Perfect school living financial nightmare

Perfect school living financial nightmare

14 Haziran 2018 - 02:00

 

Take a walk down Thorn Lane, past the new houses with swimming pools and three-car garages, and you would think you had arrived at the picture-perfect neighborhood elementary school.

Dozens of bicycles are neatly parked in racks outside the red brick building. Sixth-graders' drawings of what they want to be when they grow up – a soccer player, a chef, a superhero – hang near the lobby. Before lunch, smiling students parade by in a single-file line, chattering along on their way to the cafetorium.

"It's deceiving," said Kim Breiland, a third-grade teacher and parent of two students at the school. "It's very deceiving."

Behind this façade of an idyllic suburban school lies the truth: Chesterfield Elementary School doesn't have enough money, and its students are paying the price.

There's no remedial reading program here, no school chorus, no clubs or after-school activities. There are too many kids and too few computers, only one guidance counselor for more than 750 students, and a budget so tight library and band were nearly eliminated last year, only to be spared at the 11th hour.

"I flat out will admit that if we knew about what was going on we wouldn't have moved within Chesterfield," Breiland said in a moment of brutal honesty. "As much as I love living here, it's super stressful to see what's unraveled." 

How did this happen here, in an affluent South Jersey town with one of the region's highest average property tax bills?

The answer is simple: Chesterfield School District is getting cheated by the state, local officials say.

The pre-K to sixth-grade district in Burlington County receives just 20 cents for every dollar it's owed in state funding, worse than any of the nearly 600 school districts in New Jersey.

Statewide, about two-thirds of districts also have been shorted on state aid for the better part of a decade. Like Chesterfield, many of them are overtaxing residents and slashing programs, often while spending less than the state says is needed to provide a quality education.

State lawmakers think they can fix the problem and eventually give each district the funding it is owed. But saving Chesterfield comes at the cost of taking funding from other districts flush with state aid — an idea so politically treacherous it could stop the plan dead in its tracks. 


The 'new' Chesterfield

 

Amy Jablonski considered herself lucky. 

In 2010, with a young son and a daughter on the way, she and her husband bought a house in a new development in Chesterfield, a town that appeared to be on the rise, she said. 

The farming community was going through a construction boom, and Jablonski saw it as the next West Windsor, a rural township in Mercer County that was developed with pockets of desirable homes and today boasts one of the state's highest-rated school districts. 

"We thought we were getting in on the front end of this secret that people don't really know about," Jablonski said. "We were getting this awesome bang for our buck moving to Chesterfield." 

That same dream brought hundreds of new families to Chesterfield in the past 15 years. 

 

N.J. owes most districts more money. See if yours is one of them

 

About 20 minutes from Trenton, the roughly 22-square-mile township has mostly maintained the same bucolic backdrop it had when Quakers first settled here in the 1600s. 

But in the 1980s the township set out to fulfill an ambitious plan to define the future of Chesterfield, township officials said. Chesterfield would try to preserve almost all of its farmland and limit residential development to one square mile, where a series of planned communities would surround a new elementary school. 

Today, about 60 percent of the township is preserved farmland, according to township officials. More than 1,200 new homes and town houses have gone up around the new Chesterfield Elementary School, which opened in 2011. 

White-collar families like the Jablonskis have moved in and formed a new community, where parents let kids bike to school and play outside until the streetlights come on — without thinking twice about it, Jablonski said. 

Old-timers call the development around the school "New Chesterfield."

 

 

"ChesterfieldA home near Chesterfield Elementary School. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

With all the new faces, enrollment at Chesterfield Elementary School boomed from 395 students in 2007-08 to 751 students at the beginning of this school year, a 90 percent increase. 

State funding hasn't kept pace. 

For next school year, Chesterfield should receive about $4 million in state aid, according to state data. Gov. Phil Murphy's budget proposal calls for about $862,248. 

To make up for the lack of state funding, the district will collect about $9.2 million in property taxes in 2018, more than 130 percent of what the state says it should need, according to an analysis by the Education Law Center. 

The extra tax burden has pushed the township's average residential tax bill to nearly $11,000, which might not sound like a lot in North Jersey but ranks second-highest in Burlington County. 

Even with the high tax bills, the Chesterfield School District's spending is still about 10 percent short of what the state suggests is needed to meet standard expectations, the Education Law Center found. 

The funding shortage has become a dark cloud over the slice of suburban paradise Jablonski thought she was getting when she came to Chesterfield. 

"We love it here," Jablonski said, "aside from the issue with the school and the funding." 

"Chesterfield

Students walk down the hallway in Chesterfield Elementary School, New Jersey's most underfunded school district in terms of state aid. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

A generation ripped off

 

After the Chesterfield School Board voted to eliminate the elementary school band program and cut the school librarian, Jignesh Shah walked back to his $620,000 home on Thorn Lane, about 10 houses down from the school. 

"Sick to my stomach, basically," he said, recalling his feelings on that night last spring. 

Shah, the school board president who pays about $18,000 a year in property taxes, broke the news to his teenage son and daughter. 

"I said, 'You guys had all these things, and now I am forced to cut these things because we don't have money,'" Shah said. "They were like, 'Wow, Dad. They are not going to have a librarian? They are not going to have a music program?'" 

The cuts would later be reversed after a dramatic state budget fight in Trenton led to a boost in state aid for underfunded districts for this school year, nearly doubling state support for Chesterfield. 

