New Jersey's revised state education aid formula is the faulty foundation for a distribution system that rewards failure, in the view of Toms River Board of Education members, responding to comments this week by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3).

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In a June 25 Op-Ed entry, carried in the Asbury Park Press, Sweeney singled out Toms River, Brick Township and Asbury Park among districts of declining enrollment being over-funded, and Red Bank and Freehold Borough among those short-changed, through the Legislature's consistent under-funding, guaranteed funding floors set at 2008 levels, and a cap that doesn't factor student population growth.

In a response attributed to the entire school board, Sweeney's rationale is characterized as misleading, and the Legislature's methods as poorly conceived and executed. Among its key contentions are the omission of cost-per-student ratios, and inaccurate perceptions data of relative wealth, especially in communities that chronically avoid property revaluations, and those relying Payments In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTs), tax abatements awarded to developers for projects in blighted areas that exclude school districts from portions of the amounts collected.

Toms River Board of Education Pres. Ben Giovine (Bradley James, Townsquare Media)

The Board's response, in full:

"Regarding the June 25, 2017 commentary in the Asbury Park Press from Senator Steve Sweeney, the public is led to believe that the Toms River Regional School District is losing $3.3 million in state school aid because of decreases in enrollments over time.  The decrease in enrollments for many districts is factual, but the way that impacts a district’s aid cannot be truly ascertained until the critical flaws in the State Aid formula are addressed once and for all.  Not to mention, each and every year a district’s adequacy budget is calculated based on updated enrollments.  For example, even at updated enrollments, Toms River Regional is $31 million under adequacy and has the 4th lowest total cost per pupil ($16,319) in the state for districts over 3,500 students.  The flaws in the formula are known to these same legislators, yet they choose to plow forward trying to push numbers through what is clearly a critically flawed formula.   

In terms of trying to justify their new aid proposal, can the same legislators explain how it is possible that aid increases would be given to districts who have total per pupil costs over $29,000 already (compared to $16,319 in Toms River Regional)?  This highlights one of the critical flaws with the State Aid formula- it allows for unlimited per pupil costs, and gives no credit or consideration to districts with lower per pupil spending.  The formula unjustly portrays lower-spending districts like Toms River Regional as not paying our ‘fair share’ in taxes when in fact we do pay our fair share.  The reason we tax less is simple- we spend less!  So before taking school aid from any district, per pupil costs should first be capped and no additional school aid should be given when that cap is exceeded. 

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

And how in good conscience can these legislators propose taking $3.3 million dollars from Toms River Regional when we are still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy and have $600 million in ratables that have yet to be recovered?  The topic of property tax assessments highlights another known critical flaw of the school aid formula- it allows for districts to have significantly understated property tax assessment totals in the aid calculation, which matters greatly because a district’s ‘wealth’ is the basis for a large portion of a district’s school aid.  For example, the property wealth calculation does not include Payments in Lieu of Taxes (‘Pilots’) and tax abatement programs, which excludes millions of dollars in property ratables, which could be material to the calculation of a district’s school aid.  The same legislators are also aware that large school aid increases, some in the millions, would be given to several districts whose towns have not had property assessment revaluations in over 25 years!  Having an understated property ratable figure provides large aid dollars for several districts, and since the pot of school aid is limited, it takes away significant amounts of school aid that would be spread to the rest of the districts in the State. 

We do not know how any plan could be furthered based on numbers being run through a critically flawed aid formula.  Therefore, we respectfully request that state aid for the Toms River Regional School District not be reduced, and that the critical formula flaws be addressed once and for all, before our district, regional community and ultimately our students, are unjustly and unfairly harmed.

TOMS RIVER REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION"

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