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It’s budget season and Montclair is not the only cantankerous school district. At last week’s school board meeting the Lakewood Board of Education presented a budget with this proviso: it requires the state Department of Education to give the district “a loan against state aid in the amount of $93,489,390 in order to provide a Thorough and Efficient education and that the Lakewood Board of Education requests the Commissioner to defer the repayment of prior year DOE Loans Against State Aid and audit recoveries for the 2023-2024 school year.”
That $93.5 million is on top of the $137 million Lakewood has borrowed from the state since 2014, for a grand total of $230.5 million.
This used to be a story of sui generis Lakewood which struggles with the costs of transportation, security, special education, and supplies for 35,000 ultra-Orthodox students who attend private Jewish yeshivas. Not any more: according to the Asbury Park Press, Lakewood may be the fastest growing city in the state but, as space gets scarce, nearby municipalities like Toms River, Brick, and Jackson are seeing upticks in Jewish private school students who attend Lakewood yeshivas. Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles said, “In the last few years, the numbers [of private school students] from out of town have really increased, Probably eight to 10,000 kids come from out of town now.”
Those who follow Lakewood school litigation know that the district has been in a ongoing fight with the Department of Education, arguing that the School Funding Reform Act, the algorithm the DOE uses to calculate state aid to schools, doesn’t work for a district where almost seven times as many students go to private religious schools as attend district schools. (State and federal aid pay a bit but not enough to make the math work.) Gov. Murphy’s Education Commissioner conducted an assessment hat claimed Lakewood got enough money to provide the constitutional “thorough and efficient education” for its in-district students but in March a New Jersey Appellate Court ruled that the state funding formula is indeed unfair to Lakewood Public Schools due to its unusual demographics. Politico called the ruling “a blow to the Murphy administration that could cost it millions of dollars” and “a rebuke to acting education commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.”
Yesterday news broke that Allen-McMillan, in response to the ruling, said she would do another needs assessment (her last one only went through 2021), which Paul Tractenberg, one of the lawyers involved in the case, called “kicking the can down the road.”
That road is getting wider. In Jackson, for instance, there is a 39% increase in nonpublic school students this year compared to 2021 and in five years the number has gone from 675 students to 3,867 students, with another 500 projected for next year. Of those students, 90% attend Jewish schools in Lakewood. “We have massive cuts to our budget in state aid, and that continues to compound. There’s the economy. And now you have these large increases in our budget for transporting our nonpublic students,” Superintendent Nicole Pormilli said. “It’s really a perfect storm.”
Maybe it’s time to fess up: the state’s school funding formula doesn’t just not work for Lakewood; it doesn’t work for other towns too. No legislator wants to open that can of worms, but the clock is ticking.
“I think that… the Orthodox population is going to continue to expand, but it’s going to be expanding outwards, not upwards [in Lakewood],” Coles said. “You see a lot of [Orthodox] families in Jackson. There’s a lot of families in Howell [and] Toms River. You even have them in Manchester now. So I think you’re going to see the growth continue, but I don’t think it’s going to be within the geographical borders of Lakewood.”