Freehold Borough Superintendent of Schools Rocco Tomazic spoke with passion and conviction during a public hearing before Administrative Law Judge Susan Scarola and cited the reasons why the Freehold Borough K-8 School District needs help from the state to provide a thorough and efficient education to the town’s children as mandated by law.
According to Tomazic, the school district is not currently in a position to provide a thorough and efficient education to each child.
Public hearings held on Sept. 24-25 in Freehold Borough gave people a chance to express their opinions about a $32.9 million school construction project that was rejected by voters twice in 2014.
The Board of Education has petitioned the state commissioner of education to overturn the voters’ decision and to issue bonds for the project or to have the state Legislature fully fund the improvements. Voters rejected a plan that would have added about $280 to their annual school property tax bill.
Attorney Ronald J. Ianoale represented the board and provided Scarola with some background about the district.
Tomazic told Scarola he was speaking on behalf of the borough’s school children.
“It is my contention that the students of this district are not being provided a thorough and efficient education, as guaranteed by the state Constitution,” he said. “This deficiency arises from the extreme overcrowding in school facilities, thus negatively impacting my ability to properly operate the district … and to provide adequate instruction consistent with the Com- mon Core State Standards and the Core Curriculum Content Standards.” Tomazic said the district’s facilities have a functional capacity sufficient for 1,148 students.
“This figure has been confirmed by the state Department of Education,” he said. “Therefore, combining half-day students into whole full-time equivalents, the total unhoused students in-district is currently 552.5 students. Even if we subtract the students currently housed in the nine rented classrooms in Freehold Township, we still have 367.5 unhoused students.”
Tomazic said Freehold Borough is considered a “high poverty” district because more than 40 percent of the students are considered “at risk” as defined by the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Being so designated, regulations set class size standards, according to Tomazic, who said many of the district’s classrooms exceed the recommended number of students.
Over the years, in order to fit all the students into existing space, administrators made “unacceptable degradations” to the educational programs, he said.
He said overcrowded classrooms have impacted the general student population in physical education, technology and library, and have also impacted specific student groups, special education, English as a Second Language and basic skills.
“The Hispanic population (which comprises 72.3 percent of the district’s enrollment) is especially impacted when they get to high school,” he said. “These impacts are real, negative and unnecessary.”
If the district does not get the relief it needs, Tomazic said, the ultimate solution to fit in the minimum required education would be to go to some type of split sessions, an approach he called “educational suicide” and “a nightmare to our parents as their child care issues would explode exponentially.”
Members of the public also addressed the judge.
Joan Leuth said, “The voters have spoken twice. Something has to be done. We cannot keep taking more and more money from taxpayers for the schools.”
Patricia Koloski, who said she is retired and living on a fixed income, said she believed it was her “moral and civic obligation to provide education to all children.”
“I know some of the children and they are all great kids. I also know the schools are extremely crowded, making it difficult to teach and difficult to learn as well,” she said.
Koloski said she believes if parents in Freehold Borough who are not eligible to vote had been allowed to vote, the construction referendum would have passed.
“I still believe those non-voting parents will be paying their way through the rent they pay,” she said.
Board of Education Vice President Susan Greitz said administrators have been putting a “band-aid on a progressively gaping wound” for more than 16 years.
“Residents ask why we can’t continue to rent space or purchase a pre-existing building. As a board, we looked at every conceivable alternative before we put the referendum out to the first vote. We are now renting nine classrooms in Freehold Township. That is $190,000 out of the operations budget that can’t pay for new teachers, or books, or technology, and it is not sustainable.”
Greitz said she is hopeful the state will recognize the situation and provide the funding necessary so that the cost of the improvements does not only fall to Freehold Borough taxpayers.
Park Avenue Elementary School thirdgrader Olivia Edmonds, 8, spoke eloquently and told Scarola, “Our teachers love teaching us, but our classrooms are so small. There is not enough space and we get hot and have to sit too close together.”
Board of Education President Michael Lichardi said he is a property owner who deals with the same tax burden and appreciates the impact the school district has on property values.
“We cannot allow our infrastructure to collapse,” he said. “This district … is a central component of our infrastructure. Some believe in a wither on the vine plan, to let the district implode and force the hand of the district to consolidate or die, to simply consolidate with Freehold Township and be one fiscal and academic happy family.
“(Freehold Township) does not want us with our problems and New Jersey will not make them take us on. … We would inherit their debts and their financial issues, such as having to equalize and pay their higher teacher salaries. We have looked into a move like that very thoroughly,” Lichardi said.
He said voting down the referendum was somewhat “self-destructive – like an angry mob burning down its own community to send a message out. Will that change the state and federal funding we receive? We will collapse into urban decay before that happens. We are forced to invest in ourselves because no one else will.”
Resident Joseph Santonacita said, “The education system has been stretched too thin for too long. I don’t want our children to be at a disadvantage when they reach high school.”
Sharon Shutzer, who serves on the Borough Council, said she was speaking as a taxpaying homeowner, a retired teacher of 44 years and a grandmother with two grandchildren in the school district. She said she was “furious about this egregious situation.”
“Overcrowding exists because of nothing the school district did. The federal and state governments have dumped this in our laps and told us to fix it,” Shutzer said.
She said taxpayers have been pitted against the school board and the board “is asking for permission to overturn the will of the people.”
Shutzer said children have become “pawns” in this situation.
“We are asking for all those essential things that allow us to cope on a daily basis” she said, listing the need for “classrooms that are not closets” and “safe and secure buildings.”
Resident Rita Gravatt said, “there a lot of retired people in Freehold Borough who simply cannot afford more and more taxes.”
Ron Griffiths, who serves on the Borough Council, said he was not at the hearing in his capacity as an elected official, but as a resident.
“The state is not meeting its obligation. Any recommendation on bonds must consider the fiscal status of those being asked to pay,” Griffiths said.
Lazaro Cardenas of the Latino Coalition said, “There has been a systemic and antiimmigration mentality in the schools that would rather see schools fail than give money to the schools. The denial of the bond referendum is due to hostility to immigrants.”
Cardenas said students are citizens, but their parents are often not.
Frank Argote-Freyre, a Freehold Borough resident since 1989 and president of the Latino Action Network, urged Scarola “to grant the request of the school district and allow them to issue the $33 million in bonds to fund 23 new classrooms, an additional gym, cafeteria and library. This overcrowding creates an educational disadvantage for all the students of Freehold Borough, but in this case more than 70 percent of those children are Latinos and to our eyes this raises a civil rights issue.”
Resident Katherine Mulholland said she voted to approve the referendum both times, but was afraid that if it passed her taxes would go up, and if it did not pass, the school district would suffer.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said this is a “pressing, but not new issue.”
“It is unconscionable to me that the state would hinder the ability of Freehold Borough to educate its children,” Beck said, adding it is the “responsibility of the state, not local taxpayers.”
She emphasized that Freehold Borough is similar to the Asbury Park, Neptune and Keansburg school districts which are largely supported by state funding.
However, Freehold Borough never received the designation those districts have received (previously known as Abbott districts) and therefore Freehold Borough does not receive the same level of state funding as those districts.
Tomazic said Scarola has 45 days to make her initial decision and submit it to Commissioner David Hespe, who then has 45 days to make a final decision on the case.
Staff writer Christine Barcia contributed to this article. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.