Monday, December 14, 2015

Pemberton Township: The Unknown Aid Hoarder

When New Jerseyans criticize the problems of the Abbott system of school funding, the districts that are most often used as examples of the excesses and unfairness of Abbott are Hoboken, Jersey City, and Asbury Park. Hoboken is criticized for being an Abbott in the first place while it is (by far) New Jersey's wealthiest K-12 district. Jersey City is criticized for being aided like it is still as poor as Newark and PILOTing 30% of its property valuation, meaning that 30% of Jersey City's true property wealth is concealed from the formula for Equalization Aid. Asbury Park is criticized for the exceptionally high aid it receives - approximately $23,500 per student - and is used as an example of how futile that aid and high spending is, since Asbury Park's scores and graduation rate remain abyssmal.

This post is going to be about another district that is just as much an aid hoarder as Hoboken, Jersey City, and Asbury Park, although one more less often held up as a problem of Abbott spending and how divorced the Abbott list is from being a list of New Jersey's poorest districts: Pemberton Township.

Pemberton Township is located in eastern Burlington County, in the heart of the Pine Barrens. Its land area includes part of Fort Dix.

Pemberton receives the second largest amount of Adjustment Aid, after Jersey City.  While hundreds of districts across New Jersey are underaided by millions, even tens of millions of dollars, Pemberton gets $27.4 million more for its 5,227 students than SFRA says it demographically and economically needs.

In terms of excess dollars per student, Pemberton is New Jersey's seventh largest aid hoarder, with an excess of $6,188 per student. (source, Education Law Center.)

Why does this matter?

This excess aid figure is astoundingly high.  Pemberton's $6,188 in EXCESS aid per student alone is higher than what many demographically poorer non-Abbotts in New Jersey get TOTAL.  Belleville (DFG CD) gets about $5,400 per student.  Kearny (DFG B) gets about $5,200 per student.  Newton (DFG CD) gets about $3,800 per student.  Fairview (DFG A) gets $5,600 per student.  

Pemberton's $27.4 million in excess aid is greater than the total aid packages of larger and demographically poorer districts such as Clifton, Lakewood, Linden, Bloomfield, and Atlantic City.  (AC is getting some last-minute additional aid but that aid would just bring Atlantic City up to approximate parity with Pemberton's excess aid.)

Pemberton Should Not be an Abbott

The reason Pemberton is so overaided is that it is an Abbott district and therefore benefited from the New Jersey Supreme Court's "Parity Plus Doctrine," where the Abbotts had to receive funding to bring up their spending to above the level of the DFG J and DFG I districts. The Parity Plus doctrine thus brought Pemberton up to a mid-2000s aid level of about $16,000 per student.

While for some truly poor Abbotts an aid amount like $16,000 would be appropriate, $16,000 per student is enormous overaiding for Pemberton because Pemberton's students are not nearly as poor as students are in the other Abbott districts.

Whereas the average (unweighted) Abbott district is 78% FRL-eligible, Pemberton's students are only 44% FRL-eligible. Overall NJ students are 38% FRL-eligible, so Pemberton's students are poorer than average, but not by a huge amount.

Indeed, Pemberton has no demographic right to be an Abbott district. It is difficult to even see how it became an Abbott in the first place since in 1990 it was in DFG CD and Pemberton is not urban and the Abbott system was created for "urban" districts.

Overall Pemberton in 119th place in FRL-eligibility in New Jersey. 

(Click on the chart to see a legible resolution)

Pemberton's FRL-eligible percentage is equal to that of working class non-Abbotts like Bogota, Elmwood Park (East Paterson), Cumberland Regional, Egg Harbor Township, and Bloomfield.

Even if you break Pemberton's FRL-eligible students down into Free-lunch and Reduced-lunch categories, Pemberton should not be an Abbott district.

1,678 of Pemberton's 5,000 district students are Free-lunch eligible (33%). This is lower than the percentage Free lunch-eligible students in the FRL-peer districts mentioned above.  Bogota is 37% Free-lunch eligible.  Elmwood Park is 34%.  Egg Harbor Regional is 38%. Bloomfield, 35%.  Savagely underaided working class non-Abbotts like Belleville and Hackensack have much higher Free-lunch eligible percentages, 47% and 55%, respectively.

