In an announcement that served as the latest shock to many who are following Lakewood’s tumultuous school district funding woes, administrators announced that the deficit now stands at $9.5 million. This makes the search for a solution to the town’s revenue gap all the more urgent.
Even before the announcement was made at a school board meeting Wednesday night, an estimated deficit of $6 million had already challenged officials. With few options to address the problem, state monitor Michael Azzara has set a special referendum for January 26 on raising taxes as a means of closing the gap.
“It would be a disaster,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey division, of the possibility of a tax increase. “Taxes just got increased and now you want more. This would affect every person in Lakewood — the Orthodox community, public school parents and seniors.”
Rabbi Schnall said that in light of the population’s inability to sustain further tax hikes and the threat of loss of services posed by the looming default, “a community effort” was needed. “We need to go to the state and get them to recognize that the district is underfunded,” he said.
Gleaning additional funds from Trenton also seems unlikely, given the state’s own financial problems. A few years ago, New Jersey “froze” its funding formula, meaning that the amounts given each year have not been adjusted to increased school populations since then. In addition to the rise in non-public school children from the Orthodox community who receive financing for busing, special education and a smattering of other services, public school enrollment has increased by 500–600 since the freeze.
“We are not looked at as a poor district because tax revenue is high. They see $90 million coming in and 5,000 public school students, but the district serves 30,000 kids,” said Rabbi Schnall.
Most of the unforeseen costs result from a 50-percent increase in bids from bus companies. raising the cost of an already colossal transportation budget. The second major cause was higher-than-expected enrollment and a greater need for special education services.
Should the district fail to raise funds to cover the gap, the only recourse will be a massive cut in services which will affect both public and non-public school students.