(Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG) (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

What does it really mean to kids when school districts are underfunded?

Here is a portrait of one such district, from the Education Law Center in New Jersey, which advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the United States. Profiled is the Freehold Borough School District  in Monmouth County,  a preschool-8th grade district with a little more than 1,580 students.

From the Education Law Center:

The Freehold Borough school district is emblematic of the many districts across New Jersey that are struggling to meet the academic and social needs of their students as a result of years of underfunding by the State. Rapid population growth has the district facing severe overcrowding without the resources to increase staff and facilities to appropriately serve all students.

The district currently has class sizes that exceed the minimums required for “high need” districts at all early elementary grades. For example, there are 25 students in kindergarten and first grade classes and one second grade class with 30 students, far above the 21 student threshold.

Freehold Borough students are also deprived of many of the supports, including reading interventionists and special education staff, that are necessary to ensure they read on grade level, a skill that is critical to their success in school.

In addition, the State has failed to fund a universal preschool program that would provide full-day, high-quality preschool for the 340 three- and four-year-olds in the district. This program would increase early literacy and math skills, reduce grade retention, and lower special education classifications.

Despite a committed administration, dedicated staff and supportive and engaged parents, Freehold Borough is struggling to meet state standards. Too many students are performing below grade level, and the district does not have the resources to help students get on track to be college and career ready.

A DISTRICT IN NEED

Freehold Borough in Monmouth County is a preschool-8th grade district with a current enrollment of just over 1,580 students. Enrollment has increased 43% since 1998-99. Student demographics have also changed dramatically, with a doubling of the number of at-risk (low-income) students and a fourfold increase in Hispanic students. Over three-quarters of the district’s students are now low-income, up from 51% in 1998-99.

The State has consistently underfunded Freehold Borough schools over the last decade, despite personal visits in district by two Commissioners of Education. When the Legislature enacted a statewide weighted funding formula in 2008 – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – the district was poised to receive additional state school aid responsive to its changing student and school needs.

Under the SFRA, aid is calculated using a “base” per pupil cost, along with additional costs for special education and programs for at-risk students and English language learners. These costs determine Freehold Borough’s “adequacy budget,” or the minimum funding necessary to educate all students to achieve State academic standards. The adequacy budget is then funded through a combination of state and local revenue, depending on the district’s ability to raise funds locally.

Freehold Borough students stood to benefit from the phase-in of additional state aid under the SFRA formula. In 2008-09, the first year of SFRA implementation, the district’s adequacy budget was about $20 million. By 2014-15, the adequacy budget had increased to more than $30 million, reflecting enrollment growth and a sharp rise in at-risk students.

But 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.

Freehold Borough can expect to receive $9.6 million in state aid in the coming year, while a fully funded SFRA in 2014-15 would provide the district with $11.5 million. If the SFRA were fully phased in and not limited by growth caps, the district would receive over $21 million. The district is now spending $550 less per pupil than in 2008-09.

The municipality of Freehold Borough is relatively low-wealth and has limited ability to raise taxes locally, partially because its status as the county seat means it has less taxable property than the typical community. For this reason, the majority of the district’s adequacy budget should be funded through state aid. According to the SFRA, the town is expected to raise $9.3 million of its 2014-15 adequacy budget locally, and the remaining $21 million should be funded through state aid. The borough has consistently raised a local levy in excess of what the state determines is fair and is facing a 9% increase in the levy for the coming year. The State, however, is not coming anywhere close to meeting its obligation, providing only half the state funding required for the adequacy budget.

The district is also preparing a multimillion dollar building referendum for September 30, 2014, to address necessary school building additions and renovations to alleviate student overcrowding.

BROKEN PROMISES

“Our Monmouth County state legislators have struggled for years to resolve Freehold Borough’s under adequacy condition in state aid,” said Dr. Rocco G. Tomazic, district superintendent. “The state is responsible to ensure that all New Jersey public school children have equitable access to resources. The SFRA formula was placed into law to meet this responsibility. We in Freehold Borough need these funds to address the high standards set for our students, standards that they can meet and exceed. The statewide underfunding problem needs to remain in sharp focus and be meaningfully addressed.”

With the resources the district is entitled to under the law, Freehold Borough would be able to expand facilities, hire much needed staff, lower class sizes, and provide additional supports for struggling students. The district could also afford to upgrade computers and other technology necessary for a 21st-century education, restore after school and sports programs, and provide teachers with critical professional development as schools transition to new standards under the Common Core.