Sussex County school districts would see a 3.3 percent reduction in state aid under Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The county received the biggest cut in state school aid. Only two other counties had funding cuts, and they were les than one-half of 1 percent.
State Department of Education aid figures released at 4 p.m. Thursday showed the Sussex County school districts suffered collective cuts of about $3.5 million, or 3.3 percent less than the previous school year. Two other counties, Camden and Cape May, saw slight reductions of .1 and .3 percent. All other counties will receive more aid than last year, as much as 10 percent for Morris, Somerset and Bergen counties.
"The school funding formula is absolutely flawed," said state Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, who said county school districts were "shortchanged."
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said 90 percent of the state's school districts would see modest increases in state aid. However, aid to the 31 poorest districts would shrink by one-half of 1 percent, he said.
Cerf said roughly a third of the 97 districts slated to lose aid have had decreases in enrollment.
Christie's proposed budget includes a $213 million increase in K-12 aid.
Though the county as a whole is targeted for less money, the year-over-year change in aid by district ranges from Frankford Township receiving 13.3 percent less, to Lafayette Township receiving 13 percent more than a year ago.
Other districts suffering losses include Andover Regional (-9.5 percent), Hamburg (-10.7 percent) and Sandyston-Walpack (-7.2 percent).
"We knew there may be a potential for a decrease in state aid this year due to a drop in our overall enrollment numbers," said Sandyston-Walpack Superintendent Don Gross. "But the Board of Education has been very frugal with our budgets, and our staff and teachers have been able to do a lot with the funds we have received, so I feel optimistic about going into this year's budget process.
"We were hoping we would be able to stay equal to the aid we received last year, but with the decline in our enrollment we knew this was a possibility," Gross said. "We are not ready to push the panic button just yet, even with the loss in funding, these are parts of the budget process we have to prepare for." The decrease in state aid for the district amounts to $40,547.
The decision by all Sussex County school districts except Fredon to move school elections to November, as permitted by a new state law, and thus avoid a public vote on school budgets that stay under a 2 percent cap, puts a new wrinkle in the lost state aid question.
"This is a new experience from our standpoint. The move from an April budget vote to a 2 percent cap puts the process into a new light," Gross said. "Any loss of funding can have an impact on the district, but it will be up to the school administration and the Board of Education to find the best way to address these funding shortfalls without affecting staffing or our programs. The important thing for all of us right now is not to panic, and to get to work."
The Hopatcong School District's aid was reduced by nearly 6.5 percent, or $764,329. As of 4:45 p.m., Hopatcong Superintendent Charles Maranzano had not yet had the opportunity to assess the cut or the rationale behind it. In 2010, Hopatcong lost $1.7 million in state aid.
"We weren't expecting anything quite so devastating," Maranzano said.
A statement from legislators Oroho, Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose and Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, all R-Sussex, indicated that the current school funding formula maintains about 70 percent of aid for 30 percent of the state's school districts. Oroho stressed the need for a new formula that is "balanced and accountable."
Other districts that ended up in the plus aid column include Lenape Valley Regional High School and Fredon.
"How about that?" said Fredon Superintendent Sal Constantino.
"We got a little back last year," Constantino said. "It's slowly creeping back, but we took a significant loss several years ago."
In 2010, Fredon lost nearly 40 percent of its state aid, or more than $230,000.
"This will put us in a better position to put a budget together that's sensitive to the taxpayers," Constantino said. The increase is $42,433. "It's a difficult time for everybody, so we're very happy about that. We're certainly not back to where we were four years ago, but we'll take it, and it will help us to do more with our students and maintain our programs."
Cerf is proposing basing future aid on school attendance throughout the year rather than counting students on a single day, Oct. 15. He said the change will encourage schools to improve attendance rates.
In a report on school funding also issued Thursday, Cerf called for fully funding the court-sanctioned school funding formula and proposed creating a fund to reward high-performing schools and districts.
Herald staff writer Steven Reilly and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
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