South Orange Seeking to Remedy ‘Unfair’ School Funding Formula

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[Read rebuttals to the school formula funding subcommittee’s report from Greg Lembrich, Maplewood Committeeman, and Jeff Bennett, South Orange resident and former South Orange-Mapelwood Board of Education member here.]

South Orange comprises 33% of the students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District but pays 43% of the actual school budget.

In South Orange, the average cost per student is $20,599 per year, while in Maplewood it’s $13,544.

In fact, if the total school district appropriation were apportioned based on student enrollment from the two towns of Maplewood and South Orange, South Orange would be paying $11 million less per year.

These were some of the numbers presented on Monday night to the South Orange Board of Trustees by Rob Sandow and Rich Vader, two members of a school funding formula subcommittee of the Finance Committee. Sandow and Vader said that the numbers were culled from information readily available on the South Orange-Maplewood School District website. (See Sandow and Vader’s presentation below.)

Sandow, who also serves on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, said that the subcommittee was not presenting in order to “advocate in any way for reductions in school funding.” He also said that the group was not trying to place any blame on another municipality such as Maplewood. “It’s not about them. It’s about the formula that we are required to work under by statute.”

Sandow noted that South Orange-Maplewood was one of only eight consolidated districts in the state. Unlike regional districts — which are much more numerous and which are comprised of multiple municipalities — consolidated districts cannot use a “more equitable” formula based on the number of students sent to the district. Instead, “consolidated districts are required to use a funding formula that is based only on equalized valuation” and “due to an imbalance in equalized valuation vs. student population in the two towns, South Orange is disproportionately levied on a per student basis.”

Sandow noted that the $11 million extra apportionment in the last budget translated into 13% of the entire tax bill of the average South Orange resident: “If we were to adopt a purely student population based funding formula, [that would translate into] about $2,300 per year per average South Orange taxpayer.”

“As you can see, we are being charged an amount disproportional to the number of students we send to district.” Sandow called the difference “very noticeable and very significant to taxpayers.”

Vader was more impassioned in his comments, saying that $20,599 per student was “more than the tuition for any state-sponsored college or university in New Jersey. How do you abide that?”

Vader also argued that the disproportionate funding formula hurts South Orange in other ways: “It’s rare that a home in South Orange sells for more than $1 million. It’s not as rare in Maplewood. It’s the subsidy we are providing to Maplewood… How did we get here? A lack of vigilance. I’m at fault. You’re at fault.”

Vader and Village Counsel Steve Rother noted that the funding formula was equitable when the consolidated district was created, but that, over time, changes in population had placed an unfair burden on South Orange. In fact, the population change had been exacerbated in recent years, as enrollment from Maplewood had increased 11% since 2002, while only increasing 4% from South Orange in the same timeframe.

So what should be done?

Sandow suggested these next steps:

  • ask for independent audit of the numbers
  • seek advice of legal counsel on possible remedies
  • make the public aware of the imbalance
  • have the Trustees craft a resolution to help with the above
  • make state representatives aware in order to help South Orange seek relief

Rother suggested that any viable remedy — including merging with another district such as Livingston, West Orange, Millburn or Union — would need legislative approval and sponsorship from a local legislator.

Trustee Deborah Davis Ford noted the difficulty of engaging support from either Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, Assemblyman John McKeon or Senator Richard Codey, since all three also represent Maplewood — which happens to contain more voters.

Trustee Mark Rosner noted the difficulty of the situation but said that South Orange needed to press forward and “figure out a strategy.”

“I understand it’s a very difficult path,” said Rosner, “but I think it’s worth our effort. Bigger and harder fights have been fought and won.” He also cautioned, “No one’s pushing for a separate school district.”

Ultimately, Village President Sheena Collum said she was not “in favor of a resolution right now.” Collum said she’d rather have an informal meeting with legislators first and get the information “out into the public.”

Collum expressed hope that the inequity could be resolved without bitterness.

“I’d like to believe that folks are a little more reasonable [and we can do this] without the anger and the fighting.”

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