School’s open and all’s (for the most part) well.

Fourth Grade teacher Mr. Todd earns "flex time" handling displays for STEAM night at Harker School.
Fourth Grade teacher Mr. Todd earns “flex time” handling displays for STEAM night at Harker School.

Educators, parents and taxpayers have seen an intense grass-roots push this past year as a decades-long battle for state funds to school districts nearly shut New Jersey down this spring.

At risk was the amount of funding local schools would receive from the state. The answer to that question, of course, determines the quality of education the schools can offer and the amount of taxes residents are asked to contribute.

After years of lobbying at the congressional level, and recent months of testimonies to and pressure on state legislatures, the issue became a deal-breaker that threatened acceptance of the state budget. A last-minute negotiation between State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D – Gloucester), arguing for more money for the underfunded schools in South Jersey, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D- Hudson), who sought to protect the funding level for the over-funded schools in his district, paved the way for budget approval in June. Sweeney brought home more money for his district’s schools.

The good news for area schools is they can breathe a sigh of relief.  There will be no shutdowns, no lack of vital supplies, no shortened schooldays.

But not because the schools are now fully funded as per the state funding formula. Despite years of appeals, letters, and lobbying replete with charts, budget details and personal stories, the schools your kids attend are still not fully funded to the amount the formula requires. And this is a problem.

Schools are getting more than they expected but not as much as they are owed by state law. At this point, the formulas and changes and justifications get complicated. Generally, you can find discussions and explanations on your local school’s website and you can see an informative call-to-action public letter from Kingsway Regional Superintendent Dr. James Lavender here:

So how are the schools coping and what can parents and students expect? Pretty much as per usual, and that’s because of the efforts of administrative and teaching staff and of prescient planning.

kingsway logoFor the district with the largest student population, Kingsway Regional High School, funding issues are much more impactful. Superintendent Dr. James Lavender, who also holds that position with the South Harrison school district, said the high school initially laid off numerous professional and paraprofessional staff before the funding bargain was made. Lavender and Kingsway largely spearheaded the district uprising to restore mandated funding.

With the additional monies, about $732,000, he is now in the process of hiring staff to fill out his roster. He will, he predicted, “start the 17-18 school year about two dozen staff short.”

Lavender said the high school has been hurt with the years of costly underfunding. “Class sizes are through the roof. I can’t offer the electives I want. It’s hard to keep teachers because they can go elsewhere for more money and less work.”

The high school infrastructure, too, is overburdened, Lavender added. “The campus is shy of what I need. I can’t get all my athletes on the fields to play. Everything is undersized. This school was built to handle about 2,000 students. We’re almost at 3,000 now,” he continued.

“Kingsway (student population), in the last nine years, has grown by 44 percent; state aid by less than 10 percent. It’s equivalent of living in a one-bedroom apartment when you’re just out of school. Then you get married and now you have three kids so five people are living in a one-bedroom apartment.”

The Swedesboro-Woolwich district, however, is fortunate, said, Superintendent Dr. Kristin O’Neil. In her district the student population “kind of stayed steady,” and classroom sizes did not dramatically increase, she said. At first the district dropped four teachers when it appeared the extra money would not be forthcoming. O’Neil hired two positions back for the 2017-18 school year when new funding was set, plus the paraprofessional staff that was dismissed.

Swedesboro-Woolwich Superintendent Kristin O’Neil pets a Furever Friend dog as part of the school’s Read Across America program.
Swedesboro-Woolwich Superintendent Kristin O’Neil pets a Furever Friend dog as part of the school’s Read Across America program.

O’Neil praised her teachers and staff for creative thinking, finding solutions outside the box that enable the school to maintain its educational standards. For example, interested teachers volunteered to attend summer instruction on robotics to enrich the technology curriculum.

“Instead of hiring dedicated staff, we are using current staff who learn new instructional programs and strategies,” O’Neil explained. For instance, one teacher is now responsible for supplemental programs in the 3Rs and in gifted and talented classes. She added that teachers are volunteering to attend instructional classes to increase their skill in new areas.

Further, she said, “We created a period of the day, which we call ‘Comet Time’, where teachers can provide extra help and enrichment activities.” This time is in addition to regular hours and the teachers trade the enrichment time for flex time, whereby they can take the afternoon off on half days or the last day of school.

“This is part of the creative thinking. It’s something we can do that doesn’t cost salary but keeps the instructional level up,” O’Neil said. “I am really, really proud of my staff,” she added.

In addition, the schools have initiated more parent-student events. “Parent Evening events, we call them ‘The evenings’, like Pirate Literacy Night and Fourth Grade Math night, are geared toward the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) instructional curricula.”

O’Neil said her instructional staff, increasing their knowledge base and hours at school, is “bringing a camaraderie, coming to the table with their ideas and their time for the students. Trust me. They’re busy and exhausted and they’re doing this for the kids.

“If we had the (full) money, there’s so much more we could do to benefit student learning.” O’Neil said the taxpayers in the district are “already overtaxed.” Taxes in the district have increased 270 percent since 2001, she said, while state aid is down by 19 percent.

Taxpayers are the concern of every school district, certainly, but Dr. James Lynch, Superintendent at East Greenwich School District, is somewhat vehement concerning the burden of taxes. When asked by email if the underfunding was frustrating to administrators and staff, Lynch responded: “No, No, No, None. Frustration comes in the form of excessive property tax and few commercial ratables causing burdens on individual homeowners while continuing so support our vision of supplying a high performing school district to our students in a fiscally responsible manner…”

His district is the third fastest growing in the state, Lynch said, and administrators implemented a savings program to cushion against crisis. The district switched to solar electricity, saving taxpayers $100,000 a year, his recent letter to parents said. He added that the extra money from the state for the current school year will be saved for future needs.

Despite underfunding, the district is able to maintain performance, Lynch said. East Greenwich schools have a “small administrative infrastructure with dedicated administrators handling multiple roles and responsibilities and business practices that are always looking for better cost-effective solutions (and) savings measures,” Lynch wrote in his email. He said there was no staff fired though some aide positions may become part-time.

As superintendent of the district most impacted by any shortfall in funding, Kingsway’s Dr. Lavender understands the more subtle aspects to seeking taxpayer monies. He knows the school and campus are attractive and pleasing to passersby, as are the neighborhoods of the surrounding school districts. “Kingsway, South Harrison, the schools around here (reflect) the (upscale) neighborhoods,” he noted.

“Some of the problem is, it doesn’t look like we have a problem,” he pointed out. The implication, of course, is the question of why should the state give more money to well-off districts who don’t even look like they need it.

Answering that implied question, Lavender mentioned that the real estate tax in his district generally borders around $15,000 a year. “I’m also a parent,” Lavender said. “And I’m a taxpayer. And I’m fed up.”

All the districts contacted are yet unsure of whether the increased, if not full, funding will continue, though Sen. Sweeney has assured it will for at least several years. They are making plans for less rather than more and the plans include a hopeful note that taxpayers will not be asked to increase their bill.

No guarantees, though. As Lavender complained, “The burden is unfairly shifted to (district taxpayers)” when the state reneges on its promises.

He also explained a further rationale for sharing equitably the funding costs of schools (besides the “fed up” argument.) “Our country wouldn’t be the best country in the world without our public education system.”

By Jean Redstone


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