Cherry Hill community group hoping to get Cherry Hill Public Schools fair share of state aid

The group “Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools” is meeting with state legislatures in hopes of bringing the Cherry Hill schools district’s state aid in line with other surrounding districts.

In the 2008–09 school year, Cherry Hill Public Schools received $16 million in state aid for its budget.

It hasn’t received anywhere close to that amount since.

Gov. Christie cut state aid for schools after taking office in 2009. Since then, school districts across the state have been very slowly working their way back up to the 2008–09 number. Cherry Hill Public Schools is receiving about $13.1 million in state aid for the upcoming 2016–17 school year, about $2.9 million less than it received in 2008–09. A decrease in state aid has caused more of the burden for the school budget to be placed on taxpayers in recent years.

However, the cuts made in 2008–09 only tell part of the story for Cherry Hill. One group of community members has formed in the past two years after they discovered Cherry Hill was receiving much less state aid per student than similar districts, both in South Jersey and other parts of the state.

This group, called “Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools,” is now on a mission to persuade state legislators to change the way schools are funded in New Jersey and get Cherry Hill on equal footing with other districts in the area.

Cherry Hill lagging behind in state aid

Cherry Hill resident Chris Benedetto, a father of three, decided to start a group named Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools last year after observing large discrepancies in the amount of state aid per student among districts. Wanting to send a message to legislators about Cherry Hill’s problem, he and other community members gathered statistics from school district websites as well as the Department of Education’s website detailing the amount of state aid districts receive per student.

The statistics revealed Cherry Hill lagged well behind other districts in similar factor groups. In 2015–16, Cherry Hill received $1,146 in state aid per student. In contrast, Washington Township Public School District in Gloucester County received $6,834 per student from the state. The Eastern Regional High School District and Lenape Regional High School District both received more than $4,000 in state aid per student.

Cherry Hill has also received less than the amount of state recommended aid for the district in 2008. New Jersey stopped publishing recommended aid for districts in 2008, however, districts such as Eastern Regional and Washington Township now receive more aid than their recommended amount from 2008, while Cherry Hill continues to receive less.

“Our capped and (state) aid has continued to go down, whereas Eastern is getting more aid than their recommended amount, whereas Freehold is getting more aid than their recommended number,” Benedetto said.

“Our numbers have been going down,” Benedetto added. “The general rule of thumb has been, your test scores are good, you’re graduating people and you’re doing more with less. Good job.”

As a result, Cherry Hill taxpayers have been forced to fund most of the school district’s budget. About 81 percent of last year’s budget was funded with taxpayer funds in Cherry Hill. Other districts such as Evesham Township and Eastern only have about 66 percent of their budgets funded through taxpayer money, with almost one-third of their funding coming from state aid.

“Cherry Hill residents are getting a bit of a double-whammy,” Benedetto said. “They’re getting less funding from the state and higher taxes.”

Rallying local representatives

Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools typically meets once a month at the Malberg Administration Building. The group has grown dramatically in the past year, with everyone from school administrators, teachers and board of education members to Mayor Chuck Cahn, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald and Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt attending meetings.

Benedetto said being able to unite teachers, board of education members and township officials in one group has proven to be successful. He credits the school district with fully supporting the group’s efforts as well.

“(Superintendent Joe) Meloche, (Public Information Officer) Barbara Wilson and the administrators have been good partners and have come to every meeting,” Benedetto said. “They have been very open and transparent. They are doing the best with the resources they have.”

In an email, Meloche said he, board of education president Carol Matlack and BOE member Steve Robbins have all attended meetings with the group. Additionally, Robbins helped give the group some background on the district’s past efforts in securing fair funding from the state.

Procuring fair funding from the state is extremely important for the Cherry Hill school district. Meloche said the district will not be able to maintain its current level of programming without additional state aid.

“Relying on grants, banked capital and tax increases capped by the state at 2 percent is not a sustainable model for maintaining — much less improving — our schools,” Meloche said.

The biggest challenge for the group now is to get more residents involved. For the 2016–17 school year, the group is planning to work on getting the word out more both on social media and at school events.

“We’ve tried to hit the various back to school nights and various school functions and hand out a pamphlet,” Benedetto said. “Our goal for 2016–17 is to get more focused and aggressive with that.”

What is Fair Funding asking for?

Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools has set a realistic goal for what it is asking for from the state.

“Every time we meet with (legislators), we’re asked what’s on our wish list,” Benedetto said. “We want them to know it’s an additional $900 per student to bring us up to $2,000 per student.”

Though that additional aid still wouldn’t bring Cherry Hill up to what other districts receive, it could pay for a number of new programs and teachers. An additional $900 of state aid per student would allow for expanded preschool programs, smaller class sizes, upgrades in technology, infrastructure improvements, guidance counselors for every building and more.

Whether the district’s wishes will come true remains to be seen. In the Legislature, state Sens. Steve Sweeney and Jennifer Beck are planning to introduce a bill in the near future to make changes to state aid funding for New Jersey schools. Benedetto is hoping the fair funding group can schedule a meeting with Sweeney in the near future to detail Cherry Hill’s struggles.

In the meantime, Cherry Hill’s fair funding group is teaming with a similar group in Delran. The Delran Township School District has had similar issues with state funding.

“We are working with Delran, and we’ve gotten bilateral support,” Benedetto said. “We’ve also signed their petition to share with our group.”

Benedetto is hoping the state aid conundrum is resolved for Cherry Hill in the near future. He feels if the system does not change soon, the school district may need to make cuts in future budgets.

“We want the best for our kids,” he said. “We don’t want to paint a dire picture, but there are repercussions.”

The New Jersey School Boards Association could not be reached for comment.

Originally published at cherryhillsun.com on June 10, 2016.