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Schools size up how aid may help

Gov. Corzine's proposal could give them as much as 20 percent more. For some, tax relief might take a bite.

This tennis court at Highland Regional High in Blackwood isn't fit to use. Ralph Ross (right), Black Horse Pike superintendent, and buildings supervisor Bill Collins hope a state aid proposal helps.
This tennis court at Highland Regional High in Blackwood isn't fit to use. Ralph Ross (right), Black Horse Pike superintendent, and buildings supervisor Bill Collins hope a state aid proposal helps.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

What to do should an extra $5.3 million in aid come your way?

If Gov. Corzine's proposed school-funding formula becomes a reality, Ralph Ross, superintendent of the Black Horse Pike Regional School District in Camden County, already has a list:

Fix a tennis court in such bad shape it can't be used. Replace the fire-alarm systems that are so old at two schools it's hard to get the parts to fix them. Restore cut programs, upgrade technology, install security cameras, buy textbooks.

Those are for starters.

"The bottom line is we've been underfunded for so long," Ross said, "the money we get will be well-spent - and well-spent fast."

Districts such as Black Horse Pike could be the winners under the funding overhaul. It is one of the 36 districts in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties - out of 108 total - that spend less than what the state says is adequate and are projected to get the maximum 20 percent aid boost under the Corzine plan. Four others in that category would get smaller increases.

Like many New Jersey districts, Black Horse Pike, which has three high schools in Blackwood, Erial and Runnemede, has operated with largely static state funding for most of the last several years and a populace eager to hold the line on taxes.

"We've passed three budgets in 29 years," Ross said.

Last year wasn't one of them.

"Going into this year, we had to reduce some of our foreign-language offerings," said John Oberg, the district's business administrator and board secretary. "We used to have two nurses in every school. We reduced it to one. We reduced the number of maintenance and support staff to maintain the buildings. We had to reduce secretaries."

While the prospect of restoring what has been lost or neglected is welcome to districts like Black Horse Pike, even administrators whose districts stand to benefit the most from the formula change are wary of getting too excited.

They want to know: Will Corzine's plan get through the Legislature? And if does, will there be limits on how they can spend the money?

"They can use the aid in any way they need to use it," Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said last week.

The Corzine administration is pushing the Legislature act on the formula by Jan. 8 so districts will know before the spring budget votes how much aid to expect for the 2008-09 school year, Davy said.

A draft of the legislation was posted on the Education Department's Web last week. Among the provisions in the 106-page document are requirements for property-tax relief for the residents of some districts spending more than what the state has deemed adequate.

Some of those districts could have to use part of their additional aid to provide tax relief, Davy said. That came as a disappointment to districts that were hoping to make use of the aid for education.

State officials said Friday that as many as 120 districts would likely have to use some of their aid for tax relief. All of those districts are deemed by the state to be overtaxing their residents.

Davy has also said about 10 of the state's 31 neediest districts - so-called Abbott districts - could have to raise taxes because they hadn't been levying enough.

For years under court order, Abbott districts got a proportionately higher share of state aid. Abbott advocates have sharply criticized Corzine's plan to spread out the aid, because they fear they will face cuts. The state has said all districts would be protected for three years.

Many other districts, especially those that have a large percentage of needy students and face similar issues as the Abbotts, are rooting for the formula change. Davy noted that 49 percent of the state's needy students did not live in Abbott districts.

"We would be an Abbott district if not for our size," said John Kellmayer, superintendent of the Brooklawn schools.

According to him, Brooklawn has kept a rein on taxes while providing programs for children by "hustling" - pursuing nontraditional and entrepreneurial avenues of funding. That has included selling ShopRite the naming rights for a gymnasium for $100,000 and scoring a library that's named for a local family who gave $100,000 toward its construction.

This school year, the Paulsboro district, with more than 75 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, benefited from the state's Targeted At-Risk Aid, Superintendent Frank Scambia said.

In addition, Paulsboro schools have pursued relationships with institutions such as Rowan University, Gloucester County College, and Exxon to provide programs that have benefited students.

"These things would all have cost us money," Scambia said. "These are ways we've saved money, but the resources are limited."

Sometimes, there has been nothing to do but cut.

The Lumberton district, which would get a 20 percent aid increase under Corzine's plan, has increased class sizes, including for special education; deferred ordering textbooks; and consolidated bus routes.

"We're actually making students walk further to the bus," said Tom Fanuka, district business administrator.

Of Corzine's plan, he said, "I'm cautiously optimistic."

At Black Horse Pike, which has also reduced after-school busing and cut work-study programs, the sentiment was similar.

"My first reaction was, 'I hope it passes,' " said Ross, the superintendent.

"My reaction," said the administrator, Oberg, "was, 'Well, it's about time.' "