The bill is intended to stave off cuts to courtesy busing at Freehold's regional school district. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
A bill that would exempt state school aid cuts for certain regional school districts moved forward Thursday, weeks after thousands of Monmouth County students learned “courtesy busing” would be canceled for the upcoming school year.
The bipartisan measure, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), would freeze state aid cuts for regional school districts that meet certain standards. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).
To be eligible for the exemption, districts must serve five or more communities, spend less than 15% in administrative costs per student compared to the statewide average, and have increased the district’s taxes by the maximum amount in each of the last five years.
The narrowly written measure is set to benefit Freehold Township Regional High School District, a Monmouth County district that has more than 3,000 students from eight municipalities. In April, its school board voted to eliminate some bus routes to reduce its transportation budget, which ended busing for students who live within 2.5 miles of the school, affecting 30% of students.
Under the bill, Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Burlington County also appears to qualify.
Witnesses who spoke Thursday at the Assembly’s education committee expressed concerns that the bill is “cherry-picking individual districts,” as Fran Pfeffer of the New Jersey Education Association said. She urged lawmakers not to pit one district against another.
Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean), who represents towns in Freehold’s regional school district and plans to co-sponsor the bill, said that while he’d be happy to see busing wholly funded again because parents were scrambling for other solutions, he called it unjust to other school districts that would not qualify for more aid under the bill.
School funding in New Jersey needs a change, he added.
The controversial S2 funding formula was brought up several times during Thursday’s discussion as a reason why some school districts are struggling financially. School officials in Freehold’s regional district, which was set to lose $6.8 million in funding in the next school year under the formula, attributed the aid cut as a reason busing needed to be slashed.
Assemblyman Branden Umba (R-Burlington) said the funding formula was created to properly and fairly fund schools, but now “we’re throwing the criteria to the wind for Freehold Township.”
“We’re not solving the problem … We are picking winners and losers,” he said. “And who is getting hurt in this? The kids.”
Elisabeth Ginsburg of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a group representing nearly 100 school districts around the state, applauded a supplemental school aid package passed earlier this year that returned some state funding to about 150 school districts slated for cuts next school year. But she stressed that extra aid only “slightly mitigated” the damage done by the pandemic.
Now, Freehold’s regional district is in a “no-win situation,” she said, and it should be entitled to “seek any and all remedies that would avert further harm to its students.”
The committee advanced the bill with four yes votes. Assemblyman Erik Simonsen (R-Cape May) voted no, while Umba and Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis (R-Union) abstained.
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