Friday, September 4, 2015

Freehold Boro: Where Population Growth and Stagnant Aid Collide in the Worst Way

One of the most underaided districts in New Jersey is Freehold Boro.

Whereas over 200 New Jersey school districts receive more than what SFRA indicates they are supposed to receive, Freehold Boro's school district receives only $9.6 million instead of the $23 million SFRA says it should have.  That translates into a deficit of $8,113 per student, the third largest deficit in New Jersey.   Freehold does get $6,000 per student, but due to the lack of property wealth, Freehold's per student spending is only $11,462 per student.

How did Freehold get here?

Freehold Boro has long been left behind by the state's aid distribution.   In 1990 Freehold was considered a DFG CD district, ie, lower-middle class, which was above the threshold for Abbbut in 2000 it fell to being a DFG B. If there were some rationality to inclusion in the Abbott list or the Abbott list were updated, Freehold would become an Abbott, but since the Abbott II decision came out in 1990, there has not been any change to the Abbott list other than the inclusion of exceptionally-poor Salem City in 2004.

Now, Freehold has become even poorer. Freehold Boro's budgetary problem is compounded by the fact that its student population has grown and yet state aid has been stagnant.

From 1998-1999 to 2014-2015, Freehold's population grew from 1,100 to the 1,623 figure, a 50% increase. Within that overall increase was a doubling of the number of poor children.  76% of students in Freehold Boro are now Free or Reduced Lunch eligible. This is much higher than several Abbotts, like Neptune Township (52% FRL) Pemberton (44% FRL), Phillipsburg (53% FRL), Hoboken (49% FRL).

14% of Freehold Boro students have Limited English proficiency compared to New Jersey's 5% average.  Even DFG A only has a 13% Limited English proficiency average.  That fact combined with its high poverty rate means that if  the DFGs were ever recalculated Freehold Boro would probably be in DFG A.

Freehold's aid deficit translates into terrible problems with crowding. Freehold's three schools were built to accommodate 1,148 students but today the student population is 1,623. (with another 50 expected next year). 72% of the K-3 classes and 85% of the 4-5 classes exceed these state standards.

When Nicole Tate's daughter was in kindergarten, she shared her classroom with 29 other students. "How do you think it goes with 30 kindergartners crowded into a classroom?" Tate asked. "We preach the value of early education, but we can't do it with 30 kids in a classroom."
Freehold's school library has already been taken over for classrooms, so Freehold Boro now rents six classrooms from Freehold Township.

Moreover, Freehold's student population has become poorer.

Freehold's own residents feel that they are overtaxed and know that their district is underaided. They have twice rejected referenda to increase taxes to expand school capacity.

One Freehold homeowner told the Asbury Park Press, “There’s just not the resources to adequately fund the schools the way we would like to, without causing a lot of extreme hardship.

The homeowner has a valid, respectable point about Freehold's taxes already being too high. Freehold Boro's wealth is just very low.  In property wealth, Freehold only has $400,000 per student, a much lower figure than even the Abbotts in its area.  (adjusted for FB being K-8).  Freehold's per capita income is only $23,000 a year as well.

Freehold Boro's total effective tax rate is 2.616, the fifth highest in Monmouth County and likely the highest in relation to income.  Freehold Boro is already above its Local Fair Share for its schools by over $400,000.

A large proportion of Freehold's public school children are the children of immigrants who cannot vote, so the usual constituency for public education is not there.  Although Freehold has about 9,000 adults, only 5,300 are registered voters. Of those 5,300 only 643 came out to the December 2014 referendum on the bond issue to vote. The defeat of the bond issue was only 374 to 272. 

After the defeat of the second school bond referendum Freehold Boro's Board of Education turned to Commissioner of Education David Hespe to permit them to allow Freehold to bond the money anyway, despite the vote against it. (a decision from the Commissioner is pending)

Knowing how high their taxes already are, many Freehold residents oppose this tactic:

"Our vote is being sidestepped by those who obviously have no appreciation for democracy,"

"This is a problem that we didn't create," said Sharon Shutzer, a longtime borough councilwoman who said she supports the expansion but wants state relief. "We are being told to fix it... but we are not capable of doing that financially on our own."

Freehold Boro's BOE says that their legislative delegation is fighting for Freehold Boro but without success. Why is the legislature so indifferent to Freehold Boro? It could be that Freehold Boro is represented by three Republicans (Jennifer Beck, Mary Pat Angelini, and Caroline Casagrande) and Republicans are disempowered, but it could be that Freehold Boro is in the same district as Asbury Park and the rest of the legislature does not want to reward Beck, Angelini, and Casagrande when Asbury Park is so absurdly overaided.

Freehold Boro is really a victim of Chris Christie's flat-aid policy of not letting any district lose aid; flat aid is seemingly benign but it hurts districts that have growing enrollments.  Christie's flat aid policy is inexcusable and callous, but the education establishment also supports flat aid, so the blame has to be spread more widely.  The NJSBA is blithely indifferent to the fact that some districts in NJ are more severely underaided than others.

The Education Law Center has a mixed record on Freehold Boro.

On one hand, the Education Law Center has tried to highlight Freehold as an underaided district.

... as a result of the State’s failure to fully fund the formula, Freehold Borough is currently receiving only 9% more in state aid than in 2008-09, despite a 16% increase in enrollment, a low-income population that increased by 35%, and an adequacy budget that grew by 55%. The projected state aid increase for the 2014-15 school year is nearly inconsequential – a total of $20 per pupil or about $32,000.  [ed note, the increase for 2015-16 is $0]

However, the ELC is budgetarily foolish. It opposes aid redistribtuion, so there is less new money available for districts like Freehold Boro. If the Education Law Center were to call for severely underaided districts like Freehold Boro to get more money with offsets from overaided districts such as Jersey City, Hoboken, and Asbury Park, there would be a politically and economically realistic way for Freehold Boro to receive more money despite the state's immense budget challenges.

Counterbalancing its rhetorical support for Freehold Boro, the Education Law Center also fights for more money for Hoboken.

The case of Freehold Boro also illustrates how misguided the Bacon lawsuit is. Freehold has one of New Jersey's largest aid deficits per student, but it is not a Bacon. The Education Law Center should fight for New Jersey's most underaided districts; in waging the Bacon lawsuit it is just fighting for the most legally aggressive.

Freehold Boro is yet another example of how broken, rigid, irrational, and immoral New Jersey's aid distribution is.  


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