Amid a mounting deficit in Lakewood’s school district, the contracts of over 100 public school teachers have failed to be renewed for the coming year. The decision was protested loudly by hundreds who packed the town’s high school auditorium beyond capacity and by the Board of Education (BOE) members themselves at a public meeting Monday night. However, owing to a lack of available funds, a financial plan that would create classes of up to 50 students and make massive cuts in programming was enforced by state-appointed monitors.
In the past, holes in the budget were closed by loans from the state Department of Education (DOE), which kept Lakewood’s schools floating while making for a larger debt each year. This year, with a $15 million deficit in the district and an increasingly tight financial situation in the state, the DOE has yet to guarantee the expected financial bailout, leaving officials with little choice but to let contracts expire.
“I am pretty confident that the state will come through for the teachers, but that might not happen till the last minute,” said Isaac Zlatkine, a member of the BOE. He expressed relative confidence that the state would come through with an estimated $10 million loan to save the teachers’ jobs within the coming week.
“The state has looked at our finances and they see that the district is not properly funded, so based on that recognition I think they will come through,” he said.
As far as saving the many extracurricular programs that have been put on the chopping block, Mr. Zlatkine said there have been signals that the state might offer the town a referendum to vote on tax increases that would cover the costs.
Notices of possible terminations were sent to about 120 of Lakewood’s public school teachers two weeks ago. It was widely expected that by this past Monday, the state’s deadline for certifying a budget for the coming year, a solution would have been found to save the teachers’ jobs. The public meeting marked by high emotions ended with no contract renewal and no budget vote, as Superintendent Laura Winters said that she could not recommend a budget that devastated the district’s education to such an extent.
The meeting was so heavily attended that many had to listen in the cafeteria via a hook-up. The crowd cheered as the board unanimously passed a motion to rehire all teachers who had been dismissed due to the budget crisis, albeit a largely symbolic gesture. The move was swiftly overridden by state monitor Michael Azzera, as the motion would violate the district’s obligation to present a balanced budget.
Prior to the meeting, a plan was briefly floated to appeal to the township itself for funds, but was rejected as those involved felt it would take the onus off the state to come up with solutions for the long and short term.
“Without a shift in the state’s recognition of their responsibility to the district, it’s unfair to ask the township to fill in the gap. We are willing to help out as we have done in the past and are willing to stretch a little more if it’s part of a real solution, but the state needs to be a partner,” Township Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein told Hamodia. “The taxpayer dollar has to be protected and the state has to do its share before coming back to the [Lakewood] taxpayers.”
Lakewood’s perennial budget woes are largely the result of two factors. A statewide “freeze” beginning in 2011 prevented the funding allotted to school districts from being adjusted to keep pace with increasing school populations. (Public school enrollment has grown by at least five to six hundred since the freeze.) This is in addition to the exponential increase of the non-public-school population — the Orthodox community — whose busing and special-education costs, along with a smattering of other services, are subsidized by the state.
An added factor is what legislators in both parties have identified as inequities in New Jersey’s school funding formula. Reforming the formula has become a subject of increasing discussion in Trenton, especially as elections for a new governor this coming November near.
“Even if the state would not do anything special for Lakewood, we are underfunded for the same reason that so many other towns in the state are as well. The Formula hasn’t been updated in years and if we would just get what we are supposed to, it might not solve all of Lakewood’s problems, but it would help a lot,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, told Hamodia. “The focus of this issue needs to be on the state and their obligation to fund the public school district fairly. The deficit affects the entire community, both public and private school children, as funds go to both sectors.”
State Senator Robert Singer (R-Ocean) told Hamodia that he has discussed the issue of Lakewood’s budget woes with Senate President Steven Sweeny and was hopeful that in addition to loans, funding changes could be in place by June that should benefit the district.
He said that more loans from the state were just “kicking the can down the road,” and hoped that there would be recognition of the “systemic problems” affecting Lakewood.
“There has to be a carve-out for Lakewood, it’s not just the busing [for private school students], there is a large growth factor which is not changing and [which] the formula does not account for,” said Sen. Singer. “The track record is that the state has always been able to find solutions for other towns with special needs. This year they’ve spent billions bailing out Atlantic City and no one had any objections. For some reason, when it comes to helping Lakewood, it’s a scandal.”