Local News

As states overhaul school funding, not everyone gains. Take New Jersey

Note: As a school funding fanatic, I enjoyed talking with New Jersey public school superintendents about how their decrease in funding would affect their districts. Another reporter interviewed the districts gaining funding, and together, we provided a comprehensive view of the effects of New Jersey’s new school funding allocations.

New Jersey has just added more than $350 million to help pay for public education, yet the Washington Township School District finds itself looking at cutting back on capital projects and insurance coverage.

And it’s only going to get worse, says school board president Ginny Murphy, with more-drastic cuts inevitable. “It’s going to be a difficult seven years for us,” she said.

In Glassboro, where state aid is being slashed, “it’s going to decimate the public school system,” said board president Peter Calvo.

While most districts in the state are getting more money for the 2018-19 school year, Washington Township and Glassboro — both in Gloucester County — are among the districts losing dollars under a redistribution to more fully enact the state’s funding formula, which calculates how much aid school districts need based on student enrollment and a community’s ability to raise taxes.

The state needs to take money from some districts to adequately fund others, says Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). Inevitably, that is going to mean fiscal pain for those who see their subsidies cut.

It is a dilemma that has been playing out in several states that have adopted new school-funding formulas. In Pennsylvania, the future of how the state will pay for public education has become an issue in the gubernatorial campaign, with Gov. Wolf hammered by GOP rival Scott Wagner for saying he favored applying the formula passed in 2016 to all state education aid. The approach — which Wolf has said would take more money — would benefit poorer districts, like Philadelphia, and others where student needs and enrollments have grown, but could require cuts to others. That can become problematic.

“Almost every state, when they pass a new funding formula, creates some sort of” provision to ensure no one loses money, said Mike Griffith, a school finance consultant with Education Commission of the States. The aid “can become addictive at a certain point for school districts,” Griffith said. “You have a harder and harder time as the years go by getting rid of that.”

Among states with plans for phasing out aid to districts, Rhode Island established a seven- to 10-year time frame, while Idaho is considering three to five years, Griffith said.

In New Jersey, which adopted a formula in 2008, the state just began shifting aid from districts last year. Gov. Murphy has said he will sign a bill that would establish a six-year schedule to shift aid from districts — meaning it might take 16 years from the formula’s passage before it is fully enacted.

While the approach faced stiff opposition from the state teachers’ union and communities slated to lose money, “the districts that have been on the path of being over-funded can’t deny they have had an advantage for years,” Sweeney said.

For those that have been underfunded, like Bellmawr School District in Camden County, the added money “is long overdue,” said Annette Castiglione, Bellmawr superintendent. Her district received an additional $794,000 in aid — about 5 percent of its total budget from the year before.

Bellmawr’s tax base is weaker than some of its neighbors, and Castiglione said the district hasn’t been able to restore positions it eliminated after losing $1 million under Gov. Chris Christie.

“We don’t have a guidance counselor in every school. We don’t have a social worker. We don’t have coaches. We don’t have our own school nurses,” Castiglione said. The school board will meet next week to decide how to use the additional aid; Castiglione said she will recommend it be put toward services, rather than tax relief.

“There are things we need to do to catch up with the districts that surround us,” Castiglione said. The district is also trying to determine whether its insurance will cover the damage from a fire at an elementary school building.

In Merchantville, which is getting an additional $671,000 — or 8 percent of its total budget last year — Chief School Administrator Scott Strong said he would like to hire staff, including specialists to help children who are below grade level but not receiving special education services. Much of the pre-K-through-8th-grade district’s added costs in recent years have gone toward paying for its students to attend high school in Haddon Heights — a new arrangement that has proved popular.

“This will give us a little more wiggle room, where we can perhaps not go all the way to the top” in raising taxes, Strong said. The district has been raising taxes above the state-imposed 2 percent cap for the last two years, an exception permitted because of the Haddon Heights arrangement. In 2014, it got taxpayer approval for $2 million in building projects.

