Robbinsville Schools acting superintendent Kathie Foster (back to camera) speaks to the Senate Budget Committee about her district’s financial situation March 21, 2017 at Rutgers-Newark.

Robbinsville school board president Matt O’Grady sat before the state Assembly education committee Feb. 23, and laid out the grim truth: the Robbinsville school district’s finances are in dire straits.

The district faces a $1.5M shortfall in its 2017-18 budget, and district officials have turned to the state for answers. The district’s main point: shrinking state aid, coupled with the state’s 2-percent tax hike gap and an increase in school population, has put the district in a bind. District officials say eight years of similar budgetary issues have left them with no more fat to cut—Robbinsville has the lowest per pupil spending in Mercer County. The next step could be staff reduction.

Similar stories are playing out all across New Jersey, but Robbinsville officials believe their district is particularly affected. Of the 591 school districts in New Jersey, Robbinsville ranks as the 12th most underfunded by state aid this year. Since 2009, the district has received $60M less in aid than what the state’s formula says it should.

Some in state government have listened. State Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblymen Dan Benson and Wayne DeAngelo—Robbinsville’s representatives in Trenton—have offered assistance. Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) wrote a letter to acting superintendent Kathie Foster in mid-March, inviting her to speak before the state Senate Budget Committee March 21. Foster did, and has begun networking with other superintendents and state representatives.

It’s a complicated issue that district officials say will affect the future of Robbinsville. Advance editor Rob Anthes met with O’Grady March 10 to discuss it. An edited transcript follows:

You went to the state house in February to plead the case for Robbinsville and for fair funding. There was some optimism that Gov. Chris Christie would make a change that would work in Robbinsville’s favor. Yet, the governor released a budget that changes nothing. So, was your effort for nought? Does what you said not matter?

I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter. I would say it’s just, yet again, another obstacle. I wish I could say we haven’t been down this path before, but we’ve been fighting this fight since 2004.

It’s kind of funny. I went and saw [state education commissioner David] Hespe over a year ago now. We had a good, constructive conversation. I thought he understood what was going on. And then, he resigns.

So, we wait for the new commissioner to be appointed. There’s always the bureaucratic cycle in this. Meanwhile, the residents and the students and the teachers and the administrators have to deal with it every day. That’s why I’m not going to stop ringing the bell. Everyone else gets to check in and check out, and we have to live with it every day.

You’ve shared your side with a number of people in Trenton over the years. The latest was with the state assembly’s education committee. How did the appearance come about?

This was the fourth of four such meetings. Linda Greenstein, Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson were orchestrating it for their areas. Dan Benson reached out, and said, “Hey, this is going on. You may want to participate.” I said, “Absolutely, I just want to make sure I get a chance to talk.”

We’re definitely appreciative of our local legislators, that they know what’s going on. But from their perspective, they probably have 100 things going on. There’s only so much attention they’re going to be able to give, and, at the end of the day, there’s only so much financial impact that they’re going to create. They’re not going to make the final decision.

People in New Jersey don’t understand that education’s got two fights. You’ve got your building capacity issues, which cause bond referendums, and there’s debt service tax for that. Then, you’ve got your operational issues.

To live within a 2-percent cap when 85 percent of my budget is either contracted items or inflationary items I have no control over—utilities, IT costs, health insurance—we don’t have anywhere to go. Every year that we’ve become more efficient from a fiscal standpoint, it’s actually hurt us because there’s no fluff in our budget. There’s never been any fluff in our budget. When you have a small budget to begin with and you don’t have areas where you can move money around, we haven’t been able to build a budget. Every year, whatever money’s in that budget needs to be fully spent, with a few exceptions of capital reserves and other reserves we’re mandated to have.

And then throw in all the unfunded mandates you get from the state. PARCC, that’s a massive expense to the district. When you have an understaffed administrative team to begin with, all the planning, all the time that goes into shifts like that, they’re real people. I don’t have an administrative team that you’ll see in a bigger district or in a district that gets their fair share of state aid. I can’t afford it. So, I’m tapping people on the shoulder. “Hey, I’m here again. I want to ask you to help out from the goodness of your heart because you care about the kids.” How long can you make the same argument? You can’t. Everybody’s got their breaking point.

On the other side of it, you’ve got your residents here in Robbinsville, who are going, “Hey, I love the kids. I love the town. But my taxes have almost tripled in 10 years. Enough’s enough.”

There are only so many big issues we can fight at one time. We’ve finally got a new business administrator that will be here on a long-term basis [Beth Brooks]. She’s only been here a month. We’re throwing the budget at her.

The budget is a whole other issue; we started with a $2.5M hole for this upcoming budget. We’re back to talking about eliminating positions, cutting programs. That’s a lot for a new BA.

I haven’t yet mentioned one thing that involves growth or moving the district forward. If we’re handling all these behind-the-scenes sustainability issues, what time and what resources do we have for taking the district forward? There’s only so much time. We don’t have any money. And there’s only so many people to do the work.

