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Jackson has $30 million budget gap and won’t get much help from the state

In World
April 12, 2024

The Jackson School District issued an urgent warning this week: Without help, it said it could be forced to eliminate sports and clubs, close schools and limit or eliminate Advanced Placement courses.

The district, which serves about 7,500 students, could also be forced to shut down its band programs, increase classes sizes up to 40 students, and eliminate all courtesy busing, according to district officials.

The problem, they said, is a $30 million budget gap left by years of cumulative state aid cuts and the recent announcement from officials in Trenton that Jackson School District would not be receiving a loan.

Last year, the state Department of Education granted Jackson schools a $10 million loan to close its budget hole, but that option would not be extended into the 2024-25 school year, school officials said they were told. The Department of Education did not respond to questions from the Press in time for publication.

New Jersey law requires public school districts to balance their budgets each year, a task that moves further out of reach for Jackson school administrators. The state aid cuts have continued as the district faced record-high inflation and could not raise local school taxes more than 2% per year, per state law. The result is a reduction in the state funded portion of the school budget that has outpaced what the Jackson schools could legally raise from local taxpayers.

Last November, Jackson school leaders tried to raise money through a special ballot question. The question would have raised school spending by $4 million to hire additional teachers and counselors, but the ballot initiative was rejected by voters.

Without another loan, school officials have few options left. Superintendent Nicole Pormilli said she refuses to cut $30 million worth of programs and services from the township’s students.

Jackson Township Superintendent Nicole Pormilli

Jackson Township Superintendent Nicole Pormilli

“We’re drawing a line in the sand,” she told the Press on Thursday. “As educators, we can’t do these kinds of cuts. This isn’t good education. I’m a 33-year educator, and it goes against everything I believe is what’s good for kids.”

The district already eliminated some popular programs, such as ice hockey, gymnastics and certain Advance Placement classes, Pormilli said. More than 200 teaching positions have also been cut.

Extracurricular activities like sports, band, theater and clubs bring more than just educational benefits, she said. For some students, these programs are students’ only motivation to come to school each day, she said.

Those activities are “so key to mental health, their (students’) social-emotional learning and growth, and their academic achievement,” the superintendent said. “Without those things, we’re not going to see academic achievement. We’re gonna see an increase in absenteeism.”

Even if the district cut everything that was not absolutely required under state law – every sport and extracurricular activity, all courtesy busing, every security guard – Pormilli said the district still could not shave the entire $30 million.

The state funding issue “doesn’t just affect Jackson. It affects all of New Jersey and New Jersey schools in general,” she said.

Jersey Shore schools see declines in state aid

Overall, state aid to schools in Monmouth and Ocean counties will drop in the coming school year. In Ocean County, state aid will decline nearly 6.7% in the 2024-25 school year from the current year. In Monmouth County, state aid will drop about 2.9%.

The declines follow years of inflation that have raised educational prices. Budgetary per-pupil costs for public school students across New Jersey rose 8.5% in one year, from $17,656 in the 2021-22 school year to $19,164 in the 2022-23 school year, the last year for which data is available.

In March, Lacey Township School District Superintendent Vanessa Pereira told a crowd gathered before the Board of Education to hear a budget presentation that the “district is in a financial crisis.”

In Lacey, like in Jackson, the board of education considered seeking a loan from the state to close its budget gap. State aid dropped by $3.2 million down to nearly $7.3 million, a decline of nearly 31%. Pereira could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

In Brick, another district where state funding has been slashed, Superintendent Thomas Farrell said another 40 to 45 positions will be eliminated in the coming school year. Already, the district has cut more than 300 jobs, he said.

“That means high class sizes. It means less support services, whether it’s guidance or mental services,” Farrell said. “It means that we’re kind of no frills on the high school level. We’re not really what people would consider a comprehensive high school, because we don’t offer all the electives … That’s what has happened to us, unfortunately.”

Inflation, fuel and transportation costs, computers, technology, and special education expenses have all outpaced the 2% cap on tax levy increases and state funding calculations, Brick’s superintendent said.

“The (state aid) formula’s just got to be updated to where we are now: how we support kids, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s special ed and support services, or ELL (English language learners), because the populations have changed dramatically across the board,” he said.

Assemblyman Alex Sauickie, a former Jackson councilman, is also urging elected officials in Trenton to change the state aid formula. Suburban taxpayers in districts like Jackson and Plumsted are being shortchanged, because too little of their income taxes are coming back to their own school districts, he said.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the governor (Phil Murphy) and the administration’s response is that the local residents should have to raise their property tax,” Sauickie said. “We are already number one in the country for property tax.”

“School districts that were otherwise functioning well now are borrowing money,” he said. “How much more proof do you need that this funding formula is a disaster?”

Other elected officials across the region are also searching for ways to help Jackson schools and others in similar positions.

Last month, Jackson Mayor Michael Reina and the township Council announced they had agreed to buy 114 acres of land near Goetz Middle School and Elms Elementary from the school district. Reina said the land, which will cost $970,000, will help the school close some of its budget gap and help the town preserve open space.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, of New Jersey’s 11th Legislative District, wants to see a new funding formula adopted that brings more stability and predictability to districts and taxpayers.

“My legislative district has gotten hit harder than any district in the state,” said Gopal, who chairs the state Senate Education Committee. “My hometown, Long Branch, is the number one (school aid) loser in the state. They lost $10 million dollars, 20% of their budget.”

Last year, Gopal helped pass a one-time financial reprieve to help school districts faced with severe aid cuts recoup some of their losses. He said he is currently working on another funding solution to help them through the upcoming school year while advocating for a new formula that would limit major swings in aid.

“I don’t think increasing local taxes is the solution,” Gopal said. “But the challenge in New Jersey is we have 600 school districts, and we need to be able to set the bar: How many music, art programs, sports programs, what does everybody have? What are their mental health services?… There needs to be a bar set across all 600 school districts on what the state’s obligation is going to be.”

For the time being, Jackson school officials are urging parents and taxpayers to contact the governor’s office and their legislators.

“We have done everything within our power to bring in more revenue and to reduce expenses, during a time of great inflation,” Pormilli said. “We all need to come together to create a solution for districts like ours.”

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers education and the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than 15 years. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, aoglesby@gannettnj.com or 732-557-5701.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: State denies Jackson schools loan request, even though district has $30 million budget gap

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