All but two of Sussex County's public school districts are bearing the brunt of a third consecutive year of state aid reductions that will see Trenton's total aid to county schools fall from $103.7 million for the current school year to just under $95.7 million for 2020-21 — a year-over-year loss of more than $8 million, or 7.76%.
The latest aid figures, which were released Thursday following Gov. Phil Murphy's budget address last week, mean Trenton's total annual aid to Sussex County schools as of next year will have fallen by nearly $15 million, or 13.5%, from the $110.6 million that county schools were receiving before the first changes to the state's school funding formula kicked in just prior to the 2018-19 school year.
The changes, part of a controversial redistribution of school aid intended to bring public schools in line with revisions enacted under the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, are being rolled out over a seven-year period that won't conclude until 2024-25.
The changes have already produced some clear winners and losers.
Locally, one of the greatest beneficiaries by far has been Newton, which will see its third increase in as many years when its aid climbs to $7.75 million next year — an increase of nearly $680,000, or 9.6%, over the approximately $7.07 million it's receiving this year and more than 25% over what it was receiving prior to the funding changes three years ago. Five districts in neighboring counties — Allamuchy, Hackettstown, Mount Arlington, Mount Olive, and Netcong — will also see their aid go up.
Newton Schools Superintendent Ken Greene, in a phone conversation Friday, said the increased aid is making up for years of districts like his being underfunded. "I feel good for our kids and community finally getting what they deserve," he said — a position almost universally not shared by most of his superintendent colleagues in this part of the state.
Sussex Tech, the only other school district in Sussex County not losing money, will see its aid held flat next year as a result of being funded under a different formula applied to vocational school districts.
The other 23 Sussex County school districts are all losing money, including nine that are seeing percentage aid losses in the double digits heading into next year. Those districts include Stillwater (17.73%), Hopatcong (17.71%), Sandyston-Walpack (14.22%), Kittatinny Regional (13.81%), High Point Regional (13.32%), Hampton (13.18%), Frankford (12.32%), Byram (11.47%), and Andover Regional (10.76%).
An additional seven districts in regions bordering Sussex County — Blairstown, Frelinghuysen, Great Meadows, Jefferson, Knowlton, North Warren Regional, and West Milford — are also getting hit with double-digit percentage cuts.
Some of these districts, which already were bracing for a third consecutive year of cuts, lost even more than they were expecting. Hopatcong Schools Superintendent Art DiBenedetto, whose district was one of them, said the $1.7 million loss heading into next year is nearly double the $880,000 amount that Hopatcong school officials were anticipating.
Kittatinny Superintendent Craig Hutcheson said the high school he oversees, which will lose $742,000 heading into next year, has already downsized by about 20 staff members over the last six to eight years, including five positions that were cut last year. But, he said, "This is now $1.525 million that we've lost over a period of two years, and there's only one way to make up that kind of money and that's from salaries and benefits."
Hutcheson said that with the prospect of four more years of aid cuts yet to come, "there comes a tipping point where you have decimation of programs. We're not there yet, but I guarantee we will be there next year if these cuts continue."
Vernon, as Sussex County's largest school district, will lose just under $2 million heading into next year. That’s the largest aid cut by dollar amount in the county and brings Vernon’s total aid loss over a three-year period to nearly $4 million.
Despite the loss, Vernon Schools Superintendent Karen D'Avino said her district has been able to cushion the loss by relying on year-by-year projections prepared three years ago by Business Administrator Steve Kepnes — who has indicated the district will face a cumulative aid loss of more than $10 milllion when Trenton's seven-year aid reallocation is complete — and planning accordingly.
"Those calculations have been dead-on, so we're lucky in that respect," D'Avino said. "There are many other districts that have been shocked by what they've lost."
D'Avino said the Vernon School District has "worked very hard to find cost savings and maximize efficiencies" in anticipation of the projected losses.
Still, she said, "The cost of personnel makes up approximately 80% of a school district's budget so the loss of staff will likely have to continue, and that's devastating to our children and our district. We still hope to be able to maintain as many opportunities as we can in the coming years, but right now none of us knows what that's going to look like."
For some districts like Vernon, coming to terms with this "new normal" is leading them to unload some of their real estate holdings — an idea that began with the sale of two administrative office buildings there two years ago. Officials at the time also proposed closing a school building in Vernon, an idea that became embroiled in controversy and was later scuttled. However, that idea is now back on the table as Vernon school officials have tentatively agreed to put the Walnut Ridge School, which houses pre-K classes and the Board of Education office, up for sale.
Hopatcong is doing the same as officials there prepare to close on the sale of the now-shuttered Hudson Maxim School. DiBenedetto, the Hopatcong superintendent who ironically was the school chief in Vernon when those same discussions were taking place there two years ago, said the sale of the Hudson Maxim School property will net the Hopatcong School District $762,000.
Despite the loss of aid locally, Gov. Murphy's office put out a statement Thursday saying his budget proposal actually increases K-12 school aid by $336.5 million heading into next year and that "the record investments in school funding continue to tackle the root cause of New Jersey's high property taxes."
DiBenedetto responded: "I haven't raised property taxes in any district I've been in for years, but it looks like this year I'm going to have to raise property taxes. The governor, to me, is full of beans."
The three state legislators representing the 24th District — Republicans state Sen. Steve Oroho and Assembly members Parker Space and Hal Wirths — put out a statement Friday calling on "taxpayers, students, school districts, and educational professionals to join with them in opposing these draconian cuts," which they suggested will increase the local tax burden while redirecting money to pay for what Wirths called "Governor Murphy's progressive agenda."
In many local school districts whose aid is being cut, however, the state's position is that local communities aren't paying enough of their fair share to support their public schools — a position, ironically, at odds with state regulations that seek to cap annual property tax increases at 2 percent.
The state's school funding formula is also said to rely on other criteria including enrollment, but many school leaders complain that the actual formula remains a mystery and say the state should come clean about how it comes up with its numbers.
Oroho said "any funding formula that formularizes the Abbott mandates which translates into two-thirds of all state aid going to a handful of urban school districts will always be flawed no matter how you run the numbers. The unfair treatment of suburban and rural districts is baked into the formula."
The New Jersey Department of Education’s official state aid summaries can be viewed online at www.nj.gov/education/stateaid. For comparison purposes, the site includes links to figures for the upcoming school year and prior years, all of which are broken down by county and by school district.
Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.