Overall, Egg Harbor City school officials are very pleased with the district's new middle school, which has already become a focal point for community activities. But they do have some frustrating problems with the building. The heating and air-conditioning system doesn't work quite right, and neither do the exterior drainage basins. The district is working on fixes for both.
The biggest frustration officials have is the way the state calculates the district's share of the debt for the $22 million school, and how it handles the district's money.
Even though the school has been open for more than two years, the state is holding onto nearly $650,000 in local taxpayer funds. The money won't be released until the problems with the building are taken care of and a permanent certificate of occupancy is issued. So district officials can see their money sitting in an escrow account, but they can't touch it. Superintendent John Gilly said just being able to use a fraction of that money could have saved the jobs of a teacher and two part-time aides who are being laid off to help balance next year's budget.
That frustration is understandable, and clearly the answer is to get these repairs done as quickly as possible.
But the district's budget problems point to a larger issue, one that is affecting many school districts throughout the state.
School construction in New Jersey largely is financed through the Schools Development Authority, which has long encouraged districts to accept generous grants. At the Egg Harbor City Community School, for instance, those grants paid nearly $15 million of the $22 million total.
But in 2011, when it refinanced construction bonds, the state changed the rules, requiring districts to begin paying 15 percent of the debt service on SDA grants. Statewide, the local assessments for those grants are going up by more than 60 percent next year, from $21 million to $31 million.
In Egg Harbor City, debt-service costs will go up by more than a third, from $127,000 to $196,000. In some districts, the hikes are much more severe. Barnegat Township will see an increase of $200,000.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates that for 270 New Jersey districts, about 48 percent, the difference in debt-service payments will more than cancel out any increases in state aid.
So, while Gov. Chris Christie was able to claim that his election-year budget did not reduce state aid to any school district, the reality is that when the debt-service payments are figured in, nearly half the state's districts are losing aid.
The increase in debt-service payments is part of a continuing pattern in which state officials claim to be holding the line on spending while they pass costs down to local school districts and municipalities. In the long run, that's much more frustrating than a temperamental air conditioner.