Now you’ve got a high-performing school district in Robbinsville that’s in jeopardy of becoming an underperforming district. Is that what the Department of Education wants? Is that a positive message for the State of New Jersey?

The process has put it back on each district’s feet. We don’t have lobbyists. We’re not a political machine. We’re workers. We’re carrying out a mission. But having 38.5 percent of the entire state budget go to education and to have districts like Robbinsville who fund 93 percent of their entire school budget through local taxes, that’s not right.

Oh, and by the way, we still have development in Robbinsville. That’s an issue. Our state aid since 2009 is down $300,000. Yet we’re up over 400 students. Anybody that’s even remotely good at math can tell you that’s a problem.

How is this year any different from years past?

In some ways, it’s not different. In a lot of ways, it’s dramatically different. In years past, every setback that we encountered, we were able to strategically plan and prepare. But every year we did that, the buffer between irreparable harm and functionality got smaller and smaller. There’s no buffer anymore.

This is the seventh budget cycle with the 2-percent cap. With 85 percent of my budget growing at a rate of more than 2 percent annually, I can’t make that math work.

Here’s an example: the field, the turf, the track. The only way that got paid for is we had saved in capital reserves. That money’s been spent. We have some money in capital reserves, but not nearly what it should be for the amount of property and plant the district has.

We have slowdowns. The Windsor School sale to the township was supposed to happen a year ago; we don’t have that money yet. Not that we were going to spend it, but it was going back in reserves. We should have it in two months. But you can’t budget for something you don’t have. That’s a piece of it.

In the meantime, we knew that we were going to have continued growth, but to think that Springside [development off of Gordon Road] would give us 55 kids already, and it’s only 40 percent built out. We couldn’t have forecasted that. When it’s done, that’s another 85 kids. That’s nearly a 3-percent increase [in school population], and that doesn’t include any of the existing homes turning over to new families that have kids, that doesn’t include any more development.

There’s not enough people who have the time and the energy to understand what our situation is, which is why I’m trying to get the message out everywhere I can. But I’m one person. If it was up to me, this town would be doing a letter campaign to every elected official, and we’d be sending a letter every day. Stuff their mailboxes. Until they really hear us, we’re not going to get anything.

But it doesn’t mean the taxpayers in Robbinsville deserve less. We’re talking about fairness and providing children with a future. Should I be able look at other school districts that offer more AP classes, that have smaller class sizes, that have better technology programs?

Look at our Chromebook initiative. We were so happy we could finally fund it, three years ago. We’re eight years behind everyone else to get to a one-on-one device ratio. Is that right? It shouldn’t be.

Then you sit there, and you say, “OK, I’ve got this big budget gap. There are easy ways to fix it.” People say, “Do half-day kindergarten. That will save you money.” No, it won’t. It will only put the students further behind, and whatever money you think you’ll save from a personnel standpoint, cut the number in half. And then, you’re going to have to adjust your program to bring those half-day kindergarten kids back up to speed when they’re in first, second and third grade. That’s not a trade we’re going to make.

Then you say, “Just get rid of middle school sports.” Really? We’re already fighting a battle of keeping these kids occupied so the drug issue doesn’t become a bigger problem. No, we’re not going to do that.

I don’t know what else to do. Make the kids work for their lunch? I don’t know.

But, because we’re labeled as a rich town, there’s no grant money out there for Robbinsville. We have an education foundation. We’ve got more alternative revenue sources that we’ve created, like RED, like our energy savings programs. We’ve done all that. So, when the state Department of Education puts out a list of how districts can become more fiscally efficient, everything on that list, we’ve already done. We might start buying lottery tickets.

What are some of the things you’ve cut?

We’re the lowest per-pupil spending in Mercer County. We’re the third lowest in the state in all the “I” districts—that’s our district wealth factor. We have tiered busing. We outsourced the majority of custodians a long time ago. We got off the federal plan for lunches, so that we can offer different options and get more kids to eat lunch and get a little more revenue there.

Class size has increased in all of the buildings over the last 10 years. Those have been the cuts—fewer classes, more kids.

We haven’t allowed new programs to come into place, especially on the extracurricular side. The ones that have have been 100 percent self funded. There are a lot of things that haven’t moved in a number in years. There are things teachers in buildings have requested every year during budget cycles. This is the eighth year in a row we’re telling them no.

There’s nothing to cut. It doesn’t mention that our buildings are back at capacity. We have capital needs. The parking lot at the high school needs to be addressed. The parking lot at the middle school needs to be addressed. We still have some security items we’d like to implement. I don’t know how those things are going to get paid for.

I think it’s irresponsible for Robbinsville Schools to wait until these things build up to the point that you have to do a bond referendum. It costs more. You’ve got bigger issues at that time. And you run the risk of the referendum being voted down.

What you’ve just described is happening right now in Hamilton.

I feel bad for Hamilton. You’ve got a large district. You’ve got a much bigger budget. But those residents in Hamilton are saying the same thing that these residents are saying in Robbinsville: “We’re paying all this money in taxes. Every year my services go down. And you want me to pay more money?”

