Lakewood gets more state money, but district pushes for permanent solution
LAKEWOOD — As the more than 300 students from Lakewood High School boarded buses for a trip to Trenton to fight for more funding for the district, it was clear they were taking this action not only for themselves, but for future students as well.
As they pulled out of the parking lot, that goal was made even more poignant as the entire student body from the nearby middle school stood outside to cheer them on their way. And while they did not get to go directly to the Department of Education as they'd originally planned, the trip capped an eventful 24 hours for a district facing a budget deficit and more questions about future funding.
The original plan for Wednesday was to fill buses with students to go to Trenton to seek help with the $15 million budget shortage the district was facing heading into next year. That wide of a gap would have meant the cutting of staff and programs, with the potential of schools having as many as 50 students in each classroom.
In response to Superintendent Laura Winters requesting $10 million from the state, the Department of Education announced Tuesday they would send more than $8.5 million in a one-time "state aid advance," which officials said will help for next year but did not address the long term future of the district.
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As the more than 300 students prepared to board buses to the Department of Education, Winters received a call saying the students could not go there because tenants of the complex had complained about the expected influx of people on the property. With state Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, and Assemblymen Sean Kean, R-Ocean, and Dave Rible, R-Ocean, at the school for the event, an arrangement was made with the help of the owners of the Trenton Thunder to have the protest moved to their parking lot, which is near the Department of Education's offices.
Mayor Ray Coles said he hoped that by sending the students to Trenton, those with the power to help the schools would see how important this issue is to them.
"Today is to make sure that the folks in Trenton understand the severity of the problem, and the fact that the township and the students are all one family," he said. "We want to make sure that today's students, as well as the students that follow them in here have access to the same education that we want for all our children, the sports programs that are so important to so many people, and all the extracurricular activities."
Coles said even after Tuesday's announcement, there was a much bigger problem that needed to be addressed.
"What we really need now, and what I hope the students are able to accomplish today in Trenton, is to make sure that people understand that Lakewood has a serious issue that doesn't derive from the fact that the money is not being spent properly, it derives from the fact that there's just not enough money coming in to meet all the mandates that the state imposes on us."
With more than four times more students in private school in the district than public schools Coles said the current state funding formula does not work to help provide all the needed help for students.
Calling Lakewood a "extremely unique district," Coles said the state provides funds based on the public school population without considering the fact that the public schools provide busing, special services, and special education for the private schools.
"Even though the state mandates that we pay for them, the mandate doesn't translate to fully funding," he said. "It's a serious issue. There's lots of issues with the way the state of New Jersey funds its education system. I think the senator and the assemblymen are starting up a conversation that's long overdue and I hope that we can work with them to come up with some positive and constructive solutions."
Kean also said there was more work to be done for Lakewood to provide a lasting educational program for the public school students.
"When you're talking about laying off dozens if not a hundred teachers, I think that's a dramatic outcome that we want to avoid," he said. "I don't care whether it's Lakewood or Newark or Atlantic City. In the last two budget cycles we gave $30 million and then $50 million to Atlantic City. I think it's appropriate to do the same thing for Lakewood on a smaller scale."
As for the future, Kean said, "In this particular case we're hoping to make them whole this year and then come up with a permanent solution going forward," he said. "We don't have the permanent solution yet but I'm hopeful and confident that we're going to get there."
As a Lakewood resident, Singer said he has had two children graduate from the high school, and said he wants to see good education continue for all students. He said that Tuesday's announcement should help that for next year.
"It took the pressure off and the edge off of the whole thing knowing the fact that the teachers are saved, there will be teachers in the classroom, that class size will be normal, and most importantly that the kids will get the quality education they deserve."
Also on Wednesday, the Lakewood Education Association released a statement about the extra funding announced by the state.
"The Lakewood Education Association is grateful that the state heard our voices and is providing these advanced funds so that Lakewood public schools will have a thorough and efficient education," the statement said.
While the additional funding had some good news, the association also said there were still issues that need to be addressed because of the remaining gap in the budget. They said that includes the loss of funding for librarians and guidance counselors, and that only three sports and two extracurriculars would be reinstated. The three teams funded would be soccer, baseball, and track, along with orchestra and band.
"Moreover, this one-time infusion of cash from the state — again delivered in the eleventh hour after an uproar — does not solve the long-term issue of the ongoing financial crisis our public schools face."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com