Highland Park Superintendent Scott Taylor said the governor’s proposed budget, released on Tuesday Feb 16, represented a very slight and “most inadequate” increase in funding for the district. “The negligible increase” fails to come close to making up for the greatly increased costs that the district is facing – with the bulk of the costs coming from unfunded mandates.
Some New Jersey public school administrators made the glass-is-half-full argument, claiming the situation of a minor increase is better than the cuts anticipated. While the governor trumpeted aid increases for every district, the overall state aid to schools would increase all of one percent – or about $94.3 million in a $9.1 billion allocation.
That glass, however, has gone way up in price, along with nearly every aspect of providing an excellent education to the students in the district. Dr. Taylor gave three examples of burdensome increased and unreimbursed costs over which the district has no control.
“The cost of providing special education services has sky-rocketed. For reasons we cannot determine, we have an extraordinary increase in the number of students requiring special education services. We are getting no additional funds for providing these services,” he said.
Another unreimbursed expense relates to the PARCC testing (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career – the new state- mandated assessment protocol). “The money the district has to pay out for PARCC testing is very frustrating,” Dr. Taylor said. The additional funds are needed mostly for hiring substitute teachers to accommodate the testing schedules.
The most irksome of all the additional expenses are the payments to send district children to the Hatikvah Charter School in East Brunswick. This year that expense is $344,110, an increase of $5,942. “For that amount of money, I could hire three to four additional teachers in the district. I would like nothing more than to hire more teachers to achieve the much needed smaller classes and more individualized attention for the students. Instead we have to spend this money to send students to a charter school that is not even in our school district,” he said. The problem is that there is no way to recoup the expenditure. Even though the district has a handful of fewer students, the overall cost of running the schools remains the same – the facilities maintenance costs, energy costs, insurance costs, and staffing costs are unaffected by a small decrease in enrollment. “Thus, the small decrease in enrollment because of charter schools translates to a burdensome and unfair expense for the district,” said the superintendent.
It should be noted, said School Board President Darcie Cimarusti, that the Highland Park School District is spending $44,588 for students attending the Greater Brunswick Charter School, a decrease of $8,717. So the slightly good news is an overall decrease in charter school expenses of $2,775.
“It is my sincere belief that because we are taking the time to educate the community regarding the impact charter schools have on our district, we are managing to hold the cost somewhat steady. Nonetheless, I remain concerned about the impact of the proposed Hatikvah expansion if it is approved,” said Ms. Cimarusti.
Dr. Taylor and Ms. Cimarusti are working tirelessly to try to get the state to wake up to the enormity of the problem for Highland Park. The below letter from Dr. Taylor and Ms. Cimarusti recently was sent to Highland Park residents in an attempt to clarify the vexing Hatikvah situation and the basis of Highland Park’s (and Edison’s) formal legal challenge to the recent requests submitted by the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School to amend its charter and expand its enrollment.
The letter refers to an upcoming meeting that Dr. Taylor and Ms. Cimarusti were going to with the State Board of Education to voice opposition to the expansion of Hatikvah. That meeting took place in early February. According to Ms. Cimarusti, “the meeting went well. We met for about an hour with NJ State Board of Education President Mark Biedron, Board Member Edith Fulton, and (NJ Department of Education) Director of the Office of Charter Schools, Harold Lee. It went so well in fact that Board President Biedron has asked for another meeting, this time in East Brunswick, so he can see the quality of the district for himself. He would also like to spend more time speaking with us about the issues surrounding the expansion, and has said he will make himself available for as long as two hours.” That meeting was just confirmed for February 29th.
LETTER TO THE COMMUNITY OF HIGHLAND PARK FROM SUPERINTENDENT SCOTT TAYLOR AND BOARD PRESIDENT DARCIE CIMARUSTI
“There are 21 Highland Park students currently enrolled in Hatikvah, which diverted $318,201 of Highland Park taxpayer funds to Hatikvah in the 2015-16 school year. (NOTE: THIS AMOUNT IS $344,110 FOR THE 2016-17 SCHOOL YEAR.) Since 2010 school districts have been held to a two percent budget cap each year, making it increasingly difficult to meet rising costs. It is important to note that for the 2015-16 budget year the two percent cap figure was $464,179. The total tuition for Hatikvah represents 69 percent of our budget cap.
Further expansion will have an increasing impact on the taxpayers of Highland Park, threatening both the financial strength of the district and the competitiveness of the district’s educational offerings. Therefore, as part of Highland Park’s appeal, our attorneys expect to argue that the Charter School Act of 1995 does not give the State the authority to charge tuition to Highland Park or any other district that is not Hatikvah’s district of residence. They also expect to argue that the law does not prohibit the enrollment of ‘non-resident’ students to charters such as Hatikvah, it simply shifts the burden of paying the tuition for those students to their parents rather than their neighbors and fellow taxpayers.
In addition to the district’s appeal of the previous expansion and the legal response to the current request, on January 11th Board President Darcie Cimarusti testified before the State Board of Education regarding the impact of the expansion. Representatives from East Brunswick and Piscataway also testified on the matter. You can read Ms. Cimarusti’s testimony here.
As a result of that testimony, Ms. Cimarusti, Highland Park Superintendent Dr. Taylor and East Brunswick Superintendent Dr. Valeski and Business Administrator Mr. Giuliana have been invited to meet with State Board President Mark Biedron and New Jersey Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Evo Popoff to discuss the pending expansion requests, and our objections to it. Mr. Popoff is responsible for oversight of the Office of Charter Schools. We hope that this opportunity to present our concerns directly to officials in Trenton will increase the chances of a favorable outcome in this matter.
But to truly be heard in Trenton we need your help as well. A petition has been started to urge (NJ Commissioner of Education David) Hespe to deny the expansion, and we hope that you will consider adding your voice. You can find the petition here.