OLD BRIDGE – As school officials continue to grapple with the loss of state aid, members of the Old Bridge Board of Education are pleading with members of the public to work together.
In response to public outcry on pending decisions to make up the shortfall, board members stressed decisions are not finalized at a board meeting on April 16.
“We hear you, believe me we hear you,” board member Sal DiPrima said. “[The pending decision] is our response to explore every option. If we left one stone unturned then we are not doing our due diligence with the community.”
DiPrima said in response to the use of state aid in previous years, the district had to use the funds.
“We couldn’t save the funds, we can only save an ‘X’ amount of dollars,” he said, noting the funds went into “all the wonderful programs in the schools.”
Board member Richard Dunn said the board has “fiduciary duties” to not only answer to the school community, but also the taxpayers in Old Bridge.
“We can’t forget that we have a very difficult balancing act and we go home stressed, we go home angry, we go home upset when we deal with the budget,” he said.
Dunn said what has caused the difficult situation is the state legislature.
“They are the ones who cut $16 million out of our state aid over the next five years,” he said. “Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding, it’s here, we see it, next year it’s going to be even worse, so we as board members have the commission by the public to try to make things work.”
Dunn said the board’s duty is to educate the students in the district.
“That is our foremost responsibility … the children are first, everything else comes secondary,” he said.
Board member Jill DeCaro said the board and public have to listen with open ears and try to work together.
“There will be no winners, that’s reality,” she said. “We have to try to work together to do what’s best and get Old Bridge back to where it was before the massive cuts.”
Board President Jill Cali and Board Vice President Kelly Ellis-Foster agreed.
“We are just as frustrated,” Cali said.
In response to a cut in state aid, schools officials have discussed closing and consolidating Cheesequake Elementary School, one of the 12 elementary schools in the Old Bridge Township Public School District, and selling an easement near the Nike Base, off Route 9 south, where it currently houses its buses.
Cheesequake Elementary has about 280 students and 25 educators, which includes 13 classroom teachers, four response to intervention (RTI) teachers, two special education teachers, a guidance counselor, principal and educators who teach special classes such as art.
School officials had also discussed outsourcing paraprofessional services, but was able to work together and keep the paraprofessionals inhouse.
According to Gov. Phil Murphy’s revamp of the School Funding Formula, which was approved by the New Jersey Senate and the House of Representatives on July 21, 2018, Old Bridge Township Public Schools will receive an approximate $12 million reduction in state aid over the next seven years, from approximately $45 million to $33 million.
“Based on the [amended] formula, [the state says] we are overfunded,” Cittadino has said, noting the district does not apply for state aid. “[The reduction] came without warning and did not provide us the time to put a strategic plan in place. [The handling of the reduction has been] irresponsible and it is detrimental to our students.”
The district is receiving $42,209,527 in state aid for the 2019-20 school year, a $1.9 million, or 4.44 % decrease from last year.
Since 2008, enrollment in Old Bridge schools has decreased about 1,000 students. The school district has just under 9,000 students, 1,388 employees and 17 educational facilities.
School officials said they had been using state aid to cover recurring expenses including salary costs, collective bargaining contracts, a custodial contract, and health and medical benefits in the district’s $150 million budget.