The Kingsway Regional School Board of Education had filed a motion with the Supreme Court to join a pending matter seeking a court order that requires the commissioner of education to follow the funding formula established by the School Funding Reform Act(SFRA) and to declare the “hold harmless” provision unconstitutional.
Lavender said the Supreme Court has invited the Kingsway Regional School District to file its application through the trial courts.
“We will not be deterred and we will continue the fight to bring equal funding to all students,” said District Superintendent James Lavender in a press release. “In Kingsway, our students have been deprived – on an annual basis – of millions of dollars in school funding from the state; funding which the state is obligated to provide so that students can fully realize the public education which they are promised in our state constitution.”
Lavender explained that hold harmless amends SFRA by maintaining the same level of funding to every school district that it received from the state during the 2007-08 school year, even if the result is that a school district receives more funding than it is entitled to under the SFRA formula.
“Our Supreme Court has ruled that the SFRA – and the funding formula set forth in the Act – satisfies the state’s constitutional requirement that it provide our students with a thorough and efficient education,” Lavender continued. But Lavender noted that the state budget consistently fails to fund the SFRA formula.
Lavender pointed out that the Kingsway district has been shortchanged by $11.6 million in funding this year alone. “There is no justification for failing to distribute whatever school funding is provided in the same proportions required under SFRA,” added the superintendent.
“The district is discussing its next steps with counsel and will continue this fight in any and all such forums until the rights of our students have been protected,” he stated.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, was at Kingsway on Jan. 27 as part of an eight-member Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness public hearing, issued a statement on Kingsway’s move:
“Districts like Kingsway have no recourse but to go to court to protect their children and taxpaying residents by fighting for the state aid they deserve. But what else can we expect from a district that’s getting little more than 40 percent of the state aid the law says they are entitled to?”
“It’s absolutely crucial that we correct the fatal flaws in the school funding formula and bring every district up to 100 percent of funding. The plan that passed the Senate is the only Constitutional answer that does this in a responsible and efficient way. Then the educators can turn their focus from the courtroom to the classroom.”
The Senate Select Committee was formed to examine wide inequalities in school funding distribution across New Jersey. Swedesboro-Woolwich is funded at only 54 percent of the formula. Kingsway Regional, covering grades nine through 12, is funded at 43 percent of the formula. The state aid formula says that the school systems are among 80 percent of New Jersey districts receiving less funding than they should.
“Every school district in New Jersey should be fully funded so that every student has a fair and equal opportunity for a quality education,” commented Sweeney. “The original funding formula for state aid that was put in place in 2008 would have met that standard if it wasn’t altered to include provisions (hold harmless) that have resulted in some districts being underfunded while others receive more than their fair share. This problem can be corrected at the same time we work to provide 100 percent of the funding formula to reach full funding.”
Lavender noted that the hold harmless add-ons were intended to be temporary but continue to be funded eight years later, resulting in a disparity that leaves some districts with as little as 40 percent funding while others get 140 percent or more of the formula aid.
“Despite all of our accomplishments, Kingsway may be better known as one of the state’s fastest growing school districts, serving two of the fastest growing municipalities—the townships of Woolwich and East Greenwich,” Lavender testified at the hearing. “As a result, Kingsway’s population growth has increased by more than 1,405 students over the last fifteen years.”
But Lavender said state aid has not kept pace.
“In 2001, state support for the Kingsway Regional School District equaled $5,280 per student,” he reported. “In the current 2016-2017 school budget, state aid per pupil was reduced to $3,770, representing a 29 percent reduction in state aid per pupil over 15 years.”
The Superintendent added that the Kingsway District was ranked first out of 46 (Grade 7-12) regional school districts throughout New Jersey as lowest spending in per pupil costs ($10,537). The number was reduced to $10,362 for the 2017 fiscal year, and is lower than the state’s $15,296,” Lavender observed.
But Lavender mentioned that over the same 15-year period, local property taxes per pupil increased by 142 percent.
Kingsway officials have also disclosed that they are facing a significant budget deficit in excess of two million dollars for the 2017-18 school year, which will likely lead to layoffs and program cuts. “Despite our efforts to stretch every dollar, we have hit the tipping point and can no longer support the demands of our growing District,” testified Kingsway School Business Administrator Jason Schimpf.
Kingsway Chief Academic Officer Patricia Colander said the school is unable to provide the technological classes students need to compete in today’s environment due to budget constraints.
Colander listed 98 classes in the Middle School with 30 or more students, and indicated that number would increase next year.
East Greenwich Superintendent of Schools James Lynch reported that their support services, administrative, and legal costs per pupil are less than the state median. Lynch adds that the district has used all of its banked cap and can only raise the tax levy by two percent or about $250,000, barely enough to cover increased fixed costs.
Woolwich Committeeman John Carleton called the school funding the number one issue in the area. “Fundamentally, it’s just unfair to the community,” Carleton commented. “It’s intertwined with the property taxes. If our funding is increased, they are likely to go down.”
“There is nothing more important to us than our school funding system,” Sweeney said. “We’re trying to get back to run the formula, fund the formula.”
“We’ve proposed a five-year phase out. We spent a year recognizing that we had to fix this, and we herd crickets coming out of the Assembly,” he added.
Sweeney supports an increase in state support of $100 million a year for five years. Along with the $500 million in increased aid, the $680 million in adjustment aid that is now overfunding some districts would be reallocated to bring all districts to full funding.
“Senate President Sweeney’s efforts are addressing an inequity in school funding that leaves too many districts like ours short of the state aid we deserve,” said Swedesboro-Woolwich Superintendent Dr. Kristin O’Neil. “All we are asking for is our fair share so that our students get the support for a quality education and local taxpayers are not forced to pay more than they should.”
“If you keep hammering on this, you’ll win,” emphasized Senate President Sweeney. Don’t give up.”
The Select Committee also plans to assess the impact of tax growth on the ability of school districts to fund their schools, evaluate special education services, look at per-pupil administrative costs, the fairness of the current equalized valuation and income measure, and the impact of property tax abatements.
by Robert Holt