But the budget woes continue to reverberate. There's no school play or talent show, parents pay for all field trips, and teachers say they don't have enough opportunities for training.

Even things like color copies are now considered a luxury and must be rationed. 

"It's sad," said Judy Schwartz, a teacher in her 13th year in the district.

 

 

"ChesterfieldMusic teacher Gwendolyn McCreary instructs a student. The band program at Chesterfield Elementary School was nearly eliminated. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

It's not supposed to be like this, not in Chesterfield or any other community. 

The state has a school funding formula that is designed to make sure every district has enough money. The formula, which went into effect in 2009, considers enrollment, demographics and local tax revenue. Then, it spits out two key numbers: 1) How much the district should be spending overall, and 2) How much of that funding should be provided by the state.

If followed correctly, the formula increases state aid to districts with surging enrollment, a weakening tax base or an influx in students who require extra support. The formula would also cut state aid to districts with shrinking enrollment.

But lawmakers immediately added two fateful provisions that critics say broke the formula.

In order to save the state money, lawmakers put a cap on how much any district's state aid can increase in a year. And they said no district can get less than 102 percent of the aid it received in 2008-09, a political maneuver that appeased critics of the formula who worried their districts would lose too much cash. 

The new rules were meant to be temporary, lawmakers said, but were never phased out. To make matters worse, the state has annually underfunded the formula by about $1 billion a year (closer to $2 billion when you remove the limits lawmakers put on funding increases).

The result? Chesterfield gets $821,188 instead of $4.1 million. Bayonne gets $56.9 million instead of $103.5 million. Millburn gets $2.2 million instead of $5.5 million. 

"It affects all regions of the state," said G. Kennedy Greene, superintendent of Newton Public Schools, another underfunded district. "It crosses wealth boundaries, and it's a basic equity issue."

 

 

"CHesterfieldThird-grade teacher Kim Brieland teaches her class at Chesterfield Elementary School (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

What's especially upsetting to parents in Chesterfield is that other school districts are actually getting more state aid than the formula says they need, all because of the original stipulation that no districts would lose money – a so-called "hold harmless" provision. 

Jersey City receives nearly $175 million more than the formula calls for, the most of any district, according to a state analysis. Five other districts get at least $20 million more each year. 

Collectively, about 200 districts collect more than $600 million in extra aid, according to state data, all money lawmakers could reallocate to other underfunded districts. 

In Chesterfield, residents are blunt: Their kids are getting ripped off. 

"From legislators to the governor, I want them to look into our kids' faces and say that you are only worth 20 percent and the kid in some other town is worth 120 percent," Shah said. "Why? Why the difference? Just because we live in Chesterfield?" 

"Chesterfield

The construction boom continues in Chesterfield Township. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

A crushing blow

 

A few blocks away from Chesterfield Elementary School, construction crews are busy assembling the frames for the latest round of new homes. 

When the final phases of the development are complete, there will be about 200 to 300 more homes and town homes, bringing even more children to Chesterfield. 

Without an increase in state aid, there's no choice but to make budget cuts or hike taxes, which hit homeowners disproportionately hard, school officials said. 

Chesterfield has so few commercial properties — a bank, a florist, the Chesterfield General Store, to name a few — that it's closely following the rumor that a Wawa that straddles the border might relocate entirely in the township. 

Seriously.  

"I have had people come to me and say, 'We are seriously looking at other towns where taxes are lower and the schools have more resources, and we might move,'" said Rita Romeu, the township mayor. "I don't want to see that happen." 

Chesterfield officials were hopeful for another major boost in state aid after Murphy was elected and promised to fully fund the state's public schools. Then, they saw the Democratic governor's first budget proposal, which included a meager $40,000 increase in aid to Chesterfield and no reduction in aid to overfunded districts. 

"When those numbers came out this year for aid, it was a crushing blow," Chesterfield Superintendent Scott Heino said. "That was a big punch in the gut." 

 

"ChesterfieldChesterfield School District Superintendent Scott Heino talks with teacher Judy Schwartz. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

While education groups agree the state should fully fund its schools, the idea of taking state aid from some districts to give it to others remains controversial, even though the state started the process last year and lawmakers have proposed phasing that money out over seven years.

The Education Law Center, which represents some of the state's poorest school districts, ripped the proposal, saying it can't support a plan that would hurt any school's ability to teach students. 

But districts receiving more than their fair share of state aid shouldn't be allowed to prosper at the expense of towns like Chesterfield, said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, the architect of the plan. 

Chesterfield parents understand why lawmakers might be reluctant to reallocate money, but it needs to happen, said Andrea Katz, a former school board member and parent of three at the elementary school.

"My kids are the most important thing to me... the reason I wake up in the morning," Katz said. "They deserve the best education possible, and unfortunately Chesterfield School District, even though the kids have fantastic teachers, is not really able to provide that." 

It's not just the parents that realize something is wrong, Katz' daughter, Charlie, said. 

The school has long held an annual fine arts night, when students sing, dance and play songs on the recorder while their parents watch from the audience. This year, the program was cut because of a lack of funding.

It was the latest in a growing list of disappointments for the kids, the 9-year-old said. 

"A lot of my friends know that we don't have enough money to do stuff," Charlie Katz said. "To find out we weren't doing it just really hurt." 

 


Kaynak:Nj.com

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