By JOHN T. WARD
Little Silver Superintendent Carolyn Kossack organized and moderated the event. Below, Superintendents Brent MacConnell (Shrewsbury), Sean McNeil (Fair Haven) and Jared Rumage (Red Bank) were in the audience. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
Organized as a “conversation” by Little Silver Superintendent Carolyn Kossack, the event centered on a question-and-answer session with five legislators on issues that ranged widely. Among them: “fair” state aid for affluent districts; help with soaring special education expenses; and softening the financial impact of the Red Bank Charter School on its host district.
On the dais were District 11 Senator Vin Gopal and Assembly members Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling, all Democrats; and District 13 Senator Declan O’Scanlon and Assembly members Amy Handlin and Serena DiMaso, Republicans.
Kossack, who oversees a $14 million budget, opened the event by asking the lawmakers how they can work in a bipartisan way to “decrease some of the vulnerability” that districts like hers experience under the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which limits tax increases to 2 percent a year, even as costs outpace the cap.
SFRA “turned out to be pie in the sky,” O’Scanlon said. “That act will never be fully funded in a responsible way.”
He said the state, facing a structural deficit of $3.5 billion to $6 billion over the next five years, won’t begin to find its way to offering relief on property taxes for schools until it reduces “platinum-plus health benefits” for public employees.
Handlin, of Lincroft, said she was open to ideas from Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat sworn into office last week. “It’s important for us to listen to the new governor, and perhaps to new ideas from the other side of the aisle,” she said.
Among those ideas was one repeatedly touted by Downey on the creation of a fair funding commission to study the school finance issue and get input from local administrators. “We’re not the experts,” she said. “We want people who have that expertise.”
Several of the lawmakers teed up unfunded state mandates, under which schools are directed to adopt often costly changes without sufficient financial aid or relief from the cap. Many of the mandates sound good in themselves, said Handlin, citing a requirement for the installation of “panic buttons” in schools for use in emergencies, “but there’s no criteria for what gets put out as an unfunded mandate.”
The half-dozen or so questions directed at the lawmakers over the course of the nearly two-hour event were culled from those submitted in advance, Kossack said, while a few others were submitted by audience members on index cards. No members of the audience had direct interaction with the panelists, however.
One question asked: what can legislators do to even the playing field between charter schools and their host districts?
“There is clearly a great inequity and injustice here,” DiMaso said. While the district struggled to make ends meet, “the Red Bank Charter School had a half a million dollars left over to buy a gym.”
“I was actually kind of appalled when I read that,” she said. “We have to look at that. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”