The Sussex County Board of County Commissioners unanimously opposed the deep school aid cuts affecting local districts.
At their May 12 meeting, the commissioners adopted a resolution urging the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of School Finance, to restore funding to the districts that were slashed.
According to the resolution, many of Sussex County’s schools have been subject to a sharp decrease in school funding, with 14 other counties in the state experiencing a climb in their school funding. The resolution cited the low and high end of that spectrum, with Gloucester experiencing a 5.4% overall funding increase and Bergen County a 16.3% jump in school state aid.
In Sussex County, only two school districts have been given a funding increase, Newton and Franklin, with aid to 22 school districts reduced. Sussex County Technical School’s state aid distribution experienced neither an increase nor a decrease (see sidebar).
“These funding cuts are detrimental to our school districts, are detrimental to our students inside of classrooms and they’re detrimental to our taxpayers,” said Deputy Director Anthony Fasano, a former school board president for the Hopatcong Borough Schools. “If it isn’t addressed soon, our school districts are facing significant cuts in academic programming, and my fear is that Sussex County’s academic foundation is going to be nothing more than bare bones, which defeats the very purpose of the effort that we’re doing from an economic development standpoint, and our own taxpayer funding that we’re putting toward public education here at the county level.”
The Murphy administration is increasing state aid to two-thirds of New Jersey’s school districts while cutting aid to schools in Passaic, Morris, Warren, and Sussex counties. The cuts are needed to address enrollment changes and shift resources to schools that had been short-changed in the past, the administration says.
Sussex County has experienced a consistent drop in its state aid distributions for its school districts, especially between this past year and the coming year, by an approximate $7.4 million overall difference, from $95.18 million down to $87.8 million, the commissioners said.
On Monday, Murphy announced that portions of the executive order allowing remote learning will be rescinded at the end of the school year, meaning that schools will be required to provide full-day, in-person instruction as they did before the pandemic. Beginning in the fall, remote learning only where there is a localized outbreak or other emergency. If buildings are open for in-person instruction, parents or guardians will not be able to opt-out of in-person instruction, he said.
A ‘common misconception’
Commissioners’ Director Dawn Fantasia Fantasia, a principal in a Bergen charter school, said the School Funding Reform Act does not give consideration to rural school districts, which have limitations on development and expansion, with allowances instead often made for urban districts. She said it was a “common misconception” that the school funding reduction is linked to population decreases.
Fasano said he has asked “a number of people, and I still can’t understand the school funding formula and the variables that are being used to determine this, but there is a misnomer that these state aid cuts are correlated to reductions in student population.” For example, Hopatcong lost about a quarter of its students since he graduated in 2012 but gained a small percentage back recently. He said he believed Hopatcong was prepared for up to a 50% overall reduction of state aid, but not the 90% cut that was ultimately made.
“It’s unsustainable, and for what reason in a state that prides itself on public education, has billions of dollars in surplus; and in a time when students really need to get into the classroom, this is really an important issue that we’ll feel today — and in the future — and I hope to God we’re heard,” Fasano said.