School districts across New Jersey are announcing teacher and support staff layoffs along with cuts to essential programs and services for the 2015-2016 school year. Next year will mark the seventh year of flat or reduced state aid under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), NJ’s weighted student formula, if Governor Chris Christie’s proposed budget is allowed to stand.
As a result of rising costs, and new, unfunded mandates, more district budgets are under stress, some extremely so. In several districts, including Lindenwold Borough in Camden County, the impact has intensified due to rapidly changing demographics.
Lindenwold is a small, preschool-12 district where in the last five years enrollment has increased by 14%, or over 300 students. In addition, 13% of district students are English language learners (ELL), more than double the number from 2010.
Enrollment increases and changing demographics have had a dramatic impact on the cost of educating Lindenwold’s diverse student population. Under the SFRA formula, the NJ Department of Education calculates an “adequacy budget” for each district – representing the cost of providing the resources necessary to achieve State academic standards – calculated using the district’s unique student demographics.
Since 2009, Lindenwold has had a 38% increase in its adequacy budget, reflecting the additional funding required to serve more students, especially ELLs. The SFRA requires the adequacy budget to be supported by a combination of local and state revenue. But neither the local levy nor state aid has kept pace with the district’s growth, and both are below the required SFRA levels. Actual state aid has only increased by 8% over six years, while the local levy has actually declined by 3%.
The main reason for Lindenwold’s funding shortfall is the State’s failure to properly fund the SFRA formula. The NJDOE calculates that Lindenwold should receive $5 million additional state aid dollars under the SFRA formula for the 2015-16 school year, or over $1,900 per pupil. Even worse, the cumulative impact of underfunding the formula since 2010 has resulted in a state aid shortfall of $15.5 million. In 2015-16, the district will receive $24.5 million to support its adequacy budget, instead of the nearly $40 million it would be entitled to receive if the NJ Legislature properly funded the SFRA formula.
The gap between actual funding and the SFRA adequacy budget now stands at over $4,300 per pupil. With flat state aid and limited capacity to raise local revenue as a result of a statutory 2% cap on property tax increases annually, Lindenwold is now among those districts unable to provide the resources necessary for all students to have the opportunity to meet NJ’s rigorous academic standards.
District elementary school classrooms are now overcrowded, with more than 25, and sometimes more than 30, students in a class. The district has very few Basic Skills staff to provide remedial interventions for at-risk students. This is the case even for students in Kindergarten through 2nd grade, years crucial for later academic success. The district has eliminated a Reading Recovery program at the elementary level, with additional cuts planned to reallocate scarce dollars to the ELL program.
Lindenwold’s school facilities require significant mechanical upgrades, and the district is in need of more space to accommodate growing enrollment. While the district has received some State matching grants to complete health and safety projects, Lindenwold is outgrowing its existing infrastructure. Classrooms in the elementary and middle schools are at capacity, requiring all specialists, including art, music, and therapists, to provide instruction from movable carts or in small spaces, such as media rooms or offices. The elementary schools have no designated gymnasium, assembly, or cafeteria space; instead, each school has one multipurpose room suitable for only half the student body.
The district was forced to move their limited preschool program to rented space because of overcrowding, but these facilities do not meet State preschool standards. Lindenwold recently was awarded a federal grant to expand preschool but isn’t able to use all of these funds due to space constraints. As a “universal district” under SFRA’s preschool expansion program, Lindenwold should be serving all 3- and 4-year-olds with a full-day program, but due to the NJ Legislature’s failure to fund the program, the district offers preschool only to 104 children out of the 462 who are eligible.
“We do the best we can to give our students the opportunities they deserve, but the lack of funding is making that nearly impossible,” said Dr. Lori Moore, Superintendent of Lindenwold schools. “With no new aid from the State and limited local taxing capacity, we cannot realistically provide high quality programs that meet the needs of our diverse student population. It’s time for our elected officials to meet their obligation to the parents and children in this district and others like it all across New Jersey.”
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