State Aid Increase
After years of being severely underfunded in state government aid, the Robbinsville School District took a collective sigh of relief on July 13thwhen they heard that they have received more than $3.5 million in additional aid, a 117% increase from the previous year, bringing the state aid funding for the 2018-2019 school year to close to $6.8 million. This increase far exceeds the additional $700,000 provided to the school district last year.
For more than a decade, the Robbinsville School District has been received less funding than the state formula calculated. While many districts do not receive the amount that the formula states, Robbinsville was just recently the sixth most underfunded district in all of New Jersey, receiving only 32% of what the formula suggests. With this new funding, the percentage is up to 58%.
As district superintendent Kathie Foster explained, the district has been taking action to receive the funding they deserve for a long time. In 2006, the Robbinsville Township and School District created a joint action lawsuit against the state government when their funding started to decrease, but there was no direct result to this action.
Since then, Robbinsville school district officials have worked together with other underfunded to lobby collaboratively in the state government. “We’ve been working hard with other underfunded districts, including Chesterfield (recently the most underfunded district), Kingsway, and Freehold. We’ve been working collectively, and I think that collective voice made a difference,” Foster said.
Together with these districts, Robbinsville officials attended various state Assembly and Senate hearings and reached out to their representatives to make their voices heard regarding the lack of funding, which had the potential to severely affect district performance.
Along with school officials, parents and other residents concerned about the state funding created the group ‘Our Fair Share,’ focused on advocating for additional funding. “They are an amazing group of Robbinsville residents, who believe that a strong school system creates a strong town, and they’ve been very active in writing letters, attending hearings, doing whatever they can,” Foster said.
While the representatives for Robbinsville in state government, including Assemblymen Dan Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, as well as Senator Linda Greenstein, were empathetic of these issues and focusing on finding solutions, not enough of the budget was being put towards school funding. However, with the new state government, this formula received a boost. “This year, they’ve committed to putting more money in for districts like us, and following the formula. This will provide an increase for districts that have been underfunded for many years,” Foster said.
Now that the district has additional funding, they have the fortunate problem of deciding what to do with this aid. And everyone with a stake in this issue, whether it be parents, school district staff, or the township council, have been brainstorming, with one of the main ideas being tax relief. “There’s been a vibrant debate over the past week on social media, in neighborhoods, on front lawns, in graduation parties, and in many other places which our residents debated if they wanted tax relief, and if so, how much,” Board of Education president Richard Young said.
In fact, right after the increase was announced, Mayor Fried put out a statement requesting that the board uses this opportunity to decrease school taxes for residents that are increasingly bearing the burden of taxes. Young empathized, noting that “we know taxes are high in Robbinsville and are a detriment as the town tries to entice new businesses to relocate here. We know that some homeowner’s won’t move here because the taxes are considered too high, so this an opportunity to help address all of that,” he said.
In order to openly discuss this issue with the public, the Board of Education convened a public meeting on Thursday, July 19that 7 p.m. in the RHS Student Activity Center. And, as Foster explained, the residents were fully engaged. “It was really inspiration to see around 200 residents come gather and engage in really healthy and respectful discourse around the additional state aid.”
Residents brought up a variety of ideas regarding what to do with the additional aid, but “it was quite clear that people wanted tax relief,” Young said. Along with this meeting, resident concerns were also heard through a survey put out by the township.
As a result of the meeting, the Board of Education committed $613,000 of the aid towards the operational budget, which will ensure that taxes do not increase for the next year, the first time this has occurred in many years. “While I personally may have wanted to a little more in terms of cutting taxes, I think we were able to reach a good compromise that will hold the line on existing taxes, but still allow us to increase programs and to help increase our schools overall,” Young said.
“I think this puts on the path that will hopefully lead to lower taxes in a year from now. Under the state’s funding plan, we should get additional money next year, so I fully believe, and I believe our board is committed, to offering some sort of tax relief. I am personally committed to that,” he continued.
Aside from tax relief, the residents also voiced their hope for the aid to be put into security and school programs. “We heard from many citizens, and the common themes were increasing increasing security measures, investing in teachers, and putting money back into the classroom. They also wanted to explain the club and academic offerings,” Foster explained.
While a final decision has not been made on the specific line-items receiving funding, the Board has identified some key areas, including academics, the capital budget and security concerns. For academics, the district hopes to begin potentially offering more electives while reducing the teacher workload. “In particular, we heard the cry regarding teacher turnover. We’ve had this for the past few years for a number of reasons. Part of it is financial, part of it is because working conditions and their workload, the number of classes that they teach. This will help us add some instructional staff, alleviate some of the workload and other problems,” Young said.
For the maintenance and capital budget, there are over $17 million worth of long-range facility plans, and this will aid will enable the district to start working on some of these plans, as well as put in funding for capital research on larger projects.
Regarding security, the district hopes to have an outside advisor assess the current security systems and make recommendations on how to improve, so that the money is spent wisely. Furthermore, along with an additional guidance counselor in the high school, Foster hopes to add another guidance counselor on the K-8 level. “We often talk about security in terms of infrastructure, but we should also acknowledge the importance of personnel and understanding the social and emotional wellness of students. That’s a priority for me,” Foster said.
Though the school district has various critical decisions to make in the upcoming days, they are grateful to the many people who helped make this additional aid a reality. “I want to give kudos to Dan Benson, Wayne DeAngelo and Linda Greeinstein, who have been actively fighting for us,” Foster said.
“And we cannot thank enough the efforts from the State Senate President Steve Sweeney, because he was tirelessly working on our behalf. He put a stake in the ground, and he was unwilling to deviate from that stake. He knew what he wanted, worked hard, and so he got it. Tremendous kudos and gratitude for his effort,” Young added.
“Between the active engagement of our citizens, our officials and our state representatives, there have been many people fighting for this issue throughout the past decade. I know we’ve had more press in the past two years, however this has been an ongoing issue for Robbinsville, and I just want to thank everyone that has campaigned for us. It’s inspiring to work with such passionate and dynamic community members,’ Foster emphasized.
Young concluded by describing the feeling of the entire school district when the announcement was made. “This year’s announcement was just frankly outstanding, like music to our years. I think for us, this is sort of like winning the lottery.”
Foster concluded with her hopes moving forward. “Honestly, I want Robbinsville to take a good, deep, breath, because we have been cutting and reducing and re-allocating and duct-taping some of our programs and maintenance needs together for a very long time, as we have fought for additional state aid. This finally allows us to strategically map out the next few years for Robbinsville, and know that we can provide the best opportunities for our students.”
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