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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Dennis Schools in a Bind Over State Aid Cutback

Dennis Schools in a Bind Over State Aid Cutback

By Christopher South

Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com

SOUTH DENNIS – The township school district has been put in a “Catch 22” situation with the reduction of state aid to schools under the Senate bill known as S2.

The six-year plan of cuts to school aid comes to an end with the next school year. However, the Dennis Township School District cannot raise the levy enough to cover a $1.9 million shortfall in the proposed 2024-25 budget, presented to the school board March 13.

Even if the district slashes all sports and programs, the reductions only add up to about $513,000, leaving a shortfall of about $1.4 million. Under the 2% levy cap mandated by the state, the district could only seek an increase of about $220,000 in taxpayer funding in the new budget.

Chief Administrator Susan Spiers and Business Administrator Teri Weeks say they have been working on the budget since last year and continue to do so. The district, Spiers explained, adopts a temporary budget that is then reviewed by the county on behalf of the state, and it will come back for a public hearing on May 2.

The board, Spiers said, might or might not have a meeting after receiving the budget back from the county, and might or might not make changes before the public hearing.

Spiers and Weeks sought to clarify the school administration’s position after an article on the budget shortfall appeared in the Herald. The article said that Weeks said the district would again seek voter approval of a separate question on a funding increase on the general election ballot in November, or through a bonding referendum. A separate ballot question was turned down by voters in 2023.

“That isn’t necessarily the plan,” Spiers said during a phone interview on March 28. “We recognize that we have a budget shortfall, but we have not decided how it will be addressed.”

Spiers is in her fifth year as chief administrator for the Dennis schools, meaning she came on as state aid reduction under S2 was mandated. Add to that the problems associated with Covid, and it’s made for a difficult period.

Weeks is in her second year in the district but in her 28th year overall as a business administrator. She said the district has submitted its budget to the state with the shortfall and has asked the state what the district can do.

“We are saying to the state Department of Education, with the funding we are given, with the 2% levy cap, we can’t meet the requirement for a thorough and efficient education,” she said.

Last year the district had to cut six teachers from the staff, and classroom size increased from about 22 to about 30 to 35 students. The goal this year, Spiers said, is to add back six teachers, one each in grades K through 5, for the 2024-2025 school year.

Weeks said the district would have been in a better position had last year’s separate question passed, but the district would still have had a shortfall.

One area of disagreement between the county, acting on the state’s behalf, and the school district is courtesy busing, Spiers said.

Courtesy busing, for students who live less than 2 miles from school, amounts to about $100,000 in the district budget. The county considers courtesy busing unnecessary, Spiers said.

“We feel walking is hazardous for young people, and we don’t feel safe roads exist to allow us to eliminate courtesy busing,” she said.

The district, in a sense, is a victim of a healthy economy and real estate market. The state decided to take state aid from wealthier districts and redirect it to needier districts.

“Two factors determine equalization aid – property value and district income or wealth,” Spiers said.

She said that between 2018, the first year of state aid cuts, and the 2024-2025 budget year, property values in the district rose 33% and district income went up 7.5%, or 1.4% annually. The increased property values helped shift the local fair share by 20%, meaning the district was assuming 20% more of the cost of running the district’s two schools.

Spiers said the district can apply for a loan from the state, which would have to be paid back in 10 years, but that would not stave off a shortfall in the following school year’s budget.

Dennis has lost about $4.3 million, or 75%, of its state aid since the implementation of S2. Spiers said the district has been in touch with the First District legislative team and went to Trenton to testify before the Senate Budget Committee.

“We are doing everything we can to make people aware of the situation, and would like people to do the same – to contact their legislators and express their concern,” she said.

The public hearing on the 2024-2025 school year budget is scheduled for Thursday, May 2, at 5:30 p.m. in the all-purpose room of the Dennis Township Primary School, 601 Hagan Road, Clermont.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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