Southern Regional School Funding Focus of Forum

Jun 05, 2017

The fight for fair school funding is nothing new in New Jersey, where education costs are based on property value and not student population. Locally, the upside-down formula falls heavily on the shoulders of Long Beach Island taxpayers, who have historically paid the most money to the Southern Regional School District despite sending the least number of students.

For years, the conversation about how to resolve the school funding issue has ebbed and flowed, with the most recent effort set to kick off Thursday, June 8, with a  forum on the process of changing school funding, local options for achieving it, and a review of five state districts that have successfully done so already. The meeting is slated for 6 p.m. in the chapel of the Harvey Cedars Bible Conference, and is hosted by the Joint Council of Taxpayers Association.

The presenter is Morris County-based attorney Vito Gagliardi of the law firm Porzio, Bromberg & Newman. He’s successfully represented five municipalities, including Seaside Park, Avalon and Stone Harbor, in winning their quest to amend school funding in their communities. Gagliardi was also part of a 2006 preliminary feasibility study – funded by Beach Haven and Long Beach Township – to investigate changing Southern Regional school funding for Island taxpayers.

“There is nothing fair about this,” Bill Hutson, president of the JCTA, said about the current funding for the regional school district. “We only want a fair and equitable solution.”

The numbers in question are staggering, he said. Long Beach Island homeowners pay between $51,000 and $254,000 to educate a Southern Regional student even though less than 10 percent of the students reside on the Island. Homeowners in Stafford Township, which traditionally have sent the most students to the regional district, pay on average about $4,000.

“The average on Long Beach Island is $150,000,” Hutson said. “The highest is Harvey Cedars, at $254,000.”

In 1993, when the Southern Regional Board of Education was looking to build a new high school, Harvey Cedars was paying $80,000 per pupil. In nearly a quarter of a century, that number has more than tripled.

The regional district, which educates students in grades seven to 12, has a population of about 3,100 with 2,100 in the high school, according to the district’s website. Of that number, about 220 are Island residents, Hutson said.

Island taxpayers aren’t alone in their fight for equality when it comes to school funding. Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie challenged state lawmakers to come up with a school funding formula that is fair for both taxpayers and students.

“Property taxes in New Jersey are the highest in America, and the majority of those taxes are for local school taxes,” he said. “Urban education, despite 30 years of Supreme Court-required intervention by the state, is still failing students and their parents at an alarming (rate). The theory from the Supreme Court was that money alone would solve the problem. They were wrong, very wrong, and the results prove it.”

The disparity at Southern Regional extends beyond the financial obligations to educate students to the regional school board. Long Beach Island elects only three representatives to the board while footing 80 percent of the education bill while Stafford controls the board with the majority of seats. Waretown, a sending district, also has a seat at the table.

“We just want something fair,” Hutson reiterated.

— Gina G. Scala

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