“Because we were underfunded, we had to go out for that bond,” Strong said. With added state money, he said, the district will be able to “hopefully provide that tax relief” for residents.

While Murphy signed the budget July 1, districts did not receive official notice of their state aid for the year from the Department of Education until July 13. Districts must decide on a plan for spending additional money or accounting for cuts by Aug. 1.

Murphy’s budget plan, announced in March, had increased aid to most districts, cutting none. So for those now losing money, the losses are that much harder to take. Washington Township, for instance, is losing only $483,000 compared with last year, a 0.3 percent decrease from that budget. But it’s down $1.5 million compared with Murphy’s proposal.

While Pemberton Township’s aid is $1.3 million less than last year, it’s $1.9 million below Murphy’s plan. Anticipating budget changes, the district already made cuts, including $700,000 in staffing in May. It now plans to apply for emergency state aid because “that amount of cut is just too severe,” said Superintendent Tony Trongone.

As a former Abbott district — which received added state aid as a result of the landmark New Jersey Supreme Court rulings — Pemberton would be shielded from cuts below a certain threshold in the future in the funding bill expected to be signed by Murphy. The bill lays out a six-year schedule for phasing out over-payments to districts, but makes some exceptions for districts like Pemberton, which have been protected by the court rulings, or others where tax rates are already above the state average.

Still, Trongone said he was “not happy with the calculations for my district, being a former Abbott.”

Others, like Washington Township, are expecting continued cuts — $8 million over seven years, according to Murphy. The board hasn’t yet voted on how it will handle the money lost this year. As it loses more aid, the district will have to look at partnerships with businesses, Murphy said.

New Jersey’s attempt to put its 2008 formula fully in place was complicated by the recession, which made it difficult to draw money down from any district, said Griffith, the school finance consultant.

States generally overhaul their approach to funding schools every 20 to 25 years, he said. In New Jersey, “I wouldn’t be surprised if not too long after you phased everybody in, you’d have to go back and look at the formula again.”

(Published on Philly.com on July 23, 2o18 and in print)


Concerns raised over dog owners ignoring leash laws

Note: While this wasn’t the biggest or most scandalous story I’ve written, it’s one of my favorites. Local, community journalism is often overlooked, but it’s just as important as the stories that big-name news outlets cover. So, I was glad I was able to bring attention to this issue and start a conversation about solutions.

The feisty dogs snarled, snapped and sank their teeth into Davis resident Jenny Hing’s 18-pound papillon-border collie mix, Obie. The Oct. 18 attack lasted about two seconds before Hing pried her prized pup from the grips of two “medium-sized, brown and muscular dogs.”

Hing had been eating lunch on the walking trail behind Sutter Hospital in West Davis while 3-year-old Obie sat patiently tied to a post. A woman with three dogs — two of which were off-leash — approached Hing from behind, and immediately the dogs started jumping on Obie. However, the dogfight ended just as quickly as it started.

“It was over because I picked Obie up, and then the dogs were jumping on me trying to get at Obie. It took (the woman) a little while to contain the two dogs,” Hing said.

As a result of the attack, Obie suffered a puncture wound in his thigh muscle and a 2-inch-long skin tear. The skin was pulled away from the muscle, creating a pocket that required a drain, Hing said. After four weeks, Obie’s wound healed but his hair is still growing back.

Similar incidents happen often when dogs are not restrained by leashes, said Vicky Fletcher, Yolo County’s chief animal services officer.

“The problem that we run into is the fact that dogs run out in front of cars. They can cause vehicle accidents,” Fletcher said. “They sometimes go after another dog. They get into a fight. People try to break it up, and humans get bitten. Dogs get injured.

“People’s cats who are innocently sleeping on their own porch end up getting attacked by dogs that are roaming,” she added.

