Stafford School District Rallies in Opposition of State Funding Cuts

By David Biggy | Oct 23, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Stafford Township student Katie Brennan speaks to the crowd gathered in front of the Oxycocus School as Superintendent George Chidiac (left) and Board of Education member Joe Mangino look on during a rally to oppose state-funding cuts on Oct. 18.

Stafford Township — Stafford Township Board of Education member Joe Mangino, no stranger to leading the charge against state officials when something is amiss, has a message for the community.

“We know what a community can do when we pull together,” Mangino said at the podium outside the front doors to the Oxycocus School on Oct. 18. “We’ve seen it after Sandy. We’ve seen it every time one of our friends and neighbors is in need. We see it when we throw a fundraiser because we raise a lot of money. This is one of those times when we need everyone on board. Do not sit this one out.”

Mangino and more than a hundred others gathered outside the school as they sought to make their voices heard – either by speaking into the mic, holding signs or cheering in support. The message was a simple one to government officials in Trenton: They’re not going to sit by as the current state-aid formula begins to have a detrimental impact on the school district.

“At the end of the day, it is a positive collaboration between a child’s home and school that is the key to a child’s success,” said Jeannine Golderer, a fifth-grade teacher and vice president of the Stafford Township Education Association. “The current school funding formula is threatening to mess with the success of our kids. We can’t let that happen. Our kids need us to speak up and take action on their behalf. We need to force the hand of our government to restore fair funding. The state has to do better.”

In a collaborative effort by district administration, the school board and the parent teacher organization, the crowd gathered to rally support from the community as it takes on the uphill battle of trying to get state legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy to make changes to the current formula that will lead to a projected $2.1 million in aid cuts to the district.

Superintendent George Chidiac, Business Administrator Lourdes LaGuardia and several board of education members already had begun voicing their concerns months ago.

“We’ve reached out to the commissioner of education, this will be on our social media, and we’ve connected to a state-wide advocacy group,” said Chidiac, who, along with Toms River Schools Superintendent David Healy, has discussed the potential effects of state funding cuts with 9th Legislative District representatives. “Dave Healy and I went to our District 9 legislators with this, and they’ve listened to our concerns and have said they’re going to address them in Trenton. But that’s kind of where we are right now, waiting to see if the state will do something. We’re doing the best we can.”

According to LaGuardia, the district is slated to lose an estimated $500,000 in state aid for the 2020-21 budget, and that’s just for the third year of what likely will be a seven-year cycle of cuts. During the past two years, the Stafford district has lost some $400,000 in state aid. That number will become a lot bigger burden if Trenton doesn’t change something, she said.

“It’s not as simple as budgeting better,” she said. “Costs increase every year. Services increase every year. Requirements to educate our students, by the state, become tougher. We have an obligation as parents and a community to come together and ask for equity in student funding at the state level.

“About 85 percent of our total costs are tied to staffing and benefits. We have a 2 percent cap on how much we can increase the budget every year, and that’s about $500,000. Our contractual costs exceed $500,000. Our staff health benefits exceed $500,000. So, if we lose $500,000 for one year, that’s a lot. If we keep losing that kind of money, it’s really going to hurt the district.”

Chidiac said cutting personnel in large numbers is a last option, “but ultimately we probably will have to do that if this doesn’t change.” First, he and LaGuardia said, the district will retool its budget not to allocate more funds to the replacement or replenishment of upgraded technological supplies, buses or maintenance projects – stretching the soup, as it’s more commonly known.

Beyond that, after-school and extracurricular activities, field trips and other such “additives” to the educational experience will make it to the chopping block. And, if necessary, staffing cuts will be next line.

“We’re going to try to address reductions more by attrition so we don’t let people go,” LaGuardia said. “It’s too early in the budget process to truly determine a direction until we get more-solid numbers, but we’re going to position ourselves, now, that we do only gradual replenishment and replacements. If we need five buses, we may only get one or two, or if we need new computers, we’ll get them for one grade as opposed to three or four. We have to strategize well in an effort to not lose what we’ve built as a system for education.”

It’s a system student Katie Brennan – who kicked off the rally by speaking about the value of the extracurricular and after-school programs she’s enjoyed during the past six years, saying “I wouldn’t be able to do the things I love without these programs” – and Stafford Township Councilman Robert Henkin both appreciate.

“I want to share a story about a boy who was diagnosed with Asperger’s and struggled in school,” Henkin started after he stepped to the mic. “He had some issues, but the resources here in Stafford helped him out and he exceeded, and he excelled, and he succeeded. Now, that boy will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in film and production, and that boy is my son.

“Without the funding, the programs that are currently here in Stafford Township wouldn’t have been able to get my son to where he is now. The funding is a needed thing.”

Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf said it was “important that we come together at events such as this, to let it be known throughout the state that it’s not just the urban areas that count.”

“Our school funding here in Stafford Township is projected to decrease by 22 percent upon full implementation of the school funding law,” he said. “Let your voices be heard. Let the governor and the policymakers in Trenton know that enough is enough. Fairness involves making sure we get the resources we’re entitled to. Please encourage your friends and neighbors to continue the fight. Your voices are important.”

With board members Tammy Wagner, Gerald Simonelli and Brett Novick standing beside him, Mangino applauded those willing to take the fight to the next level and said the best way to fight is “to stand up and speak out.”

“Our power relies on our numbers, and with the resiliency and tenacity of our community has, I’m confident  we can get there,” Mangino said. “When you see the petitions, sign them. When you hear about the rallies, attend them. Share your stories about how these cuts will affect your children and families. Share them on your social media outlets and tag the governor, tag Sen. Sweeney (Stephen M. Sweeney, state Senate president). Tag your elected officials. Tag the secretary of education.

“This won’t be easy or quick. But the Stafford Township School District is something worth fighting for. A strong school district makes a strong community, and it’s time for this strong community to flex its muscle.”

— David Biggy

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