School officials chose to dip deep into its reserves to pay for a $2.4 million state aid shortfall for the coming year, instead of amending its budget with a higher tax rate or staff and program cuts.
But school officials warned, painting a dire picture, that the following school year would very likely see a budget that includes larger class sizes, cut staff and programs, and a higher tax rate.
Calling it a “band-aid,” Superintendent David Healy explained the district’s decision to use $1.157 million more in unreserved funds and $1.2 million more in maintenance reserve funds to plug the hole the state announced for Toms River Regional School’s 2018-19 budget. The school board acted in an emergency meeting July 24 after cuts were announced to several districts on July 13. The board had until July 31 to amend its budget.
“We could have instituted some Draconian measures,” said Healy of this year’s budget. “This is just a band-aid so we don’t have to dismantle everything we’ve worked so hard to build…so we didn’t have to tell 100 staff members ‘sorry you don’t have a job though we just hired you.’”
School Business Administrator Bill Doering said earlier this summer the school district had made its hiring decisions, materials purchases and insurance renewals, only to see the state come and slash aid.
“This was an 11th-hour cut with very little options as to what you can do,” Doering said. “We will be filling the gap temporarily with surplus and maintenance reserves.”
Officials and school board members warned however, that the choice to use reserves now depletes already stretched finances that are supposed to address routine and emergency maintenance for the district.
On top of that, the state is looking to levy another funding cut for the 2019-20 school year. Toms River Regional officials said that means $5 million will have to be cut out of that budget, a process Healy and Doering said they’ve already begun to look at.
The state released aid figures that Doering said amounts to a $70 million cumulative impact over the next seven school budgets. Board President Russell Corby said that could mean higher property tax bills directly resulting from the lost state aid.
Corby said that could mean over the next seven years, taxpayers pay $348 more in school taxes in South Toms River, $1,367 in Toms River, $1,281 in Pine Beach and $984 in Beachwood.
“We are already operating lean,” said the board president. “We have one of the lowest per-pupil costs in the state.”
Also at the July 24 meeting, the board took action to ask the state to restore the $2.4 million. The district will submit an application to the state Department of Education in hopes they’ll restore the full amount of funding they cut.
Scott Campbell, the president of Toms River Regional’s teachers union, pledged his support in working with administrators in hopes of what he described as preserving the quality education at TRRS.
“This problem is astronomical,” Campbell said of the implications of funding cuts. “Everybody is a stakeholder in this…We need to save Toms River.”
The grim picture presented for the next seven school budgets brought several parents to the podium in a meeting attended by less than two dozen members of the public.
One was former school board member Robert Onofrietti, who urged the district to consider again something discussed during his term on the board — suing the state on grounds its funding formula is unconstitutional.
Corby said many options were on the table as the district would again find itself not willing to sit idly by as it gets hammered in what he called a “very very unfair” funding formula.
“We are going to fight tooth and nail,” Corby said.
After the July 24 amended budget, the amount of surplus used in the 2018-19 budget totals $2.95 million, leaving less than 2 percent in those unreserved funds, Doering said. The total maintenance reserve used in this budget equals $2.6 million, which leaves the maintenance reserve balance at $2.1 million.