Honorable Members of the Assembly Budget Committee, I wish to thank you for permitting me to testify on behalf of the tax payers and most importantly the students in Robbinsville Township. You are all very aware that equitable funding for public education in New Jersey has been under attack since 1985. For the last 32 years this state has done the very thing that I despise the most. We have politicized our most important responsibility, educating our children. Along the way we have created a situation where communities are forced to argue who deserves more and who deserves less.
I am here before you today to talk to you about how this situation is negatively impacting the tax payers and the children of Robbinsville. I’m here today to talk about doing the right thing, about being fair, about following the written law, and most importantly to remind you that decisions regarding education need to consider all of the children of New Jersey. As you know approximately 38.5% of our entire state budget is spent on education which is commendable. The problem lies in how this money is being allocated and more importantly, our current system doesn’t reward fiscal efficiency. Robbinsville is the third lowest spending school district of the 69 New Jersey K-12 of similar size, and at $11,142 per student, we are the lowest spending school district in Mercer County.
Robbinsville has been forced to seek efficiency since 2004 when we opened our high school and our total state aide started its rapid decline. Since then Robbinsville has been a frontrunner in finding alternative revenue aside from state aid or tax increases to fund our programs. Through this work we have accomplished the following:
- The district has eliminated numerous out-of-district tuition costs by building in-house programs for our Special Needs population.
- We have outsourced our custodial services at a savings of $500,000 in additional health benefit costs to the district.
- We have reduced the number of full time instructional aides saving health benefit costs of $390,000.
- Our collective bargaining units comply with NJ Chapter 78 Tiered Health Benefit Contributions and contribute the maximum amount towards their health benefit costs.
- We charge student activity fees.
- We rent out our facilities to generate revenue.
- We have a tuition-based preschool program.
- We have a tuition-based kindergarten program for students residing in neighboring districts.
- We have transportation jointures.
- We have shared services agreements.
- We have maximized energy cost reduction through an ESIP project, Demand Response, and solar initiatives.
- We have created a revenue generating in-house before and after school program known as RED.
Robbinsville has received letters of commendation from the County Superintendent for our fiscal efficiency, prudence, and discipline. We’ve accomplished these initiatives even as our student population has grown at an annual at rate of 3%.
In essence, we have built a high performing school district at a time in our state’s history where taxes are increasing and the financial burdens on members of our community are very difficult.
In 2009 our total state aid was $2.8M and our student enrollment was 2697 students. As of January 2017, we have 3118 students enrolled and our projected aid for next year will be $300,000 less. Since 2009 Robbinsville residents have contributed an additional $5,482,249 in local tax levy. This inequitable disparity isn’t fair considering the State’s legal obligation to educate all children in New Jersey. Where would the students of Robbinsville be today without this community support? How many more Robbinsville residents would have left our town over these burgeoning taxes and our impaired ability to provide core programs?
This doesn’t even reference what happened in 2011 when our state aid, like many districts was cut by over 50%. During that time we eliminated 26 FTEs and significantly reduced programs that other like districts routinely provide. To the detriment of our students we have yet to recover all of those FTEs and some of those programs. Since 2009, our total underfunding according to SFRA calculations equals $8.7M. Obviously if we considered uncapped aid our cumulative underfunding since 2009 would be nearly $60M.
Despite our fiscal diligence, our latest budget cycle finds us with a gap of $1.5M. With continuous effort to stay within the 2% cap, Robbinsville is once again facing serious decisions regarding personnel and program reductions which results in increased class sizes, and the potential for unhoused students in order to close this gap as a consequence of years of being underfunded by the state. In a year when our school district budget is decreasing and our enrollment is increasing by about 3%, it seems fundamentally unfair that the tax payers in Robbinsville should again have their taxes increase while programs for their children decrease. As it stands today Robbinsville residents fund 93% of their entire school budget through local taxes. Because our budget is already lean and efficient, we have exhausted any additional opportunities to reduce expenses without causing irreparable harm to students of Robbinsville.
With all due respect and great appreciation for the work that each of you must do to ensure that our state’s financial situation improves, I am not here to ask you to refund our previous years of underfunding nor am I asking you to fund us at our uncapped aid.
What I am asking you to do is:
- Fully fund us based on SFRA without the annual limitations established at the onset of SFRA.
- Base this calculation on the original 2009 levels
- Consider our growth since that time
Robbinsville students deserve access to the same programs and opportunities as every other student in the State of New Jersey, on an equal and fair basis. Robbinsville tax payers have already funded more than their fair share and have done so for far too long. It’s time to do the right thing and reward fiscal prudence with fiscal justice.
Our School Board and administrative team are prepared to work through this very difficult budget cycle in a fashion that protects the interests of our students and our community, but it is unreasonable to ask our tax payers to pay more and get less. In your deliberations, I respectfully request that you reallocate these resources to support the members of our community.
Thank you for your kind attention and for considering this request.
Matthew T. O’Grady