The summer of 2018 became a summer most school districts in New Jersey will never forget as they learned they will: A) receive more state funding or B) have funding cut. Shamong’s fate is to lose state funding over a seven-year span.
From the 2018-2019 school year to the 2024-2025 school year, the district is expected to lose a combined $1,321,897 in funding. Legislators said at the time of the initial cuts, the state did not seek to cut funding explicitly but to readjust what each district would receive based on calculations that have yet to be publicized.
The Toms Rivers School District has filed suit to have the calculations be made public. And public school districts are banding together — mainly through the Support Our Students coalition that has Shamong as a member — to acquire the formula. Through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) filing, districts will request that the state, the Department of Education and the Commissioner of Education reveal the funding formulas.
Lenape Regional High School District and many of its receiving districts have adopted a resolution to join the OPRA request. The Shamong district followed suit.
“These are the funding cuts, but how did that come about and what can we expect.? We think we know the numbers going forward, but they change,” Shamong Superintendent Dr. Christine Vespe said.
“Are they going to change again? How do you budget for that if you don’t know what it will be?”
Funding for the state’s district should be fair, Vespe noted, but not at the cost of swift cuts to overfunded districts that tie the hands of education board members and result in cuts to programs and staff.
The impact of cuts had been felt in Shamong, although Vespe and Business Administrator Laura Archer explained the district was able to get ahead of the cuts by privatizing positions and sharing service agreements with neighboring districts Southampton, Woodland and Tabernacle.
“It’s been a lot of pre-planning, and when we did the outsourcing of aides and assistants at the beginning of when we knew cuts were coming, we were ahead of thinking where we needed to be and we projected out three years of our budgets,” Vespe said.
Archer also oversees the financials of both Woodland and Shamong to save both districts money. Tabernacle picked up most transportation for Shamong and Archer made investments in the Lenape Regional consortium to gain a higher interest rate and create opportunities to place the revenue in capital reserves.
“Going into our budgets and extrapolating out by ‘If we increase salaries by this amount, where are we truly at and what are we going to need to do in those three years?’” Archer asked.
“One of the things we’re looking at this year is what’s falling off on lease payments? We are looking at replacing it with one we need for equipment that we need with 50 percent of what was there.”
Arched added that Shamong has combined bus stops to save roughly $25,000 and eliminated busing to St. Mary of the Lakes School, a private Catholic school in Medford, due to low enrollment of Shamong students there.
The Shamong board of education’s contract with the Shamong Education Association includes salary increases, but health care costs have remained steady since Archer secured lower insurance rates and similar coverages.
Archer also directed district departments to reduce their budgets by 20 percent in 2018-2019.
“I give kudos to them for doing something like that,” Archer stated. “Our custodial staff does a lot of work in house that we don’t have to go out and pay a prevailing wage that would be expensive.”
While Vespe and Archer have worked around the clock to offset the cuts, they admitted it is a strain on them to contemplate funding for the 2020-2021 to 2023-2024 school years, when the district is expected to lose about $855,498.
“I’m anticipating for the 2020-2021 budget to reduce it by a staff member based on enrollment numbers,” Vespe admitted. “It’s one of the areas we’re looking at, but I’m anticipating that for the upcoming budget.”
That staff member is retiring so the reduction is through attrition. No retirements are pending and if that holds and “things don’t play out for us,” Vespe said a cut may happen to correlate with declining student enrollment. Enrollment has declined by 10 to 30 students each year.
“How that comes about? I’m not sure at this point; it could through attrition or reduction of force in a staff member, unfortunately,” Vespe said regretfully. “We’re not looking to impact programs at this point.”
Archer and Vespe did not reveal their positions on regionalizing with Tabernacle, Woodland and Southampton, citing the impacts on the LRHSD and local taxes.
“I can’t say I’m for or against the outcome of it,” Vespe reiterated. “I want what’s best for the school and the children to attend the schools for which their parents bought homes to live in these towns because of the schools here.
“That’s what I’m for and I believe in it.”
Shamong’s budget efforts have kept the district from affecting programs and spared it the public backlash other districts face.
Gloom and anger may hover over the state’s restructured funding, but Vespe maintained it has facilitated cooperation and open communication with other districts to learn how they can help one another.
With the Lenape Region Community Forum approaching on Feb. 13 (6:30 p.m. at Lenape High School, 235 Hartford Road, Medford), Vespe hopes the public will attend to learn the large-scale impacts of the restructured funding and what each district is doing to address it.
“This is what has happened as far as reduction numbers, causes (as a result of it) and what we’ve done to advocate in going to the statehouse, going to meetings, talking to legislators, meeting as superintendents, writing letters and all of the numerous things within the campaign and truly raise awareness for funding,” the superintendent noted.