PORTRAIT OF AN UNDERFUNDED NJ SCHOOL DISTRICT: EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP
June 18, 2015
Egg Harbor Township students and staff are currently paying the price of more than a decade of implementation of State planning and education policies that hinder the local community’s ability to meet the needs of its students. A perfect storm of rapid population growth, increasing poverty, and flat state education aid has created unique challenges for a school district facing growing disadvantage and no new funding.
Located in the Pinelands, Egg Harbor Township is subject to mandated population growth as part of a regional planning program to conserve nature and control development in the region. At the same time, Egg Harbor Township faces funding constraints due to inadequate state school aid, state-imposed property tax caps, and the financial burden of expanding school facilities to support enrollment growth. Adding yet another challenge, the fallout from the recession hitting the Atlantic City economy is landing at its doorstep. The township is facing mounting unemployment as a consequence of multiple casino closings, also leading to high foreclosure rates and rising poverty.
The stress of this economic storm is acutely felt by the schools serving this community. In a presentation to State Commissioner of Education David Hespe and Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, Superintendent Scott McCartney and Board of Education member Peter Castellano outlined the numerous ways that the schools are struggling.
They noted that the school district has seen a dramatic 42% increase in student population between 2000 and 2015. In that same period, the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch has nearly doubled from 25% to 48%. But state school aid has not kept pace with this growth as New Jersey lawmakers have consistently ignored the school funding formula over the last decade and a half.
The School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) promised to bring relief to the district by tying funding to actual student enrollment. But since implementation in 2009, Egg Harbor Township’s state aid has been stubbornly flat, rising only $1.2 million (3%) to a total of $40 million in 2015, with no increase expected for 2016. If the SFRA had been funded and the district had received the annual state aid increases determined by the formula, Egg Harbor Township would be receiving $69 million in state aid in the upcoming school year.
While the state shirks its responsibility to the district’s students, the local taxpayers have been doing what they can to make up the difference. At $71 million, the local levy is $10 million over what the formula determines is necessary to provide the required programs and services. Large property tax increases, rising 19% from 2009 to 2015, are a growing burden to local taxpayers as they attempt to make up the state aid deficit.
An additional budget strain is a $543,000 Economic Development Authority assessment levied on the district stemming from the use of the state’s School Construction Corporation (SCC) bonds to build much needed new schools in the previous decade. Since 2010, the State Budget has included a “debt service assessment” on districts that received state support for construction projects. The special tax is being used to cover a portion of the principal and interest payments for State-issued construction bonds. Under the school construction grant program statute, the State is required to pay the principal and interest on the bonds and is not authorized to pass those payments to districts. Since 2010, the State has forced Egg Harbor Township to divert $2.2 million of its state aid away from the classroom to pay this unfair assessment.
The impact of this financial situation on district staff and students has been devastating. The district has been forced to cut 100 staff positions since 2009-10, and as a result, class sizes are climbing. Kindergarten classes are half-day only, and the district can only offer half-day preschool to 72 students, a small fraction of the more than 900 students eligible for a full-day program under SFRA’s preschool expansion program. The district has cut essential elements of the core curriculum, including elementary world language and music and elementary and middle school gifted and talented programs. The district can no longer offer programs to keep struggling students on track, including summer school for middle and high school students, or math and reading specialists to help middle school students who have fallen behind. Gone are many extracurricular activities that often keep students engaged, such as middle school athletics and co-curricular activities, honors programs, and high school clubs. The district has been forced to institute “pay to play” policies for the activities that remain.
“The incredibly stressed financial situation that Egg Harbor school officials find themselves in through no fault of their own – in fact despite their overwhelming efforts to give students what they need and deserve – is nothing short of a complete failure of State policy,” said Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra. “This district serves as a shameful example of how far New Jersey has fallen from the promise of a school funding system that meets the needs of students across the state, wherever they live.”
“Our only hope to be able to educate our children is through adequate state aid with per-pupil funding based on actual student counts,” said Egg Harbor Township Superintendent McCartney. “We have an obligation to our students, many of whom are already dealing with significant amounts of stress at home due to the negative economic climate, to provide them with the resources and services they need to succeed. The taxpayers of this township are doing more than their fair share. We need the State to do theirs.”
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