Even districts considered middle class, like West Orange (2,390 FL students out of 6,727, or 35%) have a higher percentage of Free-lunch eligible students than Pemberton.

For Limited English Proficiency Pemberton's students are in fact, significantly below the state's average, let along the Abbott average.  

Whereas the average (unweighted) Abbott is 10% ELLs and the average NJ district is 5% ELLs, Pemberton's students are only 1% English Language Learners.

Pemberton's Tax Base is Low

In terms of tax base Pemberton is indisputably low, possessing only $23.2 million for 5,227 students (not all of whom are in traditional public schools). This is about $4,500 per student and is one of the thirty lowest tax bases per student in New Jersey.  The only qualification of Pemberton's tax base it that it gets $1 million in federal "Impact Aid" due to the presence of Fort Dix.  However, factoring in that $1 million in Impact Aid would only increase Pemberton's tax base slightly.

So, while Pemberton has a low tax base per student and that entitles it to higher-than-average state aid, the amount of state aid that Pemberton gets is wholly unjustified when seen in comparison to districts whose tax bases are equal or lower than Pemberton's and who also have higher populations of FRL-eligible students.

Most of the non-Abbotts whose tax bases are peer or inferior to Pemberton's also have higher FRL-eligibility.

What Does Pemberton do with all that Extra $27.4 million?

Answer: Offset Taxes, Spend Significantly Above Adequacy

Pemberton is so overaided that it can afford to have a tax levy that is only 51% what SFRA indicates it is economically capable of paying.

Whereas Pemberton's Local Fair Share is $23.2 million, its actual tax levy for 2014-15 is only $11.8 million, an $11.4 million deficit.  In per pupil terms this is a $2,314 per student tax deficit.

But not to worry, Pemberton's state aid surplus is $6,188 per student, so Pemberton is over Adequacy by $2,866 per student!!!

Since Pemberton is Above Adequacy, Do Its Schools Outperform Their Peers?

Answer:  No.

Pemberton High School has few Abbott high schools in its peer group.  Its peer group consists mostly of high schools in working class districts like Bayonne, Greater Egg Harbor, Linden, Rahway, and Roselle.  There are a few charters in there too, plus a few high schools in Abbotts like Jersey City, Vineland, and Trenton.  (who are below Adequacy).  Hoboken is on the list as well but even Hoboken isn't as far above Adequacy as Pemberton.

Despite its financial advantage, Pemberton High School is only at the 31st percentile amongst its peer group.

The same lag compared to its peers exists for all of Pemberton's schools.

How did Pemberton Get So Overaided?

It's hard to say, but Pemberton's student population has fallen from 5,827 in 1998-1999 to 4,900 in 2008-09 and rebounded only somewhat - to 5,227 in 2014-15.

Despite that falling population, Pemberton received large increases in state aid until the Great Recession and the freezing of state aid, going from $54 million in 1998-99 to $83 million in 2008-2009 at its population nadir.

Pemberton's aid per student thus rose $9,300 per student in 1998-1999 to $16,000 per student in 2008-2009, around which it has fluctuated ever since.

Abbott Rules

SFRA was supposed to create a unitary funding formula for New Jersey's school districts and bring up underaided districts to Adequacy, but SFRA relied on new revenue in order to operate and except in SFRA's first two years, that new revenue has been absent.  Since SFRA is non-operating, the old, unfair Abbott aid distribute persists and New Jersey's aid distribution is really governed by Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, who died in 1996, and not any recently elected governor or member of the legislature.

Since Christie, and most Democrats for that matter, oppose redistribution of state aid, districts like Pemberton continue on in privilege while underaided and underfunded districts suffer through sub-Adequacy spending or very high tax burdens.

Although this blog post has been about Pemberton and the Abbott system, it shouldn't be taken that all overaided districts are Abbotts.  On the contrary, Toms River and Brick round out the top five of overaided districts and they are not Abbotts at all.

I don't know if anything will change in New Jersey in the foreseeable future.  The Democrats have abandoned SFRA in favor of prioritizing pensions, transportation, and retiree tax cuts.  Their education aid agenda focuses on Pre-K.

However, I know that nothing will ever change as long as people don't know the scale of overaiding and how there are other aid hoarders than Hoboken, Jersey City, and Asbury Park.

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