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Riordan: Cherry Hill activist who stopped red-light cameras is on a new mission

In 2014, Cherry Hill resident Rick Short asked the right questions about New Jersey's red-light cameras.

The 49-year-old father of four is so proud of his role analyzing and highlighting flaws in those much-maligned devices -- since disconnected statewide -- that the phrase "Stop Robo Cops" is still part of his email address.

Short, a Republican, lost a race for a township council seat last November. But he's been busy looking at publicly available data about education funding in the state. And he believes he's found a potential source of additional money for chronically underfunded districts like Cherry Hill.

"No one is comparing the fixed costs among districts," he says. "Everybody looks at their own district's budget. But I compare things. It's my nature."

The self-employed Short works on his school funding project ("the Rick Short 2020 Report for Cherry Hill") at his home in the Kingston neighborhood, using a laptop he bought at Staples.

He has reviewed New Jersey Department of Education numbers suggesting that per-pupil costs for maintenance and operations rose 61 percent in Camden but only 16 percent in Cherry Hill between budget years 2005-06 and 2013-14.

With about 9,300 students and 20 buildings, nearly half built before 1950, Camden spends about $4,600 per pupil on physical plant operations, maintenance, and salaries.

In comparison, Cherry Hill, with about 11,300 students in 19 buildings --  all of them built since 1950 -- spends about $1,770.

Reducing what Short describes as "crazy high" physical plant maintenance costs in eight of the state's poorest school districts, including Camden, would save $271 million a year, Short says.

"Janitors are janitors," he adds. "Water is water. Fixed costs should be the same, shouldn't they?"

Not really, says Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, noting that his district has a number of buildings that are far older than the oldest in Cherry Hill. Two of the city's elementary schools are more than 100 years old, and five will hit the century mark during the 2020s.

"On a per-pupil basis, of course it's more costly to maintain our buildings," Rouhanifard says. "Our buildings have been neglected for decades, because of institutional racism. There's been little reconstruction and very little capital infusion."

Rouhanifard cites the breakdown-prone boilers at Camden High School, a building the state plans to tear down and replace rather than overhaul. "People who know how to work with boilers do not come cheap," he says. "Those costs add up."

But even though some Camden schools are older than those in Cherry Hill -- which, unlike Camden, hasn't built an entirely new facility since the early 1970s -- Short can't understand why the per-pupil cost of maintenance salaries in the city is nearly three times that in the township.

"I want people to be aware that some districts are spending three times as much as others" on fixed costs, such as physical plant maintenance.

"How can it be that?" he says, adding, "I don't have time to look at every receipt. But if I need to figure out why, I will."

Short is far from alone in searching for additional money for public schools, not only in Cherry Hill but statewide. Gov. Christie, a Republican, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have proposals, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, also a Democrat, is holding hearings.

At one such session, on Feb. 7, Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche told an Assembly education committee that his district was in crisis. Potholes are not being filled, "equipment is not [being] replaced, and innovative programs ... are not [being] pursued," he testified.

Christopher Benedetto, of the 20-member grassroots group Fair Funding for Cherry Hill Public Schools, says he fully supports "what Rick is doing to bring visibility to the issue" of school funding.

"We don't want to pit district against district," Benedetto, a software salesman and father or three Cherry Hill students, adds. "We just want to get our fair share of whatever pot there is."

I agree. And I have a question: Why should fairness for all inevitably penalize districts like Camden that have historically been treated less than fairly?