(Facebook file photo.)

After years of being underfunded in state government aid, Robbinsville School District officials breathed a collective sigh of relief on July 13 when they heard that they had received more than $3.5 million in additional aid for the 2018-19 school year.

The new funding represents a 117 percent increase from the previous year, and brings the total state aid funding for next school year to close to $6.8 million. This increase far exceeds the additional $700,000 provided to the school district last year after months of lobbying in Trenton.

Now that the district has additional funding, school officials and the Board of Education have to decide what to do with the aid. And everyone with a stake in this issue—whether it be residents, school district staff or township officials—has been brainstorming what’s best for Robbinsville. The fiercest debate surrounded whether to allocate any of the funds toward tax relief.

“There’s been a vibrant debate over the past week on social media, in neighborhoods, on front lawns, in graduation parties, and in many other places, which our residents debated if they wanted tax relief, and if so, how much,” school board president Richard Young said.

Right after the increase was announced, Mayor Dave Fried put out a statement requesting that the board use the opportunity to decrease school taxes for residents who are increasingly bearing the burden of taxes.

Input on the tax relief issue was also solicited through a one-question survey put out through the township government’s email list, website and social media accounts, at Young’s request. The poll showed a majority in favor of tax relief, but some residents took to the Robbinsville Township Facebook page to protest the result.

“This isn’t indicative of anything,” resident Stacey Willan-Merritt wrote in a comment on the township’s Facebook page. “We went to [lobby] the state for the children, they should be the priority.”

“The truth is Robbinsville is known for its school district,” commented Rob Riether, another township resident. “It is why people want to live here in the first place. I would rather the funds be invested in the schools then to keep my property taxes the same for another year or to give me a token decrease of a couple hundred dollars. Invest it in the schools and our children.”

In the end, the Board of Education had the task of making the final decision at a public meeting held on July 19 in the Robbinsville High School Student Activity Center. Nearly 200 residents showed up to talk about the issue.

Seeking compromise, the Board of Education committed $613,000 of the aid towards the operational budget, which will ensure that taxes do not increase for the next year. Young said he could not recall the last time school taxes had not increased.

Superintendent Kathie Foster said it was “an inspiration to see around 200 residents come gather and engage in really healthy and respectful discourse around the additional state aid.”

“While I personally may have wanted to do a little more in terms of cutting taxes, I think we were able to reach a good compromise that will hold the line on existing taxes, but still allow us to increase programs,” Young said. “I think this puts us on the path that will hopefully lead to lower taxes a year from now. Under the state’s funding plan, we should get additional money next year, so I fully believe, and I believe our board is committed, to offering some sort of tax relief. I am personally committed to that.”

Some residents shared Young’s sentiments, believing more should have gone to tax relief.

“Absolutely ridiculous,” resident Laura Cremente wrote on Facebook. “Yes, fix or repair the buildings, but to put [$700,000] in capital reserve is crazy. The taxpayers should have received at least $1.5 [million] instead of [the $860,000] that the superintendent suggested.”

While a final decision has not been made on the specific line-items receiving funding, the school board has identified some key areas, including academics, the capital budget and security concerns. For academics, the district hopes to begin potentially offering more electives while reducing the teacher workload.

“In particular, we heard the cry regarding teacher turnover,” Young said. “We’ve had this for the past few years for a number of reasons. Part of it is financial, part of it is because working conditions and their workload, the number of classes that they teach. This will help us add some instructional staff, alleviate some of the workload and other problems.”

For the maintenance and capital budget, there are over $17 million worth of long-range facility plans, and this will aid will enable the district to start working on some of these plans, as well as put in funding for capital research on larger projects.

Regarding security, the district hopes to have an outside advisor assess the current security systems and make recommendations on how to improve them. Foster hopes to add another guidance counselor on the K-8 level, along with an additional guidance counselor in the high school.

“We often talk about security in terms of infrastructure, but we should also acknowledge the importance of personnel and understanding the social and emotional wellness of students,” Foster said. “That’s a priority for me.”

The district is flush with choices of how to allocate the money since, for more than a decade, the Robbinsville School District has received less funding than the state formula calculated. While many districts do not receive the amount that the formula states, Robbinsville was—until last month—the sixth most underfunded district in all of New Jersey, receiving just 32 percent of what the formula suggests. With this new funding, the percentage is up to 58 percent.

Foster said the district has been taking action to receive the funding it felt it deserves for a long time. In 2006, the Robbinsville Township and School District filed a joint action lawsuit against the state when funding started to decrease, but there was no direct result to this action.

Since then, school district officials have worked together with other underfunded districts to lobby collaboratively in the state government.

“We’ve been working hard with other underfunded districts, including Chesterfield, Kingsway and Freehold,” she said. “I think that collective voice made a difference.”

Together with these districts, Robbinsville officials attended various state Assembly and Senate hearings and reached out to their representatives to make their voices heard regarding the lack of funding, which had the potential to affect district performance.

Along with school officials, parents and other residents concerned about the state funding created the group Our Fair Share, focused on advocating for additional funding.

“They are an amazing group of Robbinsville residents, who believe that a strong school system creates a strong town, and they’ve been very active in writing letters, attending hearings, doing whatever they can,” Foster said.

While state representatives, including Assemblymen Dan Benson and Wayne DeAngelo and Sen. Linda Greenstein, were empathetic of these issues and focusing on finding solutions, Foster said, not enough of the budget was allocated for school funding. However, Gov. Phil Murphy boosted the formula this year.

“This year, they’ve committed to putting more money in for districts like us, and following the formula,” Foster said. “This will provide an increase for districts that have been underfunded for many years.”

Foster said Benson, DeAngelo and Greenstein actively fought for the district for years, while Young also credited state senate president Steve Sweeney for holding his ground on increased school funding.

“Between the active engagement of our citizens, our officials and our state representatives, there have been many people fighting for this issue throughout the past decade,” Foster said. “I know we’ve had more press in the past two years, however this has been an ongoing issue for Robbinsville, and I just want to thank everyone that has campaigned for us. It’s inspiring to work with such passionate and dynamic community members.”

Foster concluded with her hopes moving forward.

“Honestly, I want Robbinsville to take a good, deep, breath, because we have been cutting and reducing and re-allocating and duct-taping some of our programs and maintenance needs together for a very long time, as we have fought for additional state aid,” she said. “This finally allows us to strategically map out the next few years for Robbinsville, and know that we can provide the best opportunities for our students.”