TRENTON, NJ – Newton Superintendent Dr. Kennedy Greene was joined by superintendents, board of education members and concerned citizens in Room 103 at the State House in Trenton on Friday afternoon, to announce the filing of litigation regarding school funding.
Approximately 50 people crowded into the room. Greene was joined by Newton Board of Education President Stella Dunn, Vice President Jessica Egner and Anthony Neggers II. Newton Town Manager Thomas S. Russo Jr. and Mayor Wayne Levante were also present for the discussion.
Greene said ten school districts and four municipalities were currently part of the suit, along with “30 individuals who have stepped up and been named in this litigation.” Greene also said they are “open to amending the petition to add more parties” as they are identified.
In his opening remarks Greene said he was “pleased a sitting superintendent and educator, Lamont Repollet of Asbury Park was chosen to be the commissioner of education.”
School “funding is neither a minor problem nor a simple one,” Greene said. The actual size of the funding shortfall is close to $2 billion; “under funding of $1.3 billion in state aid according to School Funding Reform Act or SFRA which affects two in three districts of all geography and income levels.”
Another part of the state aid “problem is $670 million of aid outside SFRA called ‘Adjustment Aid’ used to keep some districts at 2008 funding levels; 'overaiding' 38 districts” regardless of the changes in student populations and other demographics according to Greene.
Greene said the litigation is not asking to have full funding under SFRA rather it is seeking to have the aid budgeted by the legislature to be distributed more fairly. Local taxpayers have to pick up the tab for under funded districts.
This has led to a downwardly spiraling budgeting problem from which districts see no relief. Without the necessary aid, districts rely on property tax levy. The levy is capped at two percent. Add to that increased student populations and the problem escalates each year.
Several of the districts party to the litigation have seen increases in their student populations yet their aid remains flat, essentially creating budget shortfalls each year. There are few options. With much of the budget dictated by statue or contract, staff gets cut and capital budgets are depleted.
“The funding is wildly unjust and won’t go away with wishful thinking,” Greene said. He said the litigation is to take action, seeking “significant steps toward fair and sustainable funding.”
The second prong of the school funding problem is over taxing or municipalities called on to pay more than their “fair share.” This is not a totally subjective concept. The state has a formula for determining fair share.
Newton tax payers are taxed at 48 percent or $4 million over fair share according to the state calculation. “Nearly one third of the districts in the state are not paying their ‘fair share’,” Greene said. Some districts are receiving more than 100 percent above the SFRA aid, some even at levels of 200, 300 and 500 percent of the formula according to Greene.
Dunn said Newton had recently lost a referendum to replace the 100+ year old middle school by a margin of 80 percent. “The state’s decision to 'underaid' puts an undue burden on taxpayers,” Dunn said. That is a big reason why the referendum failed, she explained.
The board members said they were waiting to see what the 2018 aid numbers would be before discussion how to handle the facility problem in Newton.
When Levante told the room that in addition to the aid issue, “35 percent of the properties were tax exempt [in Newton],” there was a gasp from others in the room. “That also hurts. We are sending too much money to the former Abbott Districts, then you see the SDA [School Development Authority] building palaces in those [formerly Abbott] cities when Newton can’t muster up the money to put an addition on a 60-year-old building.
“Districts that have seen reduced enrollment and still get more than 100 percent state aid need to consolidate or get less aid. There is enough money in the state, it’s just not allocated correctly,” Levante said.
Attorney Allen Dzwilewski of Schwartz Edelstein Law Group announced the “petition had been filed and served,” to a round of cheers from the assembled.
“The points are clear. The numbers speak for themselves,” Dzwilewski said. He used the department of education’s own data to get a way from a long hearing process he explained. “That way the Commissioner or Administrative Law Judge will have all of the material right in front of them.”
Dzwilewski said the underpinnings of their petition was that the “current appropriation was unreasonable, capricious and not equitable.” The state has established guidelines and requirements school districts must use in providing a Thorough and Efficient Education. He said it also requires funding to be “equitable, equal and predictable. Further [current state aid] does not follow legislation or administrative code requirements.”
Dr. James Lavender, Superintendent of Kingsway Regional School District in Gloucester County spoke, reiterating the attorney’s thoughts. “The funding shall be for equal benefit for all people in the state,” Lavender said. “Instead it’s arbitrary and capricious creating haves and have nots. The have nots are here in this room.”
Kingsway district has seen tremendous growth; 1600 additional students since 2008. James Muller President of the East Greenwich Township Kingsway Board of Education said they were the fastest growing district in the country for five years but their aid remains flat. Teachers have 180 students on the roster and 35 in a class.
Lavender said their district is currently understaffed by 46.
President of the Chesterfield School District Board of Education Jignesh Shah said their kindergarten to six district has grown from 280 to 760 yet their funding has remained flat. Shah said, “At 11 percent of SFRA we are the lowest funded district in the state. We should be getting $4 million but receive $419,000.”
Shah said he looked forward to having something done to provide 'T and E.' Their budget is $600,000 “in the red” this year and they anticipate laying off seven staff members.
Lavender was wearing several hats at the meeting; superintendent, taxpayer and parent. “I’m tired of seeing nearby districts have what we can’t, what my children don’t. Kingsway only receives 40 percent of SFRA, missing $10 million in aid. We are over taxed and have had two failed referendum. Taxpayers don’t want to pay another nickel.”
Lavender and Dunn were not the only districts in the suit where referendums have failed. Middlesex School District in Middlesex County, also named in the suit, had a referendum fail by a 7:1 ratio. Dr. Linda Madison, Superintendent of Middlesex School District said they have two schools more than 100 years old.
“The high school was built in 1958 and the science labs have never been updated,” Madison said. “We are struggling to provide sufficient facilities.” The district does not have their own athletic fields and were looking to make repairs, upgrades and addition to the buildings with the referendum funding.
Representatives from Fair Funding Action group were at the meeting. Andrea Katz and Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm have been lobbying legislators since 2012. Cavallaro-Fromm and her husband Thomas Fromm, Mayor of Swedesboro are named on the petition.
They had successfully lobbied Governor Christie to get “super growth appropriations.”
“We will keep working,” Katz said. “Now 65 percent of the districts are talking to each other.”
Muller said, “Our residents have been tapped out. This can’t continue year after year. My kids are no less important than the kids whose district gets 140 percent funding or more.”
Petitioners in the suit:
Boards of Education – Newton Middlesex, Little Ferry, Kingsway Regional, Jamesburg, Chesterfield Township, Emerson, Wallington, Swedesboro-Woolwich,
Municipalities- Town of Newton, Woolwich Township, East Greenwich Township, Borough of Swedesboro
Individuals – Benjamin Egner, Charles Fantasia, Michael Larsen, Alex Majewski, Dina Morris, Wayne Levante, E. Kevin Elvidge, Helen LeFrois, Daniel Flynn, Sandra Lee Diglio, Claribel Cortes, Gloria Gonzalez, Jennifer Nisonoff, Margaret Hallion, Belinda Blazic, James Mueller, James Lavender, Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm, Thomas Fromm, Lorraine Flaherty, Dave Flaherty, George Weeks, Diane Hale, Jeff Hale, Michele Blair, Mia Randazzo, Michelle VanDiehl, Jaclyn Dopke, Lauren Ibbotson, Natalie Matthias and Dale Archer.
The respondent is Kimberley Harrington, current New Jersey Commissioner of Education