Lakewood Stands to Benefit From Proposed School Funding Changes

LAKEWOOD - A school funding plan released by New Jersey’s legislative leaders could have a significant impact on the Lakewood district’s perennial budget woes.

A statewide financial crisis in the state moved Governor Chris Christie to freeze the school formula in 2008, which meant that funding was no longer adjusted to increases in school population.

For growing districts like Lakewood, whose public schools have grown by some 600 students since then, mostly as a result of the town’s Mexican immigrant community, the move has taken an increasingly heavy toll. The legislature’s move could be an important step towards helping the district out of what is now a $16-million deficit.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey director, who has been heavily involved in advocating for Lakewood’s needs at the state level, said he was hopeful the proposal would herald significantly more financial stability for the town’s public schools.

“The growth cap is what has been killing us,” he told Hamodia. “We don’t know exactly how much Lakewood will be getting, but we are definitely on the list of underfunded districts and if they start funding us at the level we deserve it will go a long way.”

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) had been engaged in heated negotiations over the final funding proposal that aims to take money from overfunded districts and redistribute it to areas given an unfair deal by what many have criticized as an outdated formula. Legislators including Speaker Prieto who represent highly funded districts that stand to lose from such moves had resisted changes.

The proposal represents a compromise that will give $100 million in new school aid for underfunded districts and $25 million to expand preschool education, for which Speaker Prieto had strongly advocated. President Sweeney, who had campaigned for wider changes, called the result a “landmark first step.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen) who chairs the Assembly’s budget committee, warned that change would take time.

“Right now, we’ve designed a five-year process. It’s going to be a process, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he told Hamodia. Assemblyman Schaer said the goal of the changes is to get underfunded districts “up to speed.”

What a final agreement will look like is uncertain. Senate Republicans blasted what they called a “back-room deal” negotiated between the Democratic leaders and criticized deep cuts to many districts they represent. GOP power is limited by their numbers in both houses, but the proposal must meet with the approval of outgoing Republican Governor Christie and be approved by June 30.

Assemblyman Schaer said he was “sure there will be discussions with the governor” and expressed “hope that they will be constructive.”

Barry Iann, president of Lakewood’s Board of Education, said he was reserving judgment on the proposal until he could review it together with the state monitors who oversee the district, but was perturbed to hear the plan would take five years to implement.

“If they say five years today, it will be 20 years till it really happens,” he told Hamodia. “We have 36,000 kids here who are not being funded properly and they deserve to be helped today.”

The frozen formula only accounts for one aspect of Lakewood’s financial strain. Its public schools serve 6,000 children, while 30,000 attend local yeshivos and girls’ mosdos. Non-public school students receive funding for busing and a smattering of other services, but to a certain extent are not taken into account by the state, further squeezing the already tight budget.

Rabbi Schnall praised the proposal, saying that balancing the interests of the communities the leaders represent was “probably one of the hardest things the legislature has done in a long time,” but cautioned that it would fall short as a final remedy for Lakewood’s unique challenges.

“We are looking for a carve-out that recognizes the realities of our district, and until that goal is reached we still have to advocate for it,” he said. “More money is going to come to Lakewood now, but as the private school community grows, so will the deficit and that is something that needs to be addressed.”