In a budget that one member of the Toms River Regional school board said gave her a “heavy heart and a sick stomach,” the district will shed 36 additional teachers and an administrator, but restore more than $1 million in sports and co-curriculars that had been slashed earlier this year in a draft spending plan.
The culprit behind the cuts is, as it has been the last two years, massive reductions in state funding under a deal hatched two years ago by Gov. Phil Murphy and state Sen. Steve Sweeney to avoid a government shutdown. Under the formula that emerged from that deal, which the state has refused to release to the public, Toms River Regional will lose $5.3 million in state funding for the 2020-21 school year.
Initially, the budget hole caused the district to cut $1.7 million in athletics and co-curricular activities, putting the majority of the district’s sports programs at risk. But thanks to some last-minute steps taken by the district and some local partners, most of the programs will be restored. First, the local YMCA offered to waive pool rental fees for the district so swimming programs could continue. Then, in what was perhaps the biggest move financially, the borough of South Toms River offered to pay for $1,517,836 in salaries for the district’s Class III police officers – retired sworn officers who work security in schools.
Thanks to those moves, sports and co-curricular activities will be restored, except for $46,836 for weight training and another $40,328 in co-curricular stipends for a student activity coordinator, twirling and a troubleshooting position.
The budget sheds the position of one administrator and 36 teachers – 12 each in the elementary, intermediate and high school levels. The exact classes that will be affected are not yet known.
The budget as a whole rose from $248,754,134 for the current 2019-20 school year to $252,338,90 for the 2020-21 school year.
Taxes will rise a total of 6.41 cents, or 5 percent, a figure which includes the increase borne by the referendum passed by voters last year. The tax increase specific to the operating budget was 2 percent, the full amount allowed under state caps.
The tax levy – the total amount property owners will pay in property taxes this year toward the school district – will rise from $158,444,292 during the current school year to $161,613,178 for 2020-21.
“If that referendum didn’t go through … this budget would be very different,” said Superintendent David Healy. “Many of those projects couldn’t wait and would have come out of the general fund. It would have had significant impact to staff and services.”
While board members and school officials were glad to be able to restore the activities and athletic programs, the mood was somber. Some members refused to vote in favor of the budget in principal. All later passed a resolution saying the school district would be “gutted” in the future unless the state legislature acts to restore funding.
The district is continuing to pursue a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the draconian funding cuts from Trenton violate the state’s constitutional mandate to prove a “thorough and efficient” education. The state, however, argues that Toms River’s taxes are too low and should be raised until the district spends what it consider “adequate” under its formula.
“All programs are at risk for 2021-22,” said Healy, noting that next year’s state funding cut will be even larger – $6.6 million.
If the district did not pass its own budget, the decision would be left to state officials, the primary reason why a majority of board members voted in favor of it.
“I’m going to vote yes because I don’t want the state to make any decisions for us, because I think it would be horrible,” said board member Jennifer Howe.
Other said the state’s hand should be forced.
“A thorough and efficient education starts in the classroom, and I feel that it’s too difficult to do this cutting 36 staff positions when we already let go 70 positions last year without being filled,” said board member Kevin Kidney. “I think it’s a slippery slope. I think this needs to be taken up to the county and the state now.”
“A change in legislation is the only thing that’s going to save our district,” said board member Michael Horgan. “The administration, and the board and the community can put in all the effort they want to develop an acceptable budget, but it will not be enough. The law has to change or the district will be completely be gutted in the future, more than it is being gutted in this budget tonight.”
The final begrudged vote in favor of the budget came from Board president Anna Polozzo.
“With a heavy heart and sick stomach, hating the mere thought, I’m going to vote yes because we need to keep control over how those funds were spent,” Polozzo said.
Over the last two years, the regional school district will have eliminated 114 staff positions.