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School districts cite consequences of continued reduction in state aid

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Administrators in three local school districts have filed legal action against the New Jersey Department of Education over issues related to school aid and claim their districts will be significantly harmed if changes are not made in the way state funding is allocated to school districts.

The predicted impacts of an ongoing reduction in state aid for the affected school districts include larger class sizes, the elimination of sports and extracurricular activities, the closing of schools and reductions in staff size.

The legal complaint states that “the petitioning districts are suffering and will suffer consequences of underfunding in many ways.”

The Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District, the Jackson School District and the Freehold Regional High School District are three of the 14 plaintiffs (school districts, municipalities and one resident) represented by the Weiner Law Group, Parsippany, in a legal action against Lamont Repollet, the New Jersey commissioner of education, and Elizabeth Muoio, the New Jersey state treasurer.

The Freehold Regional High School District enrolls children from Colts Neck, Englishtown, Farmingdale, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro.

John J. Marciante Jr., the superintendent of the Manalapan-Englishtown district, said on Jan. 23 that the filing of the lawsuit was imminent. He said the superintendents of the plaintiff school districts were required to predict what could happen to their districts if the state does nothing to help them and they have to cut millions of dollars from their budgets over the next five years.

Speaking for Manalapan-Englishtown, Marciante said the predictions he made in the lawsuit were “a worst case example and were necessary to demonstrate to the court the significant impact these (state aid) cuts would have on the district.”

“Whatever is in the lawsuit is my ‘best guess’ of what could happen and is based on state aid figures that could easily be changed,” he said.

In the complaint, Manalapan-Englishtown administrators said:

• The district was forced in FY 2019 to cut staff, including one media specialist, three full-time push-in, pull-out enrichment teaching positions in grades two through five, one physical education position, and 19 staff positions for four after-school extracurricular programs at the elementary level.

• The district will curtail its technology plan, including the planned purchase of 600 Chromebook computers for sixth-graders, central to planned expansion to all grade levels of 1:1 technology access for students.

• As now projected, in FY 2020, the district will outsource 51 full-time and 34 part-time certified special education instructional assistants.

• The district will deplete capital and maintenance reserves, causing delay of scheduled
maintenance on essential systems including HVAC.

• The district will shift certain fees onto parents, including per activity fees for all
secondary extracurricular programs (sports, clubs, band, etc.), and a $500 transportation fee (per school building) caused by the elimination of courtesy busing for approximately 1,200 students.

• As now projected, in FY 2021 staff cuts will continue, increasing average class size from 22 to 25 to more than 30 students.

• As now projected, in FY 2022 staff cuts will continue, including five elementary school
teachers, six instrumental music positions (band, orchestra, etc.), and eight secretarial positions (50 percent secretarial reduction in all buildings); increase of average class size in fourth and fifth grades to 30 or more students. Scheduled maintenance/upgrades of HVAC systems to prevent catastrophic failures at four schools, at a cost of $297,350, are jeopardized.

• As now projected, in FY 2023-25 the district will close an entire sixth grade school and transfer approximately 600 sixth grade students to the middle school, increasing that building’s total enrollment (grades 6-8) to approximately 1,800 students, exceeding capacity and causing overcrowding. Also required will be the elimination of assistant principals from elementary schools, where enrollment is over 500 students per building.

In the complaint, Jackson administrators said:

• Loss of funding will force Jackson to eliminate course offerings to students and/or reduce district support systems.

• Jackson will eliminate all after-school enrichment programs and increase its
participation fees (which it already charges) for extracurricular activities and sports until it is impossible to do so (low participation, especially from financially disadvantaged students due to cost increases). If the activities can no longer be supported by increased fees, Jackson will move to eliminate sports and co-curricular activities, thereby eliminating course offerings, and decreasing the visual and performing arts being offered.

• In addition to eliminating course offerings, Jackson will reduce custodial and technological budgets. This will have a negative impact on the cleanliness of schools …

• In the immediate future (FY 2020), Jackson anticipates having to eliminate a total of 18 full-time employee positions, which will result in increased class sizes.

• Despite already using 37 trailers as classrooms, Jackson will be forced to close one
elementary school (300 students).

In the complaint, Freehold Regional High School District administrators said:

• FRHSD will be forced to reduce its student support systems; reduce the quantity and/or levels of athletics offered to students and also reduce (and in some cases, eliminate) co-curricular activities; offer fewer courses; and eliminate world language options and/or levels.

• FRHSD will delay the implementation of curriculum improvements and the use of new
security/instructional software, in contravention of the strategic plan.

• FRHSD will be forced to eliminate courtesy busing, eliminate personnel, increase class sizes and reduce its buildings and grounds budget so that it will only be able to
support mandatory health and safety repairs.

The plaintiffs are seeking the following: a declaratory determination that the funding methodology now used by the commissioner of education must be modified for the 2019-20 school year (and beyond) … and that the treasurer must provide the Department of Education with sufficient funds to do so; a declaratory determination that taxpayers of the petitioning school districts are now required to pay more than their fair or lawful share of property taxes for school district use; an order directing that the Commissioner of Education allocate any state aid funds provided by the Legislature for the 2019-20 school year so the petitioners receive an equal, equitable and predictable amount of state aid funds and are not continually and severely under-aided; and an order directing that the treasurer allocate to the Department of Education an amount adequate and sufficient to fulfill (obligations).

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