After celebrating the three Frelinghuysen students who participated in the Warren County All-Star Band and a successful week of literary events observing Read Across America, the Frelinghuysen Board of Education reviewed its preliminary budget for the 2023-2024 school year in their March 8th meeting.
The big picture can be summarized with two numbers: $58,000 and $300,000.
The first number, $58,000, is how much less state aid has been offered to Frelinghuysen Township School next year compared to the current year. This reduction means that next year’s budget will be 21.86% less than this year’s.
There are two main reasons for the reduction in state aid. The first is a decline in enrollment. Frelinghuysen anticipates decreased enrollment in its pre-K and special education programs next year, which means the state is offering less funding for these programs.
The majority of the funding decrease stems from legislation known as S-2, which Governor Phil Murphy signed in 2019. Building on the earlier School Funding Reform Act, the legislation changed how schools are funded in an effort to make school funding more equitable across the state. The legislation applies a proprietary formula that estimates the cost of teaching each pupil, with more funding allocated for students with disabilities, risk factors or struggles with English language proficiency.
Districts that qualify as underfunded have seen their state aid increase steadily over the years. However, other districts, like Frelinghuysen, have been deemed overfunded. These overfunded districts have seen their state aid reduced each year since the 2019-2020 school year.
This is the fifth year that state aid to Frelinghuysen has been reduced, which leads to the second key number: $300,000. This is the total reduction in state aid that Frelinghuysen has experienced over the past five years.
School board members expressed their concerns about the continued funding reductions in their March 8th meeting.
“$300,000 in this district is devastating,” said BOE member Kristen Keesser.
“Someday, we’re gonna get to a point where we can’t manage with the tax,” said BOE member David Hocking, predicting that the town may need to resort to a referendum to raise taxes in the future. “It’s gonna happen, sooner or later. We can’t just keep cutting and cutting and cutting.”
Though some BOE members laid their hopes in an influx of new residents that could raise the tax base and increase school enrollment, others expressed doubts that there could be enough newcomers to create a meaningful impact.
Chief School Administrator Stephanie Bonaparte pointed out that after this year, Frelinghuysen’s “equalization aid,” or the amount of overfunding determined by the S-2 formula, will be zero. In other words, the district will be considered fairly funded and there will be no further possibility of reduction, at least required by S-2. However, declining enrollment continues to threaten future funding and remains a concern for BOE members.
S-2 has affected school districts in Warren County in vastly different ways. The Warren County district experiencing the highest reduction proportionate to its budget is North Warren Regional, whose state aid will be reduced by $926,968. In contrast, the Warren County district experiencing the highest proportional increase is Hackettstown, which will receive a state aid increase of $2.9 million. Averaged across all districts, Warren County schools will receive a 6% increase in state aid next year.
Frelinghuysen’s full budget hearing, in which the final budget will be approved, will occur in April.
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.