WILDWOOD — He didn’t promise he could make any changes, but New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet did promise to listen Monday as he toured two schools in South Jersey affected by the state’s education funding reform.

“I have a unique perspective as a former superintendent. Just 10 months ago, I was on the other side,” said Repollet, the former chief administrator in Asbury Park who was appointed in January by Gov. Phil Murphy to lead the state Department of Education.

At the invitation of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Repollet and representatives from his office joined about two dozen superintendents, school board members and school administrators from Cape May County inside the media center at Wildwood High School. Van Drew and Repollet also visited Commercial Township on Monday afternoon.

“We all know that the funding formula has changed, and for a few folks it’s been good,” Van Drew said. “And for some folks, it’s been really hurtful.”

Most of the districts present Monday lost and will continue to lose thousands to millions of dollars in state aid as a result of Sen. President Steve Sweeney’s school funding reform known as S-2, which phases out so-called “adjustment aid” over the next seven years for districts considered overfunded by the state.

The bill was passed over the summer and crafted in response to a group of vocal underfunded school districts who petitioned the state Legislature to fully fund the 2008 school funding formula. These districts were receiving less than the amount of money they were supposed to receive according to the formula despite growing enrollment each year. Meanwhile, districts that were considered “overfunded” were receiving increases in aid or flat aid year after year despite declining enrollments.

Van Drew said one of the most concerning aspects of the debate over school funding is the concept of which town is paying their “fair share,” according to the complicated state formula.

“‘Fair share’ assumes because some folks down in South Jersey have lower property taxes than some folks might in certain parts of Central or North Jersey, that we’re not paying our ‘fair share,’” he said. “My sense is that they’re paying too much, but we are certainly paying our fair share.”

He said Cape May and Cumberland counties have lower per capita income, higher unemployment, less industry and larger societal challenges, including poverty, child neglect and heroin use, than other areas of the state.

“We have some real challenges down here,” Van Drew told the commissioner. “That’s why we wanted you to be here to see just how different it is and how harsh eventually for some districts this formula’s going to be.”

Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings told Repollet that his district has the highest percentage of students living in poverty in the state. He said the district has a high transiency rate, high rate of special education students and has a history of state intervention.

“So when you talk about trying to deliver a thorough and efficient education, we have evidence of that being a challenge,” Kummings said. “I think a lot of people think about Wildwood, they think about the Boardwalk and potential revenue, but in many cases we are an urban district.”

Chris Kobik from Lower Cape May Regional said his seventh through 12th grade district has been losing enrollment, but the district is not spending unwisely. While enrollment has declined from about 2,000 to about 1,300 over the last decade, Kobik said, the district has used the funding to make necessary school repairs while cutting staff.

“In Cape May County, we have the highest rate of unemployment in the state, which peaks at 15 percent,” Kobik said. “Not only is there not industry, but there’s not opportunity for industry. But there is opportunity to wash dishes, make beds, clean toilets and do a number of other low-income jobs that are endemic to a tourist-based economy.”

Van Drew did not dispute that there are very wealthy towns in Cape May County such as Stone Harbor, Avalon and Sea Isle City.

“That’s not the majority of children in Cape May County,” he said.

Jeffrey Bennett, research director for the grassroots Fair Funding Action Committee, took to Twitter during the meeting Monday to condemn the overfunded districts for complaining.

He said in a subsequent phone interview the changes to the state funding formula may not seem fair, but they are necessary.

“Nobody likes this but we don’t have a choice. The state is a fiscal disaster,” said Bennett, a state aid fairness activist and former school board member from Essex County who maintains a blog on the subject.

He said the state of New Jersey does not have the revenue growth to be able to fully fund its debt obligations and pensions while fully funding school districts without taking aid from the overfunded districts.

He also criticized Wildwood for its per pupil spending and median teacher salaries, which are above the state averages.

“Obviously they are going to oppose losing state aid, but they are comparatively privileged,” Bennett said.

During Monday’s meeting, Repollet encouraged the school officials to go to Trenton and advocate for themselves. He said that the Department of Education has to position itself to meet the needs of all of the students in the state and agreed that the legislation may have unintended consequences. He said the meeting Monday was a chance to gather concerns and possible solutions, and to bring them back to Trenton.

In addition to listening, Repollet also offered the services of the Department of Education, as well as suggestions of other ways to find funding and expand programming.

“Please use us as a resource,” he told the superintendents.

Following the tour Monday, a group of more than 50 school districts negatively affected by the new school-funding law, including many from Cape May and Cumberland counties, announced the creation of the “Support our Students” advocacy group to fight the aid losses.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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