no credit or consideration to districts with lower per pupil spending. The formula unjustly portrays lower-spending districts like Toms River Regional as not paying our ‘fair share’ in taxes when in fact we do pay our fair share. The reason we tax less is simple- we spend less! So before taking school aid from any district, per pupil costs should first be capped and no additional school aid should be given when that cap is exceeded.
And how in good conscience can these legislators propose taking $3.3 million dollars from Toms River Regional when we are still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy and have $600 million in ratables that have yet to be recovered? The topic of property tax assessments highlights another known critical flaw of the school aid formula- it allows for districts to have significantly understated property tax assessment totals in the aid calculation, which matters greatly because a district’s ‘wealth’ is the basis for a large portion of a district’s school aid. For example, the property wealth calculation does not include Payments in Lieu of Taxes (‘Pilots’) and tax abatement programs, which excludes millions of dollars in property ratables, which could be material to the calculation of a district’s school aid. The same legislators are also aware that large school aid increases, some in the millions, would be given to several districts whose towns have not had property assessment revaluations in over 25 years! Having an understated property ratable figure provides large aid dollars for several districts, and since the pot of school aid is limited, it takes away significant amounts of school aid that would be spread to the rest of the districts in the State.
We do not know how any plan could be furthered based on numbers being run through a critically flawed aid formula. Therefore, we respectfully request that state aid for the Toms River Regional School District not be reduced, and that the critical formula flaws be addressed once and for all, before our district, regional community and ultimately our students, are unjustly and unfairly harmed.
TOMS RIVER REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION