Monday, August 3, 2015

Lakewood: An Underaided School District

Lakewood is one of New Jersey's most demographically unique communities. Whereas in all other NJ communities private schoolers are a small minority whom the Board of Education barely deals with, in Lakewood an overwhelming majority of students are private schoolers and private school parents control the Board of Education. While Lakewood's unique demographics present some one-of-a-kind problems for the schools there, in its severe state aid underfunding Lakewood is like many other districts in New Jersey.

The point of this blog post isn't to defend everything that happens in Lakewood. Indeed, some things that the Lakewood BOE appears to do, like placing Jewish special needs students in (semi-)sectarian private schools, are not defensible. Some anger at the Lakewood Board of Education is justified, but this anger should be tempered by the knowledge that Lakewood is one of New Jersey's most underaided districts.


One accusation that has surfaced is that since Lakewood's Board of Education consists of majority private school parents that the parents are anti-tax and are willing to let the public schools "starve."

A fact to note is that Lakewood's equalized school taxes are comparable to the school taxes in neighboring and peer-size districts in South Jersey.

District Name
Toms River
Equalized Tax Rate



Indeed, Lakewood's equalized school tax rate is higher than that of Summit, Millburn, and Princeton, three districts in New Jersey that are never accused of shortchanging public education.

State Aid and Funding

Despite its equalized tax rate being similar to its neighboring districts, Lakewood's schools are much less well funded.

District Name
Toms River
Per Pupil Spending





Compared to nearby Abbott districts, all of which except Asbury Park have LOWER FRL-eligible rates, Lakewood's schools are even comparatively more underfunded.

District Name
Long Branch
Neptune Township
Asbury Park
Per Pupil Spending




Why are Lakewood's schools so badly funded? Most people immediately attribute primarily this to high private school transportation expenses in Lakewood, but a large part of the reason is Lakewood's relative lack of state aid:

District Name
Toms River
Property Wealth Per Student
Median Income (2010)
State Aid Per Student 
FRL Eligible

Lakewood has, by far, the highest percentage of students who are FRL-eligible of its neighboring, large districts but it receives the second lowest amount of aid per student from the state.

One ostensible reason for the low state aid is that Lakewood nominally has a high property valuation per (public school) student and this increases Lakewood's Local Fair Share and thus decreases the amount of Equalization Aid that Lakewood should receive. SFRA isn't followed anyway, but even if it were followed the same usage of property wealth to calculate Equalization Aid that works for other school districts in New Jersey does not work for Lakewood.

Most districts in NJ that have high property wealth per student have valuable industrial property, commercial property, or retail property, none of which requires anything from the school system. Lakewood is completely different because the only reason it has high-ratables is because it has thousands of houses full of private school children who inflate Lakewood's Local Fair Share but then require a variety of services from the public school system.

As Lakewood's longtime BOE attorney Michael Inzelbuch said, "The law never imagined a Lakewood."

But even property wealth is only half of the calculation of Local Fair Share and income is the other half.  Not only is Lakewood's median family income lower than its non-Abbott peers, it is even lower than many Abbotts.

Lakewood's $35,600 median household income is the same as Newark's and lower than Keansburg, Long Branch, and Neptune Township, all of which are Abbott districts. Asbury Park's household income is a little lower than Lakewood's, but then again, Asbury Park gets $24,000 per student in state aid plus Pre-K. In other words,

Finally, Lakewood is simply underaided even by SFRA's flawed recommendation for it.  Lakewood's uncapped state aid is $40.3 million, but it only receives $24.5 million.  Lakewood's per student aid deficit is $2558, the largest deficit in Ocean County.

Lakewood's underaiding doesn't excuse inefficient private transportation bus routes or overuse of expensive private school placements for children with special needs, but critics of Lakewood should consider Lakewood's underaiding in any descriptions of Lakewood's budget problems.  Lakewood isn't the most underaided district in New Jersey, but it is emblematic of the irrational, off-formula, and unfair distribution of aid in our state.


See a 2016-17 Update on the "Origins of Lakewood's Budget Disaster."

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