New Laws Won’t Balance the School Budget

Two bills were recently passed, just before the deadline, to help address the budget problems faced by the school district. However, officials have expressed concern that more state aid is needed to prevent further losses.

The main issue is that a few years ago, a bill called S-2 reduced school funding each year for several local districts. On the other hand, districts are prohibited from increasing taxes by more than 2%. There is a gap between the requirements to run a district and the two main sources of money – taxes and state aid – that are used to pay the bills.

The district officials have announced that there is a budget shortfall of $26.5 million for the upcoming school year. The state determines a specific amount called “adequacy” which refers to the amount of money that a school district needs to spend in order to provide education. Toms River Regional Schools is $91 million less than that.

Governor Phil Murphy signed two bills that could potentially assist the district and similar ones, but they do not completely solve the problem.

The bill A-4161 creates a program called Stabilized School Budget Aid Grant Program. Districts can apply for grants that are 45% of the amount their aid was reduced for the 2024-2025 school year. Various areas in New Jersey will participate in a competition to win a total of $44.7 million. This bill also allows certain districts to ask for permission to raise taxes by more than the 2% limit that was put in place years ago.

The second bill (A-4059) allows the Commissioner of Education to let certain school districts, which are getting less money from the state, submit their budgets within five days after the FY2025 appropriations act is passed. Put simply, a school district would wait until the state budget is completed before finalizing their own budget. The state fiscal year starts on July 1 and ends on June 30, so the end of June marks the end of the fiscal year.

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The bills were signed on the last day that districts were allowed to introduce their budgets. Superintendent Michael Citta said during the Board of Education meeting that they received the message at 4:16 p.m.

The first bill would only cover 45% of the funding that was lost in the upcoming year, not the entire duration of S-2. He said that this would result in a refund of $1.2 million.

If the district increases taxes by 9.9%, as stated in one of the bills, it would mean that each homeowner would have to pay an average of $325 per household. The amount it would provide is $13 million. The district would still need an additional $12.4 million. He emphasized that this would only happen if the board decides to increase taxes by that amount. Seniors who are enrolled in the tax freeze program would likely not have to pay any additional increases.

There is still a risk that all advanced placement programs, sports, and extra-curricular activities, as well as 20 percent of employees, could be affected. The final outcome could be that the elementary schools have class sizes of 236 students.

Citta said that these changes are not acceptable. The administration, board, and staff do not want this to happen. If nothing changes, the district will not have enough money to operate by April or May. The governor and State Department of Education also do not want that to happen.

“We still need $25.3 million more to fund our programs and schools as they currently are,” he said. “We are not requesting $91 million.” We are requesting to maintain the current situation.

In response to political letters criticizing the school board for raising taxes, he explained that the board is legally required to increase taxes by 2% due to their current situation.

The Board members did not vote on a budget because they had until June to do so. However, they did express their opinions about the finances.

At the beginning of the meeting, there were several presentations to recognize students who did well in academics, sports, and the arts. Board members explained that these children are doing exceptionally well because there are school programs that cater to their interests. “Deciding which program to cut is making me sick,” expressed board member Anna Polozzo.

Polozzo observed that certain students who have difficulty with a particular aspect of school require something to anticipate and discover their true selves. Some kids need to participate in both co-curricular activities and athletics in order to successfully complete their goals. They need to experience some happiness in their day.

Ashley Lamb, a member of the board, expressed her desire to listen to the public’s input. She encouraged them to contact her by using the email addresses listed on the school district’s website. If people want to see a tax increase in order to support programs, inform them. If they do not, encourage them to speak up.

She observed that there were only four people from the general public in the audience at the meeting.

The Board President, Kathy Eagan, mentioned that the Department of Education reviewed the district’s budget and was impressed by what the district has achieved despite the challenges.

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