The Freehold Borough School District has taken the bold and unprecedented step of filing a formal petition with Education Commissioner David Hespe to secure local or state bonds to finance urgently needed school facilities improvements. After local voters twice defeated ballot measures that would have provided the district with the funds to build new classrooms and remediate dangerous conditions, the school district turned to the State for help.
The Freehold Borough School District’s petition is supported by the Latino Action Network (LAN) and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, two organizations with a powerful history of advocacy for the district’s Latino residents. The groups, represented by the Education Law Center, are urging the Commissioner to promptly grant the school district’s petition for school construction funding.
Freehold Borough, a preschool to eighth grade school district, has experienced a 43% increase in enrollment since 1998-99, with a doubling of the number of low-income students to more than three-quarters of the student population. The Latino student population has increased to over 70%. Now with over 1600 students, the district’s school buildings are approximately 500 students above capacity.
To reduce class sizes and make critically needed health and safety upgrades in school buildings, the district has twice asked the voters of Freehold Borough to approve approximately $33 million in local school construction bonds. Twenty-three new classrooms are needed to relieve severe overcrowding. The district also lacks sufficient space to provide pullout instruction for special education students and English Language Learners, and may have no alternative but to eliminate full-day kindergarten. Without funds for construction, the district may also be compelled to move to a split school day to relieve overcrowding.
In March 2015, the district filed two petitions, invoking the Commissioner’s authority under State law to override the voters and order the issuance of local bonds or, in the alternative, to go to the NJ Legislature and seek full state bond funding. While the petition for full state funding remains pending in the Commissioner’s office, the Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities (OSF) has given the green light for the petition seeking local bonds to proceed to resolution. In May, OSF directed the district to provide notice to the public about its application, as well as the June 8 deadline for filing comments on the petition with the Commissioner.
LAN and the Latino Coalition joined scores of parents and students in registering their support for the district’s petitions. Their comments, prepared and submitted by ELC, emphasized the State’s obligation to take action on behalf of the district’s students.
“Under the leadership of Superintendent Rocco Tomazic, the Freehold Borough Board of Education is doing everything within its power to provide a constitutional, thorough and efficient education to district students,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, LAN president and Latino Coalition Director. “Now the State must step up and fulfill its affirmative constitutional responsibility toward district students. It would be an injustice if the state did not permit the expansion of the school facilities.”
“What’s particularly striking is that Freehold Borough students share a regional high school district with several affluent communities,” said Elizabeth Athos, the ELC attorney who prepared the comments for LAN and the Latino Coalition. “If the current overcrowding and poor facilities conditions in Freehold continue, then the academic gap between the district’s students and their more affluent peers will only grow wider in high school.”
Now that the comment period has closed, the district expects Commissioner Hespe to send the matter to an Administrative Law Judge to hold an expedited hearing, make findings of fact and recommend relief to the Commissioner.
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