School funding was front and center at Gov. Phil Murphy’s town hall at the John F. Kennedy Center in Willingboro, where parents and school officials grilled the head of the new administration on funding gaps, layoffs and rodent problems that plagued some South Jersey schools.
“My district alone, Kingsway, I had to lay off 27 people last year,” Kingsway School District Superintendent Jim Lavender told the governor. “I’m looking at another $2.2 million budget deficit this year, and I’m 40 employed teachers short of being able to run my school system.”
The increased funding Murphy provided in his budget would be insufficient to correct years of underfunding, said Kingsway School Board member Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm. She said the additional $283 million Murphy proposed to give underfunded schools in the coming year’s budget would be a start but would be inefficiently spread, with some of the money going to already overfunded schools.
Kingsway officials’ concerns are in lockstep with those of other educators in the state, who have turned their noses at Murphy’s budget, saying they feel short-changed.
But Murphy says his hands are partially tied by the state’s 2008 school funding formula and the adjustment aid changes passed in the closing year of former Gov. Chris Christie’s final term.
Throughout the night, he frequently pointed to the actions of the previous administration as a method of explaining why his solutions, while less than ideal, might have to do for the time being.
“We’ve inherited a state that is a fiscal mess,” Murphy said in a speech made before he took audience members’ questions. “So, we don’t have enough money that is highly-unequal with big gaps in our state across different communities, an economy that has not grown, and an economy that, when it works, it works for too few of us.”
Still, he pledged to work with legislators to reach a workable funding formula and told worried parents and frustrated officials that he was on their side.
Later during the event, Miriam Stern, a counselor from Cherry Hill, pointed to a rodent problem in the district’s aging and underfunded schools.
“We have major cracks in our foundation, but much worse than that, we have so many rats in our high school that the students have names for them,” Stern said before showing the governor a picture of a rat taken by a student.
The district, Stern said, was seeking to fund a $150 million bond through district residents, a burden that she said could be eased if the district was not so underfunded.
Murphy pointed to lapses under his predecessor here too, marking reductions in spending and a refusal to raise taxes as reasons for the state’s funding woes.
“It is extraordinary,” Murphy said. “Not that long ago, we were a AAA-bond-rated state. Not that long ago, a lot of the schools were new and in good condition. Not that long ago, we fully funded public education. Not that long ago, we had a plan for universal pre-k. We had a plan for offshore wind. It’s like a drunken sailor, we’ve lost our way.”
The state’s problems aside, Murphy was unwilling to let his campaign promises on education go.
“I’m all in,” he said. “Count me all in”