The city of Davis requires all dogs to remain on a leash except when on private property or when the dog is in a designated off-leash area. Unfenced off-leash areas include the Aspen Greenbelt, John Barovetto Park, Pioneer Park, Slide Hill Park, Sycamore Park and Walnut Park. Fenced off-leash areas include Community Park and Toad Hollow Dog Park.

Off-leash permits are available at the city’s Community Services Department for dogs involved in obedience training and showing in trials. In order to make use of the permit, dogs must be “enrolled and actually participating in a dog training or obedience class, exhibition or competition conducted by an organization with the permission of the owner or operator of the grounds or facility,” according to the city’s website.

“It’s important that people understand the ordinances related to this are not to restrict people from having a good time with their dog,” Fletcher said. “Until your dog knocks somebody down, bites somebody or causes injury or damage to somebody else’s pet or one of your community neighbors, you’re not going to realize just how far that can go.”

Hing filed a report with Animal Services after the owner of the dogs who attacked Obie did not pay for Obie’s veterinary bills, which amounted to less than $500.

But the money is just a small part of it for Hing. Obie required 24/7 care for four weeks after the incident, she said. He could not be left alone because he would pull off the cone wrapped around his head.

“He’s traumatized,” she said. “The first couple of days he was in a lot of pain. He got up two or three times at night yelping with pain and he would run around yelping so we would have to catch him and pin him down and medicate him.”

Fletcher thinks one of the solutions to abuse of the leash law is community policing.

“If you see something and you’re aware of it, if you report it, then we’ll act on it,” she said. “And then we hopefully can stop it before it gets to a point where somebody gets injured, sometimes permanently, and/or an animal is killed in the process or severely injured.”

Another solution lies with Animal Control officers, who regularly patrol the city and give warnings and citations to owners of off-leash dogs, Fletcher said. Davis police also can write citations for dogs being off-leash.

“We try to respond anytime somebody calls us,” Fletcher said. “We try to make contact with the dog owners to ensure that they understand their responsibility and often we try to give a warning to make them aware.”

Tracey Louper, a member of the Davis Dog Training Club and past president, thinks tougher leash laws will not help because the same people are still going to flout the law.

“It’s not dogs being off-leash that’s the problem. It’s the people that think they can control their dogs and can’t,” she said. “There’s not particular breeds out there offending. It’s any and all.”

Frustrated with how current leash laws are being ignored, some residents are taking the matter into their own hands.

Louise Wilson, obedience chair for the Chow Chow Club Inc. and pending treasurer of the Davis Dog Training Club, carries pepper spray as a precaution when she walks her chow chows on the North Davis greenbelt. Over the past 20 years, she has used pepper spray as a defense against threatening off-leash dogs a total of four times.

“The last time I used pepper spray, I used it on the dog that came after me,” she said. “The dog that came after me was not a big dog, but she could’ve knocked me down. I’m 75 years old. I don’t want to have a broken hip.”

The attack on Obie was not the first injury-causing dogfight in Davis, and likely will not be the last. Hing recognizes she cannot force people to follow the law, but she wants to raise public awareness about the dangers of off-leash dogs.

“Now I don’t feel safe taking Obie to Chestnut Park anymore, so the sad thing is the law-abiding citizens cannot make use of the parks for which our tax dollars go, but the people who break the law get to use the resources.”

(Published in the Dec. 18 edition of The Davis Enterprise and online)


At Town Hall, Students and Residents Voice Fierce Support for Metrolink Stop

Note: This story is another example of local journalism that matters. Many Claremonters rely on Metrolink to get into LA and surrounding areas. So when there was a possibility of it getting demolished without a replacement, people were mad. My article, co-written with another student journalist, gives voice to the voiceless and raises aware about this important issue. Also noteworthy is that Metro staff recommended Claremont keep its Metrolink stop following the town hall.

More than 200 Claremont residents and 5C students packed the Alexander Hughes Community Center during a town hall meeting Monday night to demand that the Los Angeles County Metro Board of Directors keep the city’s Metrolink stop.

