By Kathryn Coulibaly
Visit any of Freehold Borough’s three schools, and you’ll have all the evidence you need to know that it is a dangerously overcrowded district.
Cubbies for students’ belongings compete for space with computer carts in the hallways.
Locker doors swing open because the locks no longer work, not unusual for a 50-year old building, but further impeding walkways.
Innovative teachers and staff have rearranged desks to maximize space, even as cartons of books and other materials line the walls.
The faculty lunchroom has a well-used laminating machine; a relic in most tech-centric districts, but absolutely vital in Freehold Borough.
Technology, necessary to meet the demands of the 21st century, is hard to come by. There aren’t enough electronics for each child, and with classrooms of 28 students, including English language learners (ELL), special education students, and gifted students, the focus every day is ensuring that every student gets the attention they need.
In the media center, which has not been a media center in a decade, bookshelves have been used to carve out classrooms. Educators struggle to teach without unduly disturbing the six or seven other classes occurring at the same time.
The cafeteria and gymnasium are so seriously overcrowded that there are concerns for students’ safety.
One building, constructed in the 1970s as an “open forum” school, is literally a school with no interior walls. In order to separate the building into separate classes, bookshelves have once again been deployed to provide a visual, but definitely not an acoustic, division.
For more than 13 years, these have been the learning conditions, and working conditions, in Freehold Borough.
Since 2004, parents, staff, and administration have been advocating for increased funding to accommodate a skyrocketing enrollment. After a building referendum failed in 2005, the district was forced to increase class sizes, repurpose the library and other spaces into classrooms, rent space in a church basement, and bus more than 100 students out of district to six rented classrooms.
In 2014, the district once again held a referendum, hoping for community support to alleviate the issues caused by a district enrollment that was 41 percent above capacity. Unfortunately, that referendum also failed.
Following the second failure, the district pursued litigation and petitioned then-Commissioner of Education David Hespe for the necessary funds and to compel the residents of Freehold Borough to finance the construction.
Hespe toured the district, along with many politicians and subsequent commissioners of education, but it was not until 2016 that $25 million in funding was finally released. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in October 2017, and the new facilities will be open to students and staff by the start of the 2018-19 school year.
From the beginning, the members of the Freehold Borough Education Association (FBEA) played a crucial role in advocating for their students. Former FBEA President Linda McCarthy was tireless in her efforts to secure additional funding for the district. When she became president, Heidi Brache continued those efforts.
FBEA members wrote letters describing the conditions, testified at board of education meetings, helped to educate parents and other taxpayers about the necessity of the expansion, and worked with Superintendent Rocco Tomazic and the board of education to testify at the state level.
In addition, they contacted NJEA and, working with UniServ Field Representative Ron Villano, brought in organizing specialists on health and safety, professional development, communications, and research.
NJEA Government Relations helped to bring legislators such as former Senator Jennifer Beck, and Assemblypersons Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey to visit the schools and push for funding through the Legislature.
NJEA Executive Director Ed Richardson personally contacted the New Jersey Department of Education and commissioners to persuade them to carefully consider the district’s needs.
While it was a victory to have the funds allotted to the district, the situation is still challenging. To accommodate the construction, there has been further upheaval for students and staff. The district has had to relocate parking, rent additional classrooms from another district to house kindergarten students, and the sound of construction often interrupts instruction.
While the district is finally on the right path, the fix is inadequate to meet even the current needs. While enrollment increases have leveled off, the district is still more than 100 seats short of what it should have.
“Our staff works so hard with the bare minimum of everything,” Brache said. “A parent of a teacher donates copy paper so he or she can make copies. There have been no textbooks for years, so teachers have to create materials, but they struggle to ensure that every child’s needs are met.”
The funding challenges are exacerbated by socio-economic issues facing the community. The district is 74 percent Latino. More than 77 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches. More than 19 percent are ELLs, even though more than 96 percent of the student body was born in the United States. There is a large undocumented immigrant community in the Borough, and with a high tax rate and few ratables, taxpayers are wary of funding stressed schools, even as the state of New Jersey fails to pay its fair share.
Since 2009, Freehold Borough has been underfunded by $21.7 million in state aid. That has led the adequacy gap per pupil to increase by more than $1,700.
Without a serious commitment by the state to fully-fund the school funding formula and address the needs of districts like Freehold Borough, which is the third-least funded in the state, these inequities will continue to build.
As Superintendent Tomazic pointed out, Freehold Borough students know they are being shortchanged. While other districts are funding one-to-one computer programs, Freehold Borough is struggling to find room to bring students back into the district; currently, 126 students are being educated outside the district simply because there isn’t enough space.
“If the district had gotten the funding at the time of the initial referendum in 2004, we would have been all right,” Tomazic said. “But because of the delay and the population explosion, we’re still going to be overcrowded. Kindergarten is still going to be placed out of district. That’s hard on parents and students.”
The district continues to pursue a lawsuit against the state, citing that because the state grossly underfunds the district, there is a lack of operating funds. This deficit prevents the district from providing every child with a thorough and efficient education as mandated by the state constitution.
While the district awaits a decision on the lawsuit, which it has been pursuing with Red Bank Borough, it is still very dependent on political will. The Freehold Borough school community is hopeful that Gov. Phil Murphy and newly-elected Sen. Vin Gopal will support the district.
Tomazic believes the district needs 50 teachers in order to accommodate all of the students according to code. With the influx of funding, they will be able to hire just 15; a good start, but a long way from what the district actually needs.
But through it all, the students and staff have somehow managed to make Freehold Borough’s schools a welcoming environment. Bright artwork graces every hallway, providing the students with a much-needed outlet, and everyone with a beautiful work and learning space. Students are polite and curious, even as yet another stranger tours their school. Staff is friendly and classrooms are bright, engaging places, despite the lack of elbow room.
Despite the challenges they continue to face, the students are achieving great things. In particular, the district is proud of a new robotics program and wrestling team who have excelled beyond anyone’s expectations. In addition, students have posted two years of gains in PARCC scores overall and have largely met or exceeded performance targets set by the New Jersey Department of Education. That the students could improve so much under these conditions underscores how much more progress they could make if they are provided the proper amount of classroom space and were adequately funded.
As Brache puts it, “Freehold Borough’s schools are an amazing place. We’re here to educate every child who walks through our door, and I could not be prouder of the students and staff and what we have been able to accomplish together.”
As Gov. Phil Murphy takes office and begins to put together his first state budget, districts such as Freehold Borough will be waiting and watching to see if the School Funding Reform Act is, at long last, fully funded.
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org.
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