Cherry Hill community ramping up efforts to get increase in school funding

Statistics show Cherry Hill Public Schools has been underfunded by more than $45 million since 2009 and members of the community say the situation is getting worse with each passing day.

For the past couple of years, one issue has united Cherry Hill community members from different neighborhoods, with different backgrounds and with different political views.

Community members have been advocating for legislators to fix the state funding formula for schools. According to state aid figures and enrollment data for the current school year, Cherry Hill received $1,186 in state aid per pupil for 2016–17. In contrast, neighboring Evesham Township School District received $3,061. Another nearby district, Washington Township School District, received $7,053.

Parent Chris Benedetto started a community group named Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools in 2015 to advocate for the school district. The group has gained the support of school officials, township officials and local politicians.

However, frustration is building. Two years after forming, the group has not achieved its goal of getting more state funding for Cherry Hill schools. While a number of proposals have been pitched to the legislature, a bill has not yet reached the Assembly floor. With another comparatively underfunded South Jersey school district, Kingsway Regional, planning to lay off more than 20 staff members in 2017–18 due in part to a lack of state funding, there is a fear among some in Cherry Hill similar issues may be on the horizon.

The current funding formula was passed through the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Problems with some adjustments in the formula and a lack of state funding overall has caused about two-thirds of districts in the state to become underfunded, according to the Education Law Center. The website’s data says Cherry Hill Public Schools have been underfunded by about $45.6 million since 2009.

“The state is not funding enough of the school’s budget, anywhere near where they should have going back many years,” Mayor Chuck Cahn said.

Over the past year, Benedetto has seen a few changes take place when it comes to the topic of fair funding. One negative change he’s seen is the increasing seriousness of the situation. He cites Kingsway as an example of what could happen in Cherry Hill if the state funding issue isn’t solved.

“The situation is getting worse for a lot of districts,” he said.

Superintendent Joe Meloche has testified at Assembly hearings along with board of education members, Benedetto and others from around the state. He echoed Benedetto’s comments, saying the situation is getting worse as time goes on.

“There are millions of dollars in funding that we expect to receive, based upon the funding formula, from the state that we do not receive,” Meloche said. “The longer it goes on, the more real the critical impact becomes and the less that we are able to do for our students.”

Over the past year, the Fair Funding group has made changes to how it approaches the situation. The group is taking a more aggressive approach to getting its message across to all residents, including those without children in the school district.

“The story continues to be about the underfunding, but we’re trying to broaden the base of interest to it being about your taxes,” Benedetto said.

In March, the group sent a flier home with kids in grades kindergarten to eight. The flier detailed how Cherry Hill is receiving less state funding than is recommended for the district and implores residents to call their local legislators.

A third change has been the number of people interested in advocating for the district. Benedetto said the number of people attending Fair Funding’s meetings has risen to about 30. The group has received a surge of increased interest from local politicians, including Cahn, township council and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald and Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt.

At its March 27 meeting, Cherry Hill Township Council passed a resolution imploring the legislature to reform the school funding formula.

“The schools are so important,” Cahn said. “We treasure our schools and we do such a good job with them. But the burden on our residents has grown tremendously to the point where about 81 percent of the school’s budget is being funding by our residents.”

“Mayor Cahn and town council have been a regular part of our discussion during the past few years,” Meloche said. “They understand the real and true impact of an unfair funding burden being placed on the local taxpayers to operate our school district.”

The fair funding group is also receiving help from a former Cherry Hill Township Council candidate. Rick Short ran twice as a Republican for council in 2015 and 2016. During his campaign last year, Short put a focus on the lack of state funding Cherry Hill receives and promised residents he would become an advocate for the school district.

Short has teamed with Benedetto and the Fair Funding group, joining them for meetings with state legislators on fixing the school funding formula.

“There’s three hats to what I do,” Short said. “The first hat is lobbying for more funding on the state level, which I work on with Chris. The second is lobbying for improvement to our infrastructure for our schools. My third hat is that I’m an investigator.”

Short has seen firsthand the struggle the school district has had due to a lack of state funding. A father of four, Short talked of how the school in his neighborhood, Kingston Elementary, suffers from a lack of infrastructure upgrades and teachers, mostly because the district is unable to pay for them. Upon meeting with school officials, teaming with the Fair Funding group and doing his own research, Short discovered the source of the problem.

“I understand this stuff all cost money,” he said. “If you start studying it, it’s completely absurd that you have 569 school districts, but 368 of them are underfunded.”

Benedetto said Short has provided an extra spark to the group and has been a big help in being a voice for the school district.

“I really respect the fact that Rick has made this a big part of his agenda,” Benedetto said. “We get along well.”

The group’s efforts have gotten the support of some in the state legislature as well. Benedetto said Greenwald and Lampitt have emphasized the importance of school funding reform and have met with the group.

“They want a fully-funded model, and the hindrance to that is bringing a bill to the Assembly,” Benedetto said.

“(They) have actively engaged the Fair Funding Committee and have always demonstrated a willingness to participate in our discussions, to answer our constituents and to pledge to work on our behalf,” Meloche said.

During his budget address on Feb. 28, Gov. Christie issued a challenge to the legislature, telling the Assembly and Senate to come up with a solution to the school funding formula within 100 days. With the 100-day deadline approaching on June 8, Benedetto remains cautiously optimistic a solution can be found.

“I think something will get done,” Benedetto said. “I don’t know if it will be exactly what we want, but I’m optimistic.”

For more information on Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Schools, visit http://fairfunding.wixsite.com/fairfundingchps. Residents can contact Greenwald and Lampitt’s office at (856) 435–1247.