500 Students in a One-Room School: Fallout of New Jersey’s Funding Woes

FREEHOLD BOROUGH, N.J. — At an elementary school in Freehold, over 500 students share a vast, open space where bookshelves, whiteboards, storage cubbies and other pieces of furniture are the only boundaries between classrooms.

There are no walls because the building was originally designed in the 1970s to be a smaller Montessori school, Rocco Tomazic, the superintendent of the Freehold Borough School District, explained during a recent tour. But now it is noisy and crowded, and the district does not have the money to move students into traditional closed classrooms — the kind with walls and fewer distractions.

The issue for Freehold Borough — and about two-thirds of New Jersey’s 586 school districts — is the state’s nine-year-old formula for paying for public schools. Adopted by the State Legislature in 2008, it calculates how much each district needs to ensure that students receive a “thorough and efficient” education, regardless of income, as New Jersey law requires.

The formula directs extra dollars to districts with children who are learning English, students with disabilities and those living in poverty. But hundreds of towns, including Freehold Borough, where 75 percent of the schoolchildren are Latino, have not gotten their full share of funding under the formula since 2010. This year, for instance, the district was due $23 million, Mr. Tomazic said. It got $9 million.

“State aid has been flat-funded since at least 2010, with no adjustments for enrollment, for our at-risk students, for our special-needs students, for our English-language-learner students,” said Joe Howe, the district’s business administrator.

When the state falls short, the burden falls on local governments. In Freehold, that has meant overcrowded classes, a library converted into classrooms for English learners, a small gymnasium that doubles as a school cafeteria and an elementary school class with 28 students — well over the recommended 21.

The Freehold Borough School District is the 33rd-poorest district in New Jersey; 78 percent of its students are eligible for subsidized meals. Low-income communities cannot turn to property tax payers to cover what the state has not provided because the tax base will not generate enough financing.

David Sciarra, the director of the New Jersey Education Law Center, says the problem is not the funding formula but Gov. Chris Christie’s decision not to abide by it.

“The problem is seven, going on eight, years of Governor Christie’s stubborn refusal to put any new state aid to invest any new money over an extended period of time,” Mr. Sciarra said.

Some districts in the state, however, are actually overfunded. Places like Jersey City, Hoboken and Asbury Park — cities that have gentrified — are receiving more money than they are owed from the state. A loophole in the formula allows those cities to continue getting the same aid even after the student population has shrunk or property tax revenue increases.

In his February budget address, Mr. Christie criticized the funding formula, calling it unfair. “Certain municipalities are ripping off the state; certain school districts are being ripped off,” he said. Mr. Christie had promoted a new formula that would set aside the same amount for each public school student, regardless of income. But critics called the proposal unfair to low-income districts. Now, Mr. Christie has asked the Legislature to come up with a new funding plan.

Any solution would most likely pit district against district and the needs of property owners against the needs of public school students. And emotions are rising. In Clifton, students staged a walkout. In Paterson, one of the state’s poorest cities, hundreds of teachers have been laid off.

When state legislators recently held a budget hearing, parents and district administrators packed the room to plead for more funding. Valerie Freeman, a parent who lives in Paterson, said nurses and substance abuse counselors had been cut throughout the district.

“Most of our children, they walk through harsh areas in our school. Most of them are coming to school high. But, what can the teacher do?” she said in an interview. “The teachers can’t do anything about it.”

With Mr. Christie entering the final months of his term, the issue of how to get enough money to school districts will probably fall to the next governor, who will be elected in November. It is a monumental task because the state faces many financial challenges, including a public transit system that has had several major breakdowns and an underfunded state pension system.

The four leading Democratic candidates for governor all say the state has an obligation to abide by the existing school funding formula.

One of the candidates, John Wisniewski, a state assemblyman, said he would find the money by limiting the amount of tax breaks given to corporations. He criticized the Christie administration for granting millions in tax breaks to companies while schools struggle.

Another candidate, State Senator Ray Lesniak, said he would put a moratorium on charter schools; traditional public schools lose money when students leave to attend public charter schools because the state money is shifted to the charter.

A third candidate, Jim Johnson, a former federal prosecutor, said he would expand state aid to include prekindergarten and after-school services. He said he would go after federal dollars to support the programs.

The leading Democratic candidate, Philip D. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, said the state had an obligation to fund the school formula, though he said that it might need to be tweaked and that an increase in taxes would be necessary.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is seeking to replace her boss, says the formula needs to be overhauled, but she also says the extra money that has gone to overfunded districts should be directed to property taxpayers in the form of a credit on their property tax bill.

Her opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, a state assemblyman, has a detailed plan that includes requiring all communities to contribute at least 25 percent of their public education costs, and reducing the excess aid some districts are getting.

But there has been resistance from districts that have gotten extra money. Officials of those districts argue that their property owners do not want their taxes to go up, either.

On Thursday, the Freehold Borough School District sued the State Education Department on behalf of a parent who claims his children have been denied their right to the kind of education promised by state law. A spokesman for the agency said it did not comment on pending litigation.

Mr. Tomazic, the superintendent, said the district would get some relief because the state’s Schools Development Authority had agreed to finance renovations that would restore libraries and provide new classroom space. When local voters rejected two referendum proposals to raise property taxes, Mr. Tomazic appealed to the authority, saying he could not provide students the education they were entitled to.

“We cited regulations and law of what we were supposed to do and showed where we were short because of the space,” citing the closing of libraries and cutting of gym time, Mr. Tomazic said. And he tracked how district students performed after they went to a regional high school.

“Our students were not faring very well in getting into the honors when compared to the seven sending districts, all of which were wealthy,” he said.

But when the renovations are finished in late 2018, the district will still have 200 more students than its schools were designed to hold, and the elementary school where children learn in a large open space will still have classrooms without walls, he said.

Building new classrooms does not solve all Freehold’s problems. Unless the state fulfills what the funding formula calls for, Mr. Tomazic said, he may not have teachers to fill them.

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