State Funding Advance Provides Temporary Relief for Lakewood Schools

An expected, but delayed, “advance” of $8.5 million in state aid brought temporary relief, but not a solution, to the perennial financial woes of Lakewood’s school district. The funds will save over 120 public school teacher’s jobs and a collection of programs from cuts necessitated by the district’s deficit.

The commitment of funds from the Department of Education came the night before hundreds of Lakewood’s public school students and staff were set to head to Trenton to protest the looming cuts. Although most had expected that state relief would come eventually, some feel the prospect of busloads of students facing a year of classrooms with up to 50 students served as an impetus for the timing of the DOE’s announcement.

“I assume they wanted to take care of it before the students came; they hoped that this would prevent it,” Barry Iann, president of Lakewood’s Board of Education, told Hamodia.

The demonstration ultimately took place even after the funds were promised, with a changed focus to asking lawmakers and DOE officials to address issues in New Jersey’s school funding formula that have left Lakewood and dozens of other districts in dire financial straits. In past years when additional funding was needed, it was announced before a budget had to be ratified, saving the drama of announcing the firing of teachers.

Mr. Iann was supportive of the demonstration, saying that it would help “bring attention” to the issues the district is facing, and added that the $8.5 million would still not cover all of the pending cuts, including the jobs of some librarians and technical support staff. The district had initially requested an extra $10 million in funding.

Mayor Ray Coles and several other members of the township committee addressed students and staff before their departure to Trenton.

“I wished them luck and said that I was proud of them for going about this the right way,” Mayor Coles told Hamodia. “It’s important for Trenton to see the children being affected by the budget problems and that they are taking their education seriously.”

The rally was initially planned to take place outside of the DOE’s headquarters, but was ultimately re-located to a nearby stadium upon requests from state officials.

Mayor Coles echoed the sentiments of most in the district that the funding advance was a “stopgap” measure.

“The monitors who represent the state have said themselves that Lakewood does not have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem,” he said.

Many of the Lakewood school district’s financial problems are rooted in a statewide funding “freeze” that stopped adjusting for growing student populations several years ago, amid budget woes in Trenton. The unique situation of a district that is funded by the state based on its public school body of 6,000, while delivering legally mandated transportation and special educational services to 30,000 non-pubic school children, compounds the problem multi-fold.

Mayor Coles said that even if no exception would be made for Lakewood, restoring state funding to the full level would “make a lot of these problems go away.” He also said that he was “more hopeful” that Trenton would move to address problems with the formula as the subject is presently being addressed by both houses of the legislature.

Given the challenges faced by Lakewood’s schools, several innovative attempts have been made to move the state to recognize the need to take the town’s large non-public student body into account.

State Senator Robert Singer (R-Ocean) told Hamodia last week that he is working on legislation to create a “carve out” for the district.

A motion for “emergency relief” was filed Wednesday in a lawsuit first advanced in 2014 that claims the present formula puts an unfair burden on local taxpayers while shortchanging students. The motion is supported by the district’s attorneys as well as by the Lakewood Vaad.

“We need to battle on all fronts, and pull out all stops to convey the urgency of the crisis,” said Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of and spokesman for the Vaad. “Alcantara v. Hespe [the name of the lawsuit] is a key front in this effort, and the emergency motion gives students and taxpayers in our district a promising opening.”

Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey Division, said that it was dually important to express thanks for the state’s aid advance, while remaining focused on long-term solutions.

“We are very appreciative that even though there is a very hard fiscal situation in many districts statewide, the DOE recognized the need to help Lakewood. It’s a Band-Aid, but it’s a needed Band-Aid.At the end of the day they bailed us out, and they did not have to,” he said. “Now we have to keep our eye on the ball and realize this does not fix the formula and that we all have to keep advocating for a real solution.”