Toms River residents march on Trenton to protest cuts in school aid

Nearly 2,000 Toms River public school students and parents came by the busload and descended on downtown Trenton to protest state aid cuts to school funding.

“Class sizes are increasing, teachers are unable to stay. They’ve had to lay off teachers, less programs down the road that’s what scares us the most,” said parent Marie Walling.

“Right now we stand to lose $5 million this year, $7 million next year and $6 million the year after, everything is on the table right now and I hope we never have to get to that table it’s a scary thing,” said Toms River North Principal Ed Keller.

The district says the school funding reform bill signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last year, known as S2, drastically slashed the budget. It forced the elimination of non-mandated programs like full day kindergarten, band, sports and the National Honor Society.

“It keeps kids in check and prevents them from doing other things that could affect their lives,” said Toms River South student Pedro Marcelo.

“We cut 55 assistant coaches. It made things very difficult for us this year. Personally, I lost 9 teachers either through those we had to let go or through retirements and it makes class sizes larger,” said Keller.

Word of the rally spread like wildfire on social media, prompting support from famous alumna Piper Perabo who is known for her role in the film Coyote Ugly. She says she got her start on a Toms River school stage.

“Having that opportunity to be part of a team and part of the school play is a big part of education and I want to make sure these kids have the same opportunities I did,” said Perabo.

Toms River was one of 34 districts requesting mid-year emergency aid from the state Department of Education. They got some money, but it was just one-fifth of what the school system requested.

“I’m not saying we’re refusing the money, but we’re refusing to accept this as a solution. We detailed why we needed it and it wasn’t a random number, but we’re also upset about the description that went with it about how we could make it up,” said Marc Natanagara, assistant superintendent of schools for the Toms River Regional School District.

Estimated at between 1,400-1,800 people, Natanagara says it’s because a lot is at stake — at least a $90 million anticipated cut in state aid over the next four years. And aside from the extracurricular activities that will be cut, it could mean the elimination of up to 400 jobs.

In a statement, Murphy’s press secretary told NJTV News: “New Jersey’s school funding reforms, sponsored by the Senate President and passed by the Legislature last year, ensure that school aid is based on objective criteria, like demographics, population, and local share of funding. Under the Christie Administration, the state ignored the reality of many districts, creating rampant inequities and long-term funding issues.”

“The hardest part about this for me is that they won’t release this formula they calculated this equation they call proprietary and our district along with others requested and they won’t give it to us,” said parent Jennifer Bilinski.

But according to the Governor’s Office, student enrollment was down nearly 10% over the last decade while per pupil costs were up.

“Superstorm Sandy years ago completely decimated our tax base a lot of people took their insurance money and left,” said West Dover Elementary School PTO President Doreen Burns.

District leaders say they’re awaiting word on meetings with the lawmakers and the governor’s staff. Their fight continues.