By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Education Committee chair Teresa Ruiz were in Freehold Boro to promote their new push for early childhood education.
Whether they were aware of the back story here is hard to know. Freehold is a district roiled by largely Mexican immigration. In 1990, 11 percent of Freehold was Hispanic. By 2000, it was 28 percent. Today it’s nearly half.
The impact on the schools has been severe overcrowding. The library and technology lab have been partitioned into classrooms. The superintendent of this K-8 district says it needs more space.
“Well, because we’ve had a high influx of students our spaces are totally overcrowded. We have space for 1,148 students, but we’re over 1,700. So we’re out of whack by about 550 students,” Rocco Tomazic said.
Hispanic children now make up 72 percent of the student body in Freehold. Some of their parents are undocumented, some not, but they tend not to vote.
Two bond issues to build new classrooms have been defeated by local voters. The school district is asking education commissioner David Hespe to overturn the vote and impose the bond issue, something that’s only happened twice in modern times.
When asked how much he thinks this is due to prejudice against Hispanic immigrants, Tomazik said, “I can’t say. I’ve heard many people say that that’s the reason they wouldn’t vote for the referendum. Others have said it’s just economics. That because the boro has very few rateables, most of the burden would go directly on to the tax space. So they says they just can’t afford the money.”
Compounding the problem, says the superintendent, is the flat funding of public education under Governor Christie.
Senator Jennifer Beck, in whose district Freehold sits, has taken up the cause.
“We have 500 more students in our schools than the state actually will allow. We are overcrowded to a point where there’s not a library in the Park Avenue school and kids are being taught where ever they can find space,” Beck said.
The focus of the visit, however, was pre-K.
“There’s no doubt that the sooner you get a child, and you start educating the child, the stronger the child is going to be,” Sweeney said.
“I think we’re shortsighted when we think about the early interventions, ELL, even special ed., what you can do to change a child’s life that will cost us much better in academic interventions later in life as a resource to working families what we can do,” Ruiz said.
There were slightly different agendas at work here today. The Democrats promoting their early childhood initiative. The district and its Republican senator calling attention to the overcrowding and underfunding in this largely Hispanic district. As the superintendent said, it’s nice to have in the room the people who just might be able to help us out.