Southern Regional School District Officials Focus on Education, Not Funding Formula Debate

Nov 01, 2017

With a renewed drive to change the Southern Regional High School District funding formula, officials there remain focused on educational excellence. The resurgence in the discussion surrounding the inequity of money Island taxpayers send to the regional school district comes more than a decade after the last big push.

“We are very aware of it,” Superintendent Craig Henry said, noting the district’s top priority is to continue to offer the best educational opportunities for its students. “Resources are a big part of it, but every time we’ve seen a decrease in revenue, we’ve hunkered down and come out stronger.”

Southern Regional consists of seven constituent members: Stafford Township and the six Island communities of Barnegat Light, Beach Haven, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City. The cost to each municipality to educate its students is based on property value, not actual per-pupil cost. Waretown, which also sends its students to Southern Regional as a sending district, pays an annual tuition per student. It’s been the funding plan since the district’s inception in 1957. Barnegat originally also was a sending district until it opened its own secondary schools.

Long Beach Island homeowners pay between $51,000 and $254,000 to educate a student at Southern Regional even though less than 10 percent of the students reside on the Island. It’s those figures that prompted the revived discussion about changing the funding formula. In June, the Joint Council of Taxpayers Association of Long Beach Island hosted a meeting with Morris County-based attorney Vito Gagliardi, who acknowledged the funding disparity and explained the existing options for changing the formula. He’s represented five communities around the state that have changed disproportionate school funding formulas.

Stafford sends 2,193 students to Southern Regional, according to figures presented at the meeting. Its residents pay about $9 million annually yet account for nearly 90 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student to its taxpayers is $4,122.

On the Island, Long Beach Township sends the most students to Southern Regional with 93.5, and an annual payment of nearly $20.5 million for less than 4 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student is $218,911,and is the second highest on the Island. Barnegat Light foots the next-largest bill with an annual per-pupil payment of $165,335 for 12 students, for a total of a little more than $2 million annually and less than .5 percent of the enrollment, according to the figures. Surf City is fourth on the list with 37 students at $112,311 for a total of $4.1 million annually and 1.51 percent of the enrollment at the regional district.

Beach Haven and Ship Bottom are on the “low” end of the scale. Beach Haven, with 47.5 students attending the regional district, pays nearly $95,100 per pupil for a total of $4.5 million annually and 1.94 percent of the enrollment. In Ship Bottom, 53 students at a per-pupil rate of $51,304, for a total of $2.7 million, attend the district. Those students account for 2.17 percent of the enrollment.

That leaves Harvey Cedars, a community less than 1.2 square miles nestled between the Long Beach Township sections of North Beach and Loveladies on the north end of the Island, with a year-round population of 360 and a summer population of 9,900, at the top of the discrepancy list. With 11.5 students enrolled in the regional school district, the borough’s annual payment is $2.9 million for less than .5 percent of the entire student body. The per-pupil cost hovers around $255,000. Still, the residents were mostly quiet in 2006 when Long Beach Township Commissioner Ralph H. Bayard and former Beach Haven Mayor Deborah Whitcraft, who also served as a borough representative to Southern Regional, spearheaded a campaign to change school funding.

Still, Barnegat Light “isn’t looking to get out of the district,” Mayor Kirk Larson said, noting no one he has spoken with is eager to challenge the current formula. “I think we’re fine the way we are.”

Permitted
Remedies

Gagliardi described the possible actions that could be taken to change the situation.

Option 1: Put the question before voters. If more say yes than no, then school funding would be changed, he said. However, with Stafford Township controlling six of nine seats on the regional school board, getting this far isn’t likely, he added.

Option 2: A local government or elementary school board can make a petition to withdraw from the regional school district. Although a referendum is required to make this happen, it occurs at the local level, he said. Stafford Township or the Southern Regional Board of Education would have no influence over this option. A plan for how and where students would be educated in the future is part of the process.

Option 3: Dissolving a regional school district is similar to the withdrawal process, but it requires a majority of the governing bodies and school boards to agree. As long as there are no constitutional issues, the question would go before voters. A majority vote from all communities is required. It also requires a plan for how and where students would be educated in the future, he said.

Conceivably, in the last option, the Stafford Township Elementary School District could become a K-12 district and enter into a sending agreement with the Long Beach Island Consolidated and Beach Haven school districts. If the Island communities agreed to withdraw from Southern Regional, they could enter into a sending agreement as well, he said.

However, none of the options Gagliardi offered are that simple, noted Southern Regional Business Administrator Steve Terhune.

“The Department of Education has a say in everything school related,” he said.

Henry agreed, saying, “Our best efforts are spent on what is right in front of us. We will respond (to any change or proposed changed to funding) once it occurs.“

One thing is certain, however: The  Southern Regional district won’t become a New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice option, Henry said. The program allows approved districts to enroll students from kindergarten through high school in districts where they do not reside without costs to their parents.

“We have chosen not to do Choice,” the superintendent said, noting the district’s stellar reputation in everything from education to extracurricular programs and sports. “We are a lighthouse district.”

As such, he said, the district wouldn’t be able to handle the influx of students wanting to attend as part of the Choice program.

“(Because of the way) it’s funded, it’s not a good economic choice,” Henry said, noting the district’s student population hovers around 3,000. It dipped slightly after Superstorm Sandy but stabilized and is now experiencing a moderate increase. He anticipates the enrollment to hit 3,000 next school year.

Another reason for the decline in student population, Terhune said, is that across the state, birth rates declined after Sept. 11, 2001. That lasted until 2005, he said.

“We continue to go back up in capacity,” Henry said. “We can provide for that.”

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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