A small group of township parents held a rally outside the South Brunswick Board of Education offices Thursday in protest of the $1 increase given to South Brunswick schools for the 2013-14 school year.
In his budget address earlier this month, Gov. Chris Christie said 378 school districts in New Jersey would get a funding increase for the 2014 fiscal year. State aid to to the South Brunswick School District went up by $1, with Middlesex County schools in total receiving a boost in aid of about $7.5 million for next year.
"For the last three years, my family and thousands of other families in South Brunswick have lived with the consequences of Gov. Christie's massive cuts to public education in 2010," said South Brunswick parent and Save Our Schools member Lisa Rodgers.
South Brunswick will see a total of $23,220,341 in aid for 2013-14 after the $1 bump, which is still short of the large aid cut from three years ago. In 2010, South Brunswick was hit with a reduction in aid of $6.3 million.
The district received a more substantial increase last year of about $1.7 million. In 2011-12, aid to district schools went up by about $1.26 million. Rodgers noted that South Brunswick is 8 percent, or about $13 million, short of the minimum amount required by the School Funding Reform Act.
"The truth is that Gov. Christie has underfunded New Jersey schools by $5 billion since first taking office," said South Brunswick parent Theresa Dempewolf. "Almost every district in the state has been shortchanged by the governor and there seems to be no plan to bring New Jersey back into compliance with the school funding formula that is law."
Also attending the rally was Rob Duffey, of Our Children/Our Schools, a network of education, children’s rights and civil rights advocates and groups throughout New Jersey. Duffey said the group has called upon the state to restore taxes on people making over $400,000 per year to 2009 levels, which he stated would net roughly $1 billion, and to close corporate loopholes to bring in as much as $300 million.
Duffey pointed out that over 40 of the districts statewide labeled as receiving a boost in aid are "One Dollar Districts" like South Brunswick.
"It's so outrageous that they're calling this an increase in aid," Duffey said. "This is a story that's being told throughout the state. Residents are paying more in taxes and receiving less. Raising awareness is absolutely critical to inform our legislators that we have residents everywhere who really care about the quality of education we receive."
The massive cut in aid South Brunswick received in 2010, combined with a sharp decrease in the township's ratable base and an increase in tax appeals, combined to form a perfect storm situation in recent years.
Last year, up from about 180 appeals in 2011, when approximately 100 companies successfully sued the township for a tax reduction. Since 2007, the township has lost $600 million in ratables from successful tax appeals, while the ratio of assessed property value to market value dropped from about 80 percent to 47 percent in South Brunswick over the last decade.
Last year, South Brunswick's
The cuts in aid, along with the impact of the declining tax base, caused the district to make significant staffing cuts over the past several years. The district has eliminated 212.7 full time equivalent employees since 2005-06. Class size teacher-student ratios for grades K-1 rose to 1:23, for grades 2-5 increased to 1:25 and for grades 6-12 went up to 1:28.
"Class sizes have gone up, giving my children less opportunity for individualized instruction," Rodgers said. "Music and art programs for children have been scaled back. Physical education was shortened by 20 to 30 minutes and over 20 clubs for the kids were outright eliminated."
Of particular concern for parents was the enactment of a pay to participate policy in South Brunswick for sports, band and extracurricular activities.
Advanced Placement courses at South Brunswick High School carry a $75 fee per class, in addition to the fees currently in place to take the individual AP tests. Extracurricular clubs also carry a $25 participation fee, while students on free or reduced lunch are exempt from the fees. The district placed a cap of $300 per family in participation fees.
District officials said last year that South Brunswick took in about $400,000 from pay to participate fees to help cover the $1.6 million cost of running the various programs.
"Like many families, we hit the $300 cap pretty quickly," Rodgers said. "Meanwhile, our cash strapped schools have often relied on families to make purchases they could not."
Duffey said that parents throughout the state need to raise awareness in order to bring about a meaningful increase in aid to bring funding levels up to the minimum amount required by the funding formula.
"The bottom line is that we're still not where we need to be based on the 2010 cuts," Rodgers added.