Look, the town of Robbinsville, we send over $30M in income tax to Trenton [for the state government]. Where’s it going? You mean to tell me we can’t get some of our money back?
Our township government has done what it can. They’ve tried to increase ratables. It’s not easy because every town is doing the same. They’re all fighting the same fight.

You’ve said teacher retention is key to the district’s health. How has the financial situation affected the district’s ability to keep teachers?

It’s really simple. We have had to negotiate really hard because we don’t have any money. We’ve used negotiation cycles to fix the top end of the guide—your more senior teachers with more tenure and advanced degrees. We then realized we couldn’t hire new teachers because we weren’t competitive on the bottom of the guide. We spent some time, and some raises have gone to the bottom of the guide.

Well, there’s one big area that hasn’t had the benefit of any negotiated increase, and that’s the middle of the guide. The middle of the guide is a five-year teacher who can go to any other district and get a $20-30,000 raise. That’s a problem.

These teachers love the kids here in Robbinsville. They love the administration. They love everything about [Robbinsville]. But they’ve got a financial responsibility to their family. If I can move jobs into a relatively stable district and pick up 20 or 30 grand, of course I’m going to look at it.

So, what’s happening is, we’re getting great new teachers to come in. We’re coaching them up, teaching them. They’re doing a fantastic job. Then they’re leaving. And we have to start that process over.

In the meantime, we have a lot of long-standing teachers who are retiring. I’m losing my best young teachers. I’m losing my best long-term teachers. And I’m filling it up with all new teachers.

We’re producing great teachers here, and a lot of districts are benefitting from the product of what we’re doing. Should I be in that position? No.

I can’t be emphatic enough that our financial situation has never been and never will be a reflection of how we value our teachers and staff.

Every time we have a shortfall, there’s only one [item] we can go to, and that’s teachers. It’s kind of like saying we’re a hospital, and the first people we’re going to cut from our budget are the doctors.

You’re saying your hands are tied because the state won’t help and you can’t raise taxes any more. So, what exactly are you trying to accomplish?

I want to achieve a couple things. I think through awareness we can increase our fight. I want that fight to be against the right enemy. I don’t like to use the word enemy, but you have to go to the source.

Right now, the fight gets confused because you’ve got taxpayers who are upset. You’ve got parents and teachers and students who feel they are being underserved. You’ve got teachers and administrators who feel like they’re undervalued. We’re all going at it inside our little bubble.

If we all went back to the source of the main issue and put all of our energy towards that, we might be able to affect some change. But we also need that solidarity to create some patience on all sides. We can’t fix this overnight. It’s not some magic stroke of a pen that’s all of a sudden going to solve the budget issues in Robbinsville.

Fundamentally, are all the parties I mentioned committed to the schools? Absolutely. But sometimes that commitment wanes when they see the reality of how it impacts what they want. You never want to pray on somebody’s good nature because there’s an extent to all of that. We’re at that point.

I don’t know what the end game is. We have a budget to get through. I’m not under any illusion that’s going to be a happy moment for taxpayers. But we also know that next year’s budget is already shaping up to put us in a worse position that we are this year. So, we have to be as aggressive and as prudent as we can.

This is not an issue that’s going to go away, and it shouldn’t go away until the issue is fixed. This is about being fair to every taxpayer and every student, not because of what district they’re in, not because of what town they’re in or what ethnicity they are or where they were born. It’s about doing the right thing.

I want tax dollars to be properly allocated across the board. If you get that done, then you have more money to spend on the essential services that are most important. That’s should be what gets people out of bed.

The state has a funding formula. It hasn’t followed it, which has cost Robbinsville millions in state aid. Has the state explained to you why?

It’s because they’re in charge. It’s a great question because every state mandate that we get, we have to follow. They can come shut us down. But when we ask them to follow their own formula, we get told, “We’re not going to do that.”

Should every taxpayer in New Jersey be upset that there’s inequity? Absolutely, because it means there’s money being wasted.

I can’t control the state. I can’t go audit them. I can’t take away their funding. All I can do is talk to people in the community, talk to elected officials, meet with whoever will meet with me. But even if I’m successful and they give me some hush money, it’s a band aid. I’m on life support here. A band aid would be a temporary fix. I want to break the cycle.

We can’t even tread water right now. I hope whoever’s listening will understand the issues before they go and look at the tax increase, before you look at how much we spend in Robbinsville on our local levy. If everybody digs in on the little pieces they’re most concerned with, we’re only going to continue the cycle.

One of the ways we’ve attracted talent is by being in the Top 50 in the state. Teachers want to be in a great district, and right now, we still are. But it’s in jeopardy, and it’s not because of the teachers, the students or the taxpayers. It’s because of outside powers. It’s just not right.

I don’t want people to read this, and say, “Well, your number isn’t as bad as this district’s.” It shouldn’t matter. Wrong is wrong.

The Assembly Budget Committee meets April 24 10 a.m. in Committee Room 11 on the fourth floor of the State House Annex in Trenton. The public is invited to attend.