MONROE – State aid solutions vary

By David Kilby, Staff writer
MONROE — All four Monroe Board of Education candidates agree that the district’s low state aid is an issue in this upcoming election, but their opinions on how to deal with it do vary a bit.
   This year’s candidates include incumbents Kathy Leonard, Kathy Kolupanowich and Ken Chiarella as well as challenger Amy Antelis.
   When Schools Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Hamilton presented the tentative school budget at a public hearing a few weeks ago, he demonstrated how Monroe, which has about 5,500 students, was receiving much less state aid in proportion to surrounding school districts.
   Monroe anticipates receiving $1,125,818 in state aid for its schools this upcoming year, which amounts to $204.69 per student, according to the presentation given at the public hearing.
   Old Bridge, which has 9,600 students, anticipates receiving $41,140,821 in state aid for 2011-12, which amounts to $4,285.50 per student or about 21 times more than Monroe.
   North Brunswick, with 5,700 students, anticipates receiving $1,662 per student; South Plainfield, with 3,600 students, anticipates receiving $7,767,093 or $2,157.53 per student; Edison, with 14,500 students, anticipates receiving $667.74 per student; Middlesex Borough anticipates receiving $3,797.61 per student for its 2,092 students; and Piscataway, with 7,197 students, has budgeted to receive $1,798.17 per student, according to the presentation.
   Ms. Leonard said the way schools are funded in general around the state is a problem.
   ”Until that’s looked at all these toolkits won’t make a difference,” she said.
   The “toolkits” consist of a variety of efforts the state has made to cut public funding. They are in addition to the 2 percent tax levy cap placed on budgets.
   For example, in an effort to direct more money to the classroom, last year the state placed caps on school administrator’s salaries.
   Ms. Kalupanowich agreed that the state aid formula should be looked at, and also said the board believes Monroe doesn’t get the money it deserves from the state.
   ”I think there should be a per pupil formula,” she said. “We just want to know how the state comes up with those numbers. I don’t think they understand how unique our district is.”
   In the current state aid formula implemented in 1975, the state groups school districts into District Factor Groups (DFG) from A to J, “A” being the commonly known “abbot” districts. In this formula, Monroe falls under the “FG” group.
   There are six factors that determine what DFG a district falls under: the percent of adults with no high school diploma, percent of adults with some college education, occupational status, unemployment rate, percent of individuals in poverty, and median family income, according to New Jersey’s Department of Education’s website.
   ”We’re the biggest town in Middlesex County area wise,” Ms. Kalupanowich said. “We used to be a farming community, but we’re growing.”
   The issue with state aid is foremost on Ms. Antelis’ mind as well.
   ”Two years ago the government cut 95 percent of aid from the budget,” she said. “I think that’s unfair to taxpayers.”
   In 2010 the state cut aid to Monroe schools by $4.43 million, which caused the district to raise taxes 17 cents per $100 of assessed value.
   This year, while state aid was increased by about $1 million, the board has proposed a budget that would raise taxes 21 cents per $100 of assessed value in the 2011-12 school year. That would mean a tax increase of $360 for the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $168,900.
   ”Tax dollars need to be more fairly distributed,” Ms. Antelis said.
   Mr. Chiarella agrees that the low amount of state aid presents a challenge, but he believes in a “progressive” approach.
   ”I think we need to find ways to reduce costs,” he said, “and I’m not expecting more funding from the state. We have to learn to make do with what we have and can have and not put the burden on the taxpayers.”
   School board and this year’s budget elections are from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. on April 27.