RANDOLPH, NJ – Local officials dicsussed Gov. Phil Murphy’s school funding plan that cuts aid to the area during the Randolph Board of Education’s tentative budget presentation on Thursday.
State Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, spoke to the council during the presentation and expressed his concern that state funds are leaving the suburbs.
Under the state’s new funding formula, Randolph’s schools lost more than $760,000 in state aid for the 2019-2020 school year.
Of the roughly $13 million the district gets in state aid, it’s projected that the state will reduce its contributions about $1 million each year for the next five years, totaling $6.7 million in cuts.
“We’re going to continue to see these cuts year after year because the money is being shifted to some of the urban areas. And quite frankly, some of the urban areas that don’t need it,” said Bucco.
To help mitigate the pain from the cuts, the board is pursuing other avenues of funding and reducing expenses.
One of which is raising the property tax by 1.23 percent.
“We’ve done this now for several years, fully knowing and fully expecting that this kind of crisis was going to come,” said Joe Faranetta, the school board’s vice president. “Our income is still 14 or 15 percent dependent on state aid and it’s a dangerous place to be at all times.”
However, keeping more students in the district made up for much of the losses in state aid in next year’s budget.
“Having students go out of Randolph for whatever reason is an extremely expensive proposition. It’s gone down from somewhere around 60 to 22 students that are going out of district,” Faranetta said.
When kids and parents make non-needs based decisions to attend private and technical schools outside of Randolph, it costs the district about $100,000 per student.
Faranetta and the board looked at why kids were leaving and found they often weren’t aware of Randolph’s educational offerings.
“The fact is we have to think about marketing ourselves. It's about making sure that realtors and the people in town that have kids and are making decisions understand what we have to offer,” he said.
As one of only two districts in the state to operate propane buses, Faranetta said they will continue to expand their fleet due to the low cost compared to diesel vehicles.
“We’re saving so much money. They’re so much more efficient to run, they’re a lot more efficient to maintain,” he said.
But even with these savings, officials are worried about the long-term effects of losing state money.
“What I'm afraid of is if these cuts continue to happen, we're going to have to make adjustments and we're not going to be able to have these programs for our kids,” said Bucco.
With the losses of state funding going up to $1 million next year, Faranetta said making up “the $760,000 was easy compared to next year.”
He said that the board is planning to operate without any relief from the state, and it’s trying to figure out a way to avoid cutting programs.
“We’re hoping for a little bit of relief, even if it’s a slowdown of the program,” said Faranetta. “But from a planning standpoint we’re assuming we don’t get any relief and we have to figure out a way to do this without hurting what we've built.”
Assemblyman Bucco said it’s time for Randolph and other Morris County towns hit by the cuts to get angry.
“I do think we need to start turning up the heat a little bit. We’ve allowed this to occur a few times and we’ve never really responded,” he said.
Since there’s been little pain caused by the cuts, parents may not know about the possible fallout coming if the board can’t find a way to keep their funding at similar levels.
“I think it’s a little ironic that because of such good planning you guys were able to blunt the impact and maybe that’s why parents don’t know; because you’ve done a good job,” said Deputy Mayor Christine Carey.
Bucco said that the work of Randolph’s leadership doesn’t deserve the punishment of cuts to funding when other areas have higher costs per students and worse results.
“We shouldn’t be punished for doing a good job when other school systems like Paterson and other areas don’t even have money to buy pencils for the kids,” he said. “To me, that’s completely unacceptable.”
But without state aid, all the money lost will ultimately have to be replaced by local taxpayers.
“The taxpayers may or may not want to cover that,” said Faranetta. “Which will cause levers to get pulled and we don't want to be there, we don’t want our hand forced.”
The school board is managing the problem for now, but Faranetta said they can only hold out for so long.
“We know what we’re staring at,” he said. “We’re slowing it down and managing things responsibly, but at the same time we’re facing pain.”