Education

Battle Lines Drawn As Hatikvah Academy Applies Again For Expansion

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EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Residents of East Brunswick and many surrounding towns face the fear of additional increases in school taxes, as well as continued significant cuts to school programs, as it appears that the battle that was waged last year between the Hatikvah Academy and the East Brunswick School District will become an annual event.  For the second consecutive year, the Hatikvah International Charter School Academy, the charter school based on Lexington Avenue in East Brunswick has notified the East Brunswick Board of Education that it has applied to the Commissioner of Education for the right to expand the school from its current limit of 300 students.

Last year, the charter school applied to outgoing New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to expand from their existing grades K through 5, to include grades 6 through 8 as well.  This year, the school has opted in their expansion request to give new Education Commissioner David Hespe a choice of either of two options. The first is a repeat request of last year, whereby Hatikvah would be permitted to expand from grades K-5 to K-8.  The second option would be for Hatikvah to maintain their current grades K-5, but instead of a maximum of 50 students per grade, they would be permitted to expand to 75 students per grade. Either option would permit the school to increase their total enrollment from the current 300 students to a total of 450, should the expansion proposal be approved.

Last year's request was a source of major controversy, and was met with extreme protest and controversy.  This year's request is certainly causing even more anger and frustration, not only in East Brunswick, but all over Middlesex County and throughout other areas of the state.  The frustration starts with the fact that the expansion request had already been denied less than a year ago by Acting Commissioner Evo Popoff, who replaced Cerf upon his resignation as Commissioner.  The issues that drove the protests and rejection last year were based on the fact that Hatikvah's original charter application called for the school to house an enrollment of 300 students from the East Brunswick area. At the time of last year's application for expansion, Hatikvah's enrollment had roughly 50 per cent coming from East Brunswick, while the remaining student enrollment came from 20 other towns throughout New Jersey.

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Why does this matter, and why would expanding the school further matter to anyone? It is very important that every resident of East Brunswick, as well as every resident of a town that has students electing to attend Hatikvah, or any other Charter school in a town understand the financial impact of that choice.

The first thing East Brunswick residents must understand is that a charter school is considered another PUBLIC SCHOOL in the town.  Currently East Brunswick has what everyone understands and believes to be eight elementary schools in the district (Lawrence Brook, Memorial, Bowne-Munro, Chittick, Frost, Memorial, Warnsdorfer, and Central). This is incorrect. There are nine. Hatikvah, as a charter school, is considered a public elementary school within the boundaries of East Brunswick for the purposes of the needs of funding schools in the district.  The budget for Hatikvah is funded almost in its entirety by taxpayer dollars as part of the East Brunswick annual school budget. The funds required to be given to a charter is 90 per cent of each sending district's per pupil cost. In addition, even though Hatikvah's expansion plans last year were denied, their charter was extended for an additional five years. Thus, as of this writing, Hatikvah will be here to stay for at least four additional years, funded initially each year practically in full by East Brunswick tax dollars.

To understand the financial impact further, one must also understand the rules for funding a charter school in the State of New Jersey. As stated earlier in the article, at present, only about half of the students attending Hatikvah live in East Brunswick.  Therefore, half of the expenses of the charter school tax obligation get picked up by the towns whose students attend the school. However the State rules require that the district where the charter school is located to fund the required 90 per cent of the charter school budget for the year in advance, and then be reimbursed by the other districts later in the school year as the final number of students attending from each district is known.  Once the state has the total enrollment for the year, they reconcile the payment schedule to reflect the district's true costs. Therefore, even though only roughly half of the budget comes from East Brunswick students, East Brunswick must fund the entire 90 per cent of the Hatikvah budget. 

For the towns outside of East Brunswick, they must pay East Brunswick 90 per cent of their budgeted per student amount until the state completes the reconciliation of the payment schedule.  In small districts with several students choosing to go to Hatikvah, this can have a tremendous financial impact on their budget.

As it relates to the proposed expansion, an illustration of the possible financial impact was provided at the most recent East Brunswick Board of Education meeting during the presentation of the initial discussions on the budget for the upcoming school year.  It was pointed out during this presentation that when Hatikvah was initially funded, the result was program cuts and some layoffs of staff.  A major program that fell victim to the budget cutbacks as a result was the elementary school World Languages program. 

One must also keep in mind that there is a two per cent cap on how much the school tax can be increased in any given year.  The estimated increase in the school budget if Hatikvah's expansion is approved would be in the vicinity of $1 million.  That would be approximately half of the available two per cent tax increase that could be passed down to the residents of the town. With the numerous other areas that East Brunswick focuses on each year as the district strives to maintain their level of excellence within the state, many difficult decisions will face the Board should Hatikvah be permitted to expand.   In the Board's opposition proclamation to the expansion request, they pointed out that the increase will likely result in painful cuts to many school programs, and/or additional staff cutbacks resulting in larger class sizes in many cases.

Highland Park and South River have already indicated that the proposal would have a massive impact on their school budget, as the cost per student with the increase would have a massive impact on their budgets.  Both town's budgets are significantly smaller than that of East Brunswick's.

Some residents in East Brunswick have come out in strong support of the proposed expansion, some supporting it because of Hatikvah's Jewish immersion program, and others because they believe that Hatikvah's approach to educating has a different philosophy than that of the rest of the public schools in the district.  However a majority of residents and political leaders have voiced strong opposition to the proposal, many of whom believe that the expansion request is driven solely by a need to pay off the debt raised by moving into their new facility on Lexington Avenue.  The Board Of Education has already issued a proclamation asking Commissioner Hespe to deny the expansion request, and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, and State Senator Peter Barnes have all come out in opposition to the request.

An attempt by Tap Into East Brunswick to get officials at Hatikvah to respond and comment for this article was not responded to.  It is expected that Commissioner Hespe will issue a decision at some point in February.

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