The Gold Line Foothill Extension will expand Los Angeles’ light rail system further east, adding a Metro stop in Claremont in 2026. The current plan is to demolish the existing Metrolink station at the end of 2021 to make room for the new Metro station, and rebuild the Metrolink station across College Avenue so Metrolink trains can continue to stop there.

In September, County Supervisor Hilda Solis proposed a study to examine the impact of not rebuilding the Metrolink station after it is torn down. Staff from Metro, Metrolink, and the Foothill Gold Line presented their preliminary findings at the town hall Monday.

The study determined that not rebuilding the Metrolink station after its demolition would save an estimated $40 million in construction and overhead costs for the Foothill Gold Line, helping to alleviate the project’s $280 million budget shortfall. But it would leave Claremont without any type of train from 2021 to 2026.

Though Metro promised to provide free shuttle service to the nearby Montclair Metrolink station for the duration of the construction, the results of the study were met with fierce criticism from fired-up Claremonters. Residents and students, who clearly view the Metrolink station as an integral part of the city, peppered the presenters with questions and condemnation.

“I think a lot of it’s kind of bullshit,” Violet Burbank HM ’21 said of the presentation, “closing everything down just for a bunch of statistics that they don’t really fully explain.”

Burbank was part of a contingent of 5C students who showed up with signs reading #SOS, for “Save Our Station,” and were firmly against removing the Metrolink stop.

“I rely on the trains a lot, because I live really far away and I always have to go to LAX [to get home],” she said.

Claremont resident Raoul Cervantes, 80, said he drops his granddaughter off at the Metrolink station early each morning so she can ride to California State University, Los Angeles.

“I wouldn’t want to drive her to Cal State every day, it’d be a hassle,” Cervantes said. “If they shut it down, what’s the alternative? There is no alternative.”

Claremont Mayor Larry Schroeder asked the presenters dozens of written questions on behalf of the audience, including whether Metro has considered the environmental impacts of the project, whether Montclair will be required to create a bike path from Claremont to its Metrolink station, and if Metro has consulted with San Bernardino County.

The crowd, unsatisfied with the presenters’ incomplete answers, grew increasingly rowdy, and about 50 people lambasted the Metro staffers for two hours of public comment afterward.

“I currently have a diagnosed medical condition that requires me to return to my home in Los Angeles for treatment every month, and I use the Metrolink to do that, because I don’t have a car and I cannot afford a sixty-dollar round-trip ride-hailing service fee,” Olivia Wood PO ’19 told the presenters. “Closing the Metrolink station would have a drastic, negative impact on students such as myself.”

Former Claremont Mayor Suzan Smith, 81, told TSL she was “absolutely horrified” when she learned about the study and noted that the station “helps us economically.”

Smith served on Claremont’s city council in 1977, when the city first advocated for a Metrolink stop, which eventually opened in 1992.

Several Claremont business owners at the meeting told Metro staff that their livelihoods depend on customers who arrive in Claremont on the Metrolink.

“My clientele comes from all over,” said one woman, who identified herself only as a Claremont resident. “We rely on this being a place that people can get off the train to.”

Smith added that the Metrolink stop makes Claremont more accessible to visitors who are elderly or unable to drive.

Jenny Johnston SC ’21 and McKayla Cox SC ‘21 arrived opposed to removing the stop, but said they were open to hearing information that might change their minds. They weren’t swayed.

“I’ve seen more reasons not to get rid of it,” Cox said. “I think the biggest issue is that five-to-six year span” without any rail service.

But not all students oppose removing Claremont’s Metrolink stop.

“I’m OK with eliminating the Metrolink station as long as they provide dependable shuttle service to Montclair in the interim Gold Line construction,” Adam Dvorak PO ’21 wrote in a message to TSL.

He noted that the Gold Line will be cheaper, and wrote that the six-year shuttle interim would be “only a small sacrifice.”

