West Milford is the biggest loser in Passaic County when it comes to state school aid, according to numbers released by Gov. Phil Murphy’s office.
According to the numbers, the district’s share of state aid will drop by 15 percent, or $1,972,723 compared to last year, making it the largest percentage decrease in Passaic County.
“This cut is unprecedented and will affect every facet of our school system (including) academics, athletics, clubs, the arts, facilities and maintenance, etc.,” Schools Superintendent Alex Anemone said in a post on Twitter during the weekend.
During Gov. Murphy’s administration, the district has seen state aid drop from $14,611,120 in the 2017-18 school year to an estimated $11,272,970 in the 2020-21 session beginning in September, according to numbers from the state.
The total reduction over the three-year period comes out to 30 percent.
The drop this year translates to a deficit of around 8-cents per $100 of assessed valuation before the school district presents a preliminary budget, which is currently scheduled for the March 10 Board of Education meeting.
Before any additions, subtractions or adjustments, that could mean a property tax increase of about $197 for the owner of a township average home assessed at $244,000.
Gov. Murphy’s office referred school funding questions to the state Department of Education.
DOE Spokesman Mike Yaple said West Milford’s aid was reduced in line with a decrease in enrollment of around 27 percent from the 2008-09 school year, dropping from 4,169 to 3,050 students during that time.
“West Milford was overfunded due to a significant enrollment decrease,” Yaple said in an email Monday. “There are 18 districts (statewide) with larger percent decreases in aid than West Milford.”
According to Yaple, Gov. Murphy increased school funding to 371 districts throughout the state in his new budget, announced last week.
The disparity, according to Yaple, comes from the state not following the funding formula enacted in 2008, causing many districts to be underfunded.
He said that phasing in the formula over a seven-year period should bring the districts more in line with full funding based on enrollment.
West Milford’s enrollment drop caused the Board of Education to move sixth graders from their various elementary schools to Macopin Middle School beginning in September in order to make better use of the facilities.
Making matters worse, the township is severely restricted in new development due to the Highlands Act, making it difficult to find new ratables that could possibly offset the state aid funding deficit.
Mayor Michele Dale said Monday that the municipal government is working closely with the school board, and is looking at ways to share services in an attempt to save money.
“(The aid reduction) is unfortunate,” Dale said. “Some hard (budget) choices are going to have to be made.”
As West Milford grapples with the consequences of the aid reduction, state legislators representing the town’s 26th Legislative District expressed their outrage at the drop in aid.
State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-26, sent a letter to Murphy on Monday expressing his disappointment with the drop in aid to both Jefferson and West Milford.
“The lack of aid will have a devastating impact on two towns which are within my district,” Pennacchio said in the letter. “Thanks to state policy, West Milford and Jefferson Township cannot develop and increase their economic base to either help in issues with their lakes or to provide the additional state school funding the administration is burdening them with.”
He called on Murphy to restore the “draconian” cuts and “unshackle” Highlands Act policy in order for the communities to “fend for themselves.”
Meanwhile State Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-26, is asking for an audit of all forms of state school funding including state aid and the agency overseeing new school construction.
According to a press release Monday, DeCroce said she has been asking for the audit for the last two years and is concerned following a state investigation commission report that found 16 local governments wasting millions in tax dollars by paying out benefits to public workers.
“The problem is we do not have a full accounting of the estimated $28 billion in local, state and federal dollars spent on our public schools each year and that is why I have been demanding an audit for nearly two years,” DeCroce said in the release. “If the governor now wants to put hundreds of millions of more tax dollars toward public education, an audit is imperative. It’s been done for the Economic Development Authority and NJ Transit. Why can’t we do it for something so important as our public education system?”
According to DeCroce, between 52-80 percent of property taxes in New Jersey go to fund local school districts.
“The lack of aid will have a devastating impact on two towns which are within my district. Thanks to state policy, West Milford and Jefferson Township cannot develop and increase their economic base to either help in issues with their lakes or to provide the additional state school funding the administration is burdening them with.” - State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-26