High school district uses surplus to cover $1.27M reduction in state aid

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The Freehold Regional High School District Board of Education will move $1.27 million from its surplus fund (savings) and apply it to the 2018-19 budget to compensate for an unexpected reduction in state aid for the upcoming school year.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s initial proposal in March, the district’s state aid package for  2018-19 was expected to total $51.564 million. Using that amount of state aid, district administrators crafted a $206 million budget for the upcoming school year.

However, the district’s state aid amount changed in mid-July when Murphy and leaders in the state Legislature renegotiated New Jersey’s school aid funding and trimmed Freehold Regional’s state aid to $50.296 million – a loss of $1.27 million from what the district had been told it would receive.

That action in Trenton left district administrators with the option to reduce funding for certain line items in the budget or to add revenue without raising additional funding from taxpayers for 2018-19.

During a meeting on July 23 at district headquarters in Englishtown, board members appropriated $1.27 million from the surplus fund to account for the loss in state aid, without reducing the $206 million budget.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Administration Sean Boyce said the plan put in place by Murphy and the Legislature – and signed into law by the governor on July 24 – will continue to reduce the district’s state aid in the following manner during the next six years: $48.267 million for 2019-20; $45.731 million for 2020-21; $42.181 million for 2021-22; $37.616 million for 2022-23; $32.291 million for 2023-24; and $26.205 million for 2024-25.

In those years, administrators and the board face the prospect of making budget cuts or increasing the tax levy collected from property owners in the district’s eight sending municipalities.

However, Boyce said the district will not be able to keep up with the reduction in state aid by raising taxes because of a cap that limits the increase in the tax levy to 2 percent per year.

“Our property wealth has in no way kept up with the state’s determination of our ability to pay,” Superintendent of Schools Charles Sampson said. “This will have a long-term devastating impact on this school system and we will certainly not sit on our hands while that happens.

“We have a community of 200,000 residents in the Freehold Regional geographic imprint. I have a funny feeling most of those parents of school-age children and folks who believe in quality education for their children will rise up over this and make their voices heard, and candidly, we are going to lead that charge.

“We don’t support any model that creates winners and losers when you talk about educating children. Districts that were underfunded, that were not receiving their appropriate state aid, those children deserve to be funded, too. The solution is not to do the same thing to a district like ours to make that happen.

“I am ecstatic the Freehold Borough (K-8 School District) received the boost in state aid (for 2018-19) it did, they deserve it. But it makes no sense to devastate the high school district those students will attend to make that district whole,” Sampson said. “We are asking our legislators to look at our financial metrics across the board.

“We will see what happens over the next few months. It is absolutely abhorrent that we would fix a funding problem by creating a similar problem to what had already existed. That’s not exactly rocket science,” he said.

The Freehold Regional’s loss in state aid from $50.3 million in 2018-19 to $26.2 million in 2024-25 “will destroy the school system. We are going to take steps to make sure that is not going to happen. Our leaders have to take a deeper look at all of this rather than pandering to political factions across the state in terms of how they problem solve this,” Sampson said.

Board member Carl Accettola said, “This district is second to none, we have to keep it that way, and it is unfair the way the politicians are now saying to cut back [on state aid] and let the property owners pay more. We can’t afford any more to cut back. Usually I say cut this, do that, but not now. This (state aid reduction) is a bad situation. It’s not fair to the kids.”

Directing his comments to residents of the school district, Accettola said, “Please do not take this lightly. Please do everything you can to keep our districts where they are.”

The school district’s eight sending municipalities are Colts Neck, Englishtown, Farmingdale, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro.

News Transcript Managing Editor Mark Rosman contributed to this article.