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Cape towns hit harder than expected by state aid cuts

Cape towns hit harder than expected by state aid cuts

school funding file art

As proposed state aid numbers were released last week for individual school districts, towns in Cape May County were preparing for the worst.

They say they received that, and then some.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, Upper Township is losing $602,522 in state aid next year.

“Unfortunately, it is almost $101,000 more than we expected. None of us thought choice aid would be reduced, nor did we think they would reduce adjustment aid beyond the initial number,” Upper Township Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said. “We continue to review every line item and seek alternative ways to raise revenues, however, very difficult choices will be made.”

Most of the cuts are the result of the the bill known as S-2, the new school funding rules signed into law in July. The law reworked the school funding formula to phase out the categorical aid known as adjustment aid for towns where enrollment has declined over the years. It also eliminated the growth cap, which capped the amount of aid increases a district could receive if their enrollment grew.

The new school funding rule created winners and losers when it comes to state aid, and this year towns in Cape May County are feeling the cuts.

Of all the towns in the Press coverage area, Lower Township Elementary School District is seeing the greatest proposed reduction in aid, $947,285 for the 2019-2020 budget.

Lower Superintendent Jeff Samaniego said that reduction included a drop in adjustment aid of $778,315 — partly due to S-2, which was expected, and in part due to a decrease of 29 students in enrollment, an unexpected hit.

In addition, the aid the district receives to operate in the School Choice Program was also cut.

Samaniego said he is concerned the 2020-2021 school-year aid reduction would be more than $1.2 million.

“With reductions to that degree, significant operational changes would need to happen and the quality of education would be impacted,” Samaniego said. “This is a major concern for our community.”

Several towns hit hard by the state aid reductions, including Weymouth Township in Atlantic County, have sued the state over the cuts. Weymouth Board of Education member Henry Goldsmith said he has been urging other towns hurt by the aid reductions, like those in Cape May County, to follow suit. He said a hearing date has been scheduled in May.

Weymouth had severe aid cuts under S-2, and school officials agreed the reductions this year were more than expected.

“We did not expect to get cuts beyond the S-2 cuts. That additional reduction of approximately $100,000 will hurt the most and definitely have an impact directly on student programming,” said Weymouth Township Superintendent John Alfieri.

In addition, the same towns met with Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet to plead their case during a roundtable in December and many have also joined a group of 70 districts called Save Our Schools, which is actively opposing S-2.

Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Chris Kobik was among the South Jersey contingent of educators in the Save Our Schools group who joined a rally in Trenton opposing the aid cuts during the governor’s budget address on March 5.

In a letter to the public urging them to voice their concerns to the state, Kobik said that the seventh-to 12th-grade district has already lost $511,929 in state aid during the current and past school year and stands to lose $6 million more over the next six years.

He said that is nearly 20 percent of the operating budget.

“The impact of this school funding law on Cape May County schools is particularly troubling,” Kobik wrote.

He said Cape May County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, among the lowest median income in the state, the highest per capita percentage of homeless students in the state, and the highest percentage of special education students in the state.

“These challenges must be considered when it comes to funding our schools,” Kobik wrote.

The changes to S-2 aren’t bad for all school districts in South Jersey, like Egg Harbor Township, which has been underfunded for several years.

The K-12 district will see a more than $4 million increase in aid, bringing its total aid to $48.1 million. Board member Pete Castellano said the district was $23.5 million below what it should be under the state formula, so he was pleasantly surprised with the bump.

“Our best guess was that we were going to get at least $3 million more this year,” he said. “So, the $4.2 million was a bit more than expected, but certainly very much needed. We have been working very hard to make sure all of our elected officials are aware of our need for full and fair funding.”

Castellano said the board will be looking at the budget beginning Tuesday, but the revenue will help the school, the students and the taxpayers.

“We have many critical unmet needs,” Castellano said. “They include having enough teachers and staff to keep class sizes small enough so students can learn, targeted interventions for students who are struggling, early childhood education including full-day kindergarten, and unmet capital needs in all of our aging buildings and infrastructure.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

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Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. After seven years at The Current and Gazette newspapers, I joined The Press in 2015. I currently cover education.

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