A one-way ticket on the Metro costs $1.75, while a trip from Claremont to Los Angeles Union Station via Metrolink costs $9.25, or $7 for students.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Jeanet Owens, a senior executive officer for Metro, acknowledged the community members’ complaints.

“We have heard you, and we will definitely include your comments in our board report,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re very transparent in the process.”

Metro staff members will present the findings of their study, recommendations, and feedback from the community to the Metro Planning and Programming Committee on Jan. 17 at the Metro Board Room at 1 Gateway Plaza in Los Angeles, near Union Station.

(Published on tsl.news on Dec. 12, 2017)


From Honduras to Yolo County to freedom: the journey of a 14-year-old boy

Note: This article was especially relevant given the political climate surrounding immigration. And by the time by story went up, The San Francisco Chronicle was the only other publication who had the story. 

Fourteen-year-old G.E.* fled Honduras to escape an abusive family situation, traveling over 1,400 miles from his native country to reach Texas. Upon entering the U.S., however, he was jailed.

Although G.E. was granted asylum on Jan. 10 of this year, he remained locked up in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center for an additional two months. Yesterday, he was released to a foster home.

Since G.E. entered the country about a year ago, Yolo County has been cooperating with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to “provide care in a secure facility for unaccompanied minor children,” according to Yolo County Public Information Officer Beth Gabor.

Gabor could not comment on the specific case, but explained that “federal law requires ORR to continue to detain a child even after he or she is granted asylum until a suitable custodian can be located.”

Sara Ehsani-Nia, a member of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, understood the law. But she did not see any reason to continue holding G.E. after Jan. 10. So she started working on a writ of habeas corpus with another member of the UC Davis ILC, Eduardo Osorio, in early February.

“There was no legal reason [to keep G.E.] inside of the immigration jail. They terminated his deportation hearings and gave him status,” Ehsani-Nia said.

She was trying to give G.E. what he wanted—freedom. He had been moved around several detention centers across the nation. Ehsani-Nia added that it is not uncommon for kids in asylum limbo to be moved around frequently.

However, there is a lack of services and centers available for kids like G.E.. As a result, they are placed in detention centers with other youth who have committed crimes.

“[They’re] being treated like prisoners. Why does he have to be inside such a terrible setting? I understand if you want to keep a close tab on them, but this seems cruel,” Ehsani-Nia said.

Seth Sanders, a religious studies professor at UC Davis and member of Indivisible Yolo, agreed with Ehsani-Nia. He worked with fellow Indivisible Yolo member Emily Hill to put together a rally advocating for G.E.’s release.

Indivisible Yolo’s action team, led by Sanders, coordinated with G.E.’s legal team, found speakers and publicized the event, according to Hill.

Their plan worked better than anticipated: G.E.’s was released from the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center a day before the planned rally. Sanders said the group would forge ahead with the rally anyways “to let him know we’re still thinking about him.”

“We rally to celebrate G.E.’s freedom and welcome him to Yolo, but equally to remember: he is not the only one. To everyone else arbitrarily detained – we have not forgotten you,” Hill said.

Sanders cited Congressman John Garamendi as instrumental to the process as well as the ability of Indivisible Yolo to effectively organize.

“If you show up and organize, you can get things done. It’s interesting how these things work. Kids’ stories are powerful, and young people can learn from this stuff,” Sanders said.

Hill, however, is not convinced the problem is solved. She worries that there are several more children like G.E. being locked up for seeking “freedom and safety.” Indivisible Yolo does not know the specifics of these children’s cases.

“We are very concerned that other youths are being detained much longer than is just,” Hill said.

Hill says that the group will keep fighting for the rights of children who are detained and not permitted a paid attorney.

“We are a better, stronger, kinder nation when we are united, and when we recognize the contributions of everyone in our communities,” Hill said. “We will not let Trump turn us against each other. We will stand indivisible.”

*Name is being withheld because G.E. is a minor.

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on March 14, 2017)