WILDWOOD – According to Mayor Ernie Troiano, the city of Wildwood is an enigma when it comes to state aid for schools.
This is despite his near constant complaining to the state, he said.
“We are the squeaky wheel that gets no oil,” he said.
Troiano was responding to questions at a meeting Sept. 13 about an issue he raised the previous month, when he said he was asking for help from State Sen. Jeff Van Drew to have Wildwood classified as an Urban Aid District. Troiano said when the state passed its Quality of Education Act, Wildwood got nothing.
“Then QE2 came out and we lost all our aid, because we don’t fit into categories,” he said of the Quality of Education Act.
The act was passed in 1990 in response to Abbott v. Burke, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court determined New Jersey’s system of financing schools was unconstitutional with regard to the state’s poorest school districts. The state was ordered to bring 28 of the state’s poorest school districts on equal funding ground with the state’s wealthier school districts.
The Wildwood School District does receive state aid, but efforts to be classified as an Abbott District have failed. Out of a $20.3 million budget for the 2016-2017 school year, the Wildwood School District received over $5.25 million in state aid.
“That’s a little over $25,000 more than last year,” district business administrator Martha Jamison said.
Jamison said the pre-school education program was also up about $8,000 to about $420,000.
However, she said Wildwood schools did not qualify as an Abbott District based on student population alone.
“You have to have 1,000 students to qualify,” Jamison said.
As of Sept. 14, the district had 849 students: 447 in the Glenwood Avenue School, 162 in Wildwood Middle school, and 240 students in the city’s high school.
Troiano said the town is penalized for having high property values, which he said are primarily on the beach block.
“The state tells me, ‘You have “X” number dollars behind your kids,’ and I say, ‘No I don’t’,” Troiano said.
Troiano said unlike school districts such as Camden, Newark and Trenton, Wildwood is an urban district on a barrier island, and doesn’t get state urban district aid because it doesn’t fit the mold. Troiano said North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, which send students to Wildwood High School, have higher property values, but Wildwood doesn’t have the benefit of their local purpose tax.
Troiano said Wildwood has to provide for greater needs than other shore communities, and would like to see the school district become an Abbott District. Although the Wildwood district received more than $5 million in state aid this year, by comparison, he said, the Vineland School District budget was $100 million, with $99 million coming from Abbott District funding. Troiano said the same was true in Pleasantville, which he said was getting 99 percent of its budget from the state. The district also has newer school buildings than Wildwood, Troiano said.
According to budget information available online from the U.S. Department of Education, Vineland has a $194.2 million budget for its public schools in 2016-17, with $22.6 million coming from taxpayers. According to the budget, about $137.5 million in revenue comes from state funding.
In Pleasantville, which has a $92.2 million school budget in 2016-17, the state supplied $64.8 million in aid, according to the department.
Troiano said Wildwood qualified better than 65 percent of other Abbott Districts, and wealthier districts in the state were getting additional money. Troiano said Wildwood doesn’t qualify because it doesn’t have 250 kids on relief. He said that is despite having nearly a quarter of the student population living in poverty.
The original section of Wildwood High School also turned 100 years old this year.
“The numbers make no sense,” he said.
Troiano said David Sciarra, an attorney who grew up in Wildwood Crest and fought for the Abbott Districts, grew up in Wildwood Crest, said the Wildwood School District is underfunded by $4.3 million or $4.8 million. Troiano said he has tried to get more state aid for Wildwood schools, but said he doesn’t have the political clout. He said he is frustrated and has asked the state legislators for help.
At the same time, Troiano said, Gov. Chris Christie took away the Urban Economic Zone (UEZ) status from Wildwood, which had certain tax incentives are designed to stimulate the local economy.
Troiano said the UEZ designation was beneficial to Wildwood. It allowed the city to rebuild the boardwalk block by block, but it was taken away for the same reasons the district doesn’t get state aid, he said.
“I challenged the education commissioner to come to Wildwood and tell me I’m being treated fairly. I challenged the governor to come to Wildwood and tell me I’m being treated fairly,” Troiano said.
While Troiano said he credits the staff with maintaining a 100-year-old section of a school building well, it still has classrooms without air conditioning and advanced technology. He said appeals to the state fall on deaf ears.
“Call Trenton and it’s like talking to an empty room. I’m not asking for a handout, I’m asking for what the state would do for other communities,” Troiano said.
Troiano said Cape May County is a big source of tax dollars, and the Wildwoods are the largest contributors to sales tax and occupancy taxes, and he would like to see some of it come back. He said the figures used to classify Abbott Districts are as skewed.
“All they think of with Wildwood is beaches and all that. There are a lot of residents who are cleaners, chamber maids, and parking lot attendants – those are not high income jobs,” Troiano said. “The whole school system gets free lunch. That is pretty drastic.”
Jamison confirmed that 100 percent of the school population receives a free breakfast and lunch under the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). She said the entire district qualifies for the program because it has enough families on assistance programs. She said without the CEP, 90 percent of the elementary school and 80 percent of the high school students would qualify for a free or reduced lunch.