Just Close Schools, Murphy Says To Toms River, Districts With Aid Cuts

TOMS RIVER, NJ — When Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled his proposed budget on Feb. 27, he touted it as fully funding New Jersey’s public schools for the first time since the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 took effect.

While many districts are seeing an increase in funding in the 2024-25 state budget, there are 140 districts seeing reductions in state aid — many of them as a result of S2, which amended the SFRA in 2017. It’s meant staffing cuts and more for many of the districts, including Toms River Regional.

For Toms River Regional and other districts that have experienced deep aid cuts, Murphy told CBS News the solution is consolidation.

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“You got three high schools, you should have two. You have five middle schools, you should have four,” Murphy said on Feb. 29, when the state Department of Education revealed the state aid figures for 2024-25. “Those are hard discussions to have inside of a community, and I get that.”

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Proponents of S2 said Toms River Regional and other districts deserved aid cuts because their enrollment fell, a factor they have stressed repeatedly while also saying the district was not raising enough property taxes through its tax levy.

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While enrollment has fallen from a high of more than 17,000 students in the early 2000s, the dynamics of school districts all over New Jersey have changed as well, with a significant increase in students who need special education services and increasing numbers of students for whom English is a second language.

Since 2017-18, the first year of S2, Toms River Regional has seen its state aid cut by more than half. It received $68,342,239 that year; for 2024-25, the district is slated to receive $28,180,559 — a reduction of more than $40.1 million.

The district also is facing a projected deficit of $26.4 million, Business Administrator William Doering has said.

Closing that deficit is going to be a challenge, Superintendent Michael Citta told the state Senate Education Committee Thursday during a budget hearing. While the district has laid off hundreds of teachers and classroom enrollments have risen into the 30s, the number of classrooms in use hasn’t changed significantly.

“Closing a school isn’t on the table,” Citta said, because special education classes have filled the classrooms that had been occupied by general education students in smaller groups. “Space is still at a premium.”

A look at the Toms River Regional Schools’ building-by-building enrollment and classroom usage shows that at the high school and intermediate school level, there is simply not enough space to close any of those schools.

The data, which is for the 2023-24 school year and was obtained through an Open Public Records Act request. It is displayed in a chart at the bottom of this article. The information on total classrooms available and being used is from the 2021 demographics and facility utilization report on the Toms River Regional website.

While the combined capacity of the three high schools shows they are occupied by 960 students fewer than the capacity, Toms River South, which has the lowest enrollment, still has 1,363 students — which would mean cramming about 470 additional students into the other schools, because Toms River South is over its capacity.

Class sizes at the high schools already are well above 30 students in the core English, math and science classes needed for students to learn and pass New Jersey’s assessments.

At the intermediate schools, the on-paper capacity says they can accommodate 604 students more than the current enrollment, but the bulk of the vacancies are at Toms River Intermediate North, which has the lowest enrollment. Intermediate South has the next lowest, but with nearly 1,100 students, there would be 600 to try to squeeze in above the current enrollments.

Class sizes already exceed 30 students in the intermediate schools, and they have the shortest school day of all intermediate schools in Ocean County. Both of those factors affect students’ instructional time and performance on state assessments.

The elementary schools are a more complex situation.

On paper they again appear to have a great deal of capacity for combining schools based on raw numbers, but when special education classrooms are factored in, it changes the equation. Special education classrooms have limited enrollment, based on the types of educational and behavioral interventions the students need.

At East Dover Elementary School, for example, there is a 346-student disparity between enrollment and building capacity. But of the 42 classrooms available, half of them accommodate special education classrooms.

At Silver Bay Elementary School, 16 of its 45 classrooms are dedicated to special education students.

South Toms River Elementary, which currently has the lowest enrollment with 312 students, is expected to see an increase in enrollment because of apartments under construction on Dover Road. Closing that school would require busing those students elsewhere — adding transportation costs for a school where nearly all of the students walk to school or are driven there by family members.

North Dover Elementary School, the repeated subject of closing rumors, has 388 students — more than double the available on-paper capacity at Joseph A. Citta Elementary, the school closest to North Dover. Of 30 classrooms at Citta, 11 are occupied by special education and English language learner classes.

To close any school in the Toms River Regional district would require a complete redistricting and would increase transportation costs for the district, which currently buses about 13,000 of its approximately 14,500 students. Because the elementary schools are located in neighborhoods, many of the students walk or are driven to school by parents or family members.

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