Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney has proposed slashing the Toms River Regional school district’s funding by $19.8 million, figures released Thursday showed.
Sweeney is battling Gov. Phil Murphy over school funding policies and has threatened to shut down New Jersey government if his plan is not signed into law by the governor. The $19.8 million in so-called “adjustment aid” would be cut over seven years, forcing either layoffs or tax hikes that could cost the average household about $1,000 per year.
“We’re working and we continue to work with our local legislators and our similarly-affected districts in an effort to address what is a critically-flawed formula,” said Toms River Regional schools superintendent David Healy.
Adjustment aid is provided to school districts whose tax rate is considered too low under a state formula. Sweeney’s plan would eliminate this funding, with the senator citing declining enrollment in districts such as Toms River Regional as the justification. Lawmakers are still debating the details on how districts can account for cuts, including a possible exception to the state’s 2 percent cap on tax hikes to allow for property tax increases. Other remedies include layoffs and cuts to programs, school officials have told Shorebeat.
The plan was blasted Thursday by Ocean County legislators, who said between Brick and Toms River, the two largest districts in the county would lose a combined $42 million. The 10th district legislators estimated the cuts would amount to $754 per year increase for Brick residents and $918 per year for Toms River residents, based on the average assessed home value.
Regardless of value, the cuts could raise Brick’s school taxes by 12 percent and Toms River’s taxes by 15 percent.
“Democrats in the statehouse think property taxpayers in Brick can afford to pay another $754 in school taxes,” said Assemblyman Gregory P. McGuckin, a Republican. “They think Toms River homeowners can afford to pay an extra $918 in school taxes. It’s clear that Trenton Democrats are out of their minds. I urge every concerned taxpayer to call Governor Murphy and tell him to kill this ill-conceived plan.”
Healy said Toms River withstood $10 million in cuts just two years before the township’s tax base was decimated by Superstorm Sandy, from which it has yet to fully recover. A fresh funding shortfall would likely mean staff reductions and cuts to programs.
“The district can’t absorb these cuts, it’s just not possible,” said Healy. “How do you do that and provide a thorough and efficient education? You have no choice but to start eliminating staff and reducing programs, and then you have to figure out which programs to reduce – when you don’t actually want to reduce anything.”
As funding has been cut, the number of Toms River students receiving free and reduced lunches due to family income levels has increased dramatically, now approaching 30 percent, Healy said. Just a few years ago it was below 15 percent.
Toms River Regional spent $16,318 per student last year, well below the state average of $20,385.
“While Governor Murphy often talks about making New Jersey a good value for the money, Brick and Toms River have succeeded in offering our children a great education for thousands less per student than other school districts,” said Assemblyman David Wolfe. “Rather than rewarding our achievement and holding us out as a model of efficiency for other districts to follow, Trenton Democrats want to slash our state funding and drive up our local property tax bills. It’s reprehensible.”
Murphy’s budget proposed a slight increase in aid to Toms River schools. If Sweeney and Murphy cannot agree on a state budget, including school funding, by July 1, a shutdown of state government is automatically triggered.