New Jersey Newsroom

South Brunswick Parents Call Gov. Christie's $1 School Aid Increase 'A Bad Joke'

New Jersey Newsroom — Friday, March 22, 2013

BY ROB DUFFEY
SPECIAL TO NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
COMMENTARY

Parents gathered at the South Brunswick Board of Education yesterday to register protest over the $1 state aid increase included in Governor Christies proposed FY 14 budget and to call on the governor and the legislature to set the state on the path to fully funding New Jerseys public schools in compliance with the School Funding Reform Act.

In February Governor Christie gave a budget address which touted an aid increase for 370 school districts. A few days later South Brunswick and forty other school districts found that the state aid increase the governor referenced in his speech amounted to a single dollar.

"After three years of underfunding by the state Governor Christie has given us a dollar and told us not to spend it all in one place," said Lisa Rodgers, a South Brunswick parent of two.

"Meanwhile, for the last three years we've been paying more in property taxes and fees and getting less for it. Class sizes are up while student clubs and extracurriculars have gone to the chopping block. What are we supposed to do with a dollar?"

In his first year in office Governor Christie made $1.6 billion in cuts to public schools around the state, including a $6.3 million cut for South Brunswick. Subsequent budgets have restored some of the funding, but the state aid amount for South Brunswick proposed in the FY 14 budget is still $2 million lower than it was before Governor Christie took office. In total, funding for South Brunswick is down 8% from FY 10.

But advocates stress that the true metric is how far South Brunswick is behind according to the funding formula codified in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008. "Governor Christie's budget gets us one measly dollar closer to where we were in 2008, but now it's 2013," said Maryann Herrera, a mother of four South Brunswick children. "Costs have gone up, and some of them were imposed by the Governor and Education Commissioner Cerf."

Speakers noted that a refinancing of state bonds has left South Brunswick with an additional $66,554 bill it must pay in debt service for school construction this year. The dollar increase in state aid means they will be $66,553 in the red for state contributions next year.

The last three years of cuts have had significant consequences for South Brunswick Schools. Programs like Peer and HiTops were scaled back, 3rd grade music was complete eliminated, and arts classes and physical education classes were also curbed. Meanwhile, class sizes have gone up from an average of 1 teacher for every 25 students to 1 teacher for every 28 students.

South Brunswick parents maintained that previous state aid cuts have passed costs down to them and to residents in the form of higher taxes and school fees as well as reduced services. Parents took out their wallets and counted out the additional expenses they have taken on to make up for state level cuts.

"Because of school aid cuts I now have to pay $300 in fees so that my kids can participate in the choir, participate in clubs or play sports," said Theresa Dempewolf, a mother of two South Brunswick middle-schoolers and the Director of Empowerment Programs and Finance at New Jersey Citizen Action, the state's largest citizen watchdog group. "And there are thousands of parents in the community just like me. Add up what South Brunswick residents are paying and that $1 aid 'increase' looks even more ridiculous."

State school aid plays a vital role in controlling property taxes in New Jersey. The FY 10 cuts forced the school district to raise property taxes each year for the last three years. South Brunswick residents make up for state underfunding with roughly $11 million in additional property taxes. If the state were to pay its full fair share of support for South Brunswick's schools its contribution would exceed $25 million next year.

"It's absurd for the Governor to get behind that podium and say he's giving us a record increase in state aid while holding out a single dollar," said Maryann Herrera, a mother of four who has lived in South Brunswick for over 15 years. "But this is bigger than South Brunswick and the forty other dollar districts. After struggling under three years of school cuts every district in the state is entitled to meaningful relief. We're standing in unity with them and asking Trenton to take the steps necessary to comply with the law and make all our schools whole."

Among the solutions offered was the restoration of taxes for people making over $400,000 per year to 2009 levels, which would net the state roughly $1 billion. Closing corporate loopholes could bring in as much as $300 million more.

The event was organized by Our Children/Our Schools, a statewide network of parents and advocates.

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