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Could a $26.5 million budget gap keep Toms River schools from opening in the fall?

TOMS RIVER, NJ — Will the Toms River Regional School District be able to open its doors in fall 2024?

It all depends on the district’s ability to close a $26.5 million revenue gap that Superintendent Michael Citta says is needed to provide “a thorough and effective education” to the district’s students.

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Citta said the district’s tentative $291 million budget submitted in March still has not been approved by the state Department of Education, which is why the Board of Education has not voted on the budget after its public hearing Tuesday evening. The board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. in the Toms River High School North auditorium.

The sticking point is the $26.5 million discrepancy. Toms River Regional had submitted its tentative budget in hopes of receiving a state loan of a matching amount. In the weeks that followed, the state Department of Education told New Jersey districts that loans — that is, advances on their state aid — would not be available to backfill the void.

That leaves district officials with the possibility of having to cut 368 positions, mostly teachers, Citta said, cuts that would leave the district unable to operate in the fall.

“That would be the end of the game,” Citta said Tuesday. “That’s not on the table.”

“This board, this city, this school district cannot cut any further (in the budget) because we would not be providing a comprehensive and effective education, and I could not sign a budget that said that,” Citta said.

William Doering, the business administrator for Toms River Regional Schools, said the district has provided several checklists, analyzes and answered dozens of questions from state officials in recent weeks about finances and district budget.

The feedback was “very favorable in terms of completeness, transparency and the level of detail supporting what we are asking for,” Doering said.

He and Citta said the Ocean County Schools business administrator reviewed the information and found that what Toms River presented regarding its funding needs was accurate.

“My ray of light is the recognition that our situation is real and needs to be addressed,” Citta said, adding that the district will continue to work with state officials to find a solution.

Solutions to fill the deficit beyond an advance in public financing are rare. Toms River Region cannot ask taxpayers to approve a tax increase to cover the funding gap because, by law, such requests cannot cover items set by the state as part of a thorough and effective education. This includes extracurricular activities such as orchestra, theater and athletics.

And because of the timing of the state budget cycle and special election cycles in New Jersey, even if there were items that fell outside the scope of thorough and effective education, a referendum could be held at the earlier in September, almost three hours. weeks after the start of classes and almost three months after the start of the school year. At this point, restoring the elements that had been removed if voters approved the fundraiser would require a massive and significantly disruptive restructuring.

The $26.5 million funding gap is due to a combination of issues, including S2 cuts that sought to eliminate so-called “adjustment assistance” put in place upon entry into force. into force of the School Finance Reform Act of 2008. Toms River Adjustment Assistance ended in the 2021 budget.

Additionally, the district is under increasing budget pressure for special education students. For those receiving services outside of the district (due to highly specialized needs), tuition costs have increased dramatically. Toms River used $6 million in federal pandemic grants to pay for tuition last year, which protected 90 teaching positions. This is funding that it does not have for the 2024-2025 budget.

The district is also underadequate, according to the state Department of Education, meaning it spends less per student than the state says a district should spend to provide a thorough and effective education to his students. Doering said the district is $55.5 million short when including the $26.5 million; this figure does not include transportation expenses.

The Toms River Region has cut more than 250 teaching and staff positions over the past six years as part of S2 state aid cuts, while increasing its property tax levy to the cap of 2 percent, as required by law. But the increases in tax levies have not been nearly enough to keep up with the amount of reduced aid.

“Let’s just say we’re not approved. What’s plan B?” asked Carlos Almanza of Toms River.

Citta said the Department of Education has recognized the situation the district is in and is optimistic there will be a solution.

“If we get to a situation where the state has to make a decision, it will be up to them to make the decisions,” Citta said.

He hopes this silence is a sign that those responsible are looking for realistic solutions.

“Everyone needs to take a breath and realize how much of a mess is in our hands,” Citta said, adding that Toms River is not alone, but is among 140 districts facing significant cuts.

Citta said the district has contingency plans, but would not detail them.

“We will open our doors in September,” Citta said.

Learn more about the potential impact here: 368 job cuts and ‘ridiculous’ class sizes in Toms River: What a $26.5 million cut would mean