By Erin Delmore
“They were walking through the halls like sardines,” said Toms River resident Jaye Malarik.
Schools in Freehold Borough are far beyond their maximum capacity, and since a referendum to expand the buildings failed twice, the Board of Education is appealing to the state to overrule the voters.
The three schools in the district have room for 1,148 students but surpassed that mark 15 years ago. Last school year the district enrolled nearly 500 more students than its three school buildings are designed to hold.
Superintendent Rocco Tomazic says the district hasn’t been receiving the funding to keep up with growth.
“We’ve increased our number of students, but the amount of state aid has remained flat,” he said.
The borough put school expansion to a vote in September and December. Each time, the referendum failed by fewer than 130 votes.
Immigration advocates in the Freehold area say the decision isn’t representative of the community because a large percentage of students’ parents are undocumented and can’t vote.
Census data shows that more than a third of the borough’s 12,000 residents were born in a foreign country. A quarter of all residents are under 18. More than 70 percent of students are Hispanic and around three-quarters qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a fact not lost on those who say they don’t want to foot the bill for undocumented residents.
Casa Freehold Executive Director Rita Dentino helped almost 500 parents petition for school expansion in letters to the state education commissioner.
“They were so happy that they were being given this opportunity to have a voice because sadly they’re used to being voiceless,” she said.
“Immigration is not an issue at all for the school district. The school district is responsible to educate every resident child. That’s our responsibility. We don’t go beyond that. So from our situation, those students once we make sure they actually live in Freehold Borough, then it’s our responsibility to educate them,” Tomazic said.
Tomazic and the Board of Education asked Commissioner David Hespe to request the Legislature provide funding for the school. They’re hoping for nearly $33 million to fund upgrades at Park Avenue Elementary and Middle School and the Freehold Learning Center, including nearly two dozen new classrooms and cafeteria and gym additions.
Residents are divided on whether the state should be able to overrule the referendum.
“I don’t think we have to vote then, if he’s going to make the decision down in Trenton,” said Freehold Borough resident Ronald DeMarco.
“We’re looking for great education and I think our taxes pretty much should pay for that,” said Fiona Hasham of Freehold Borough.
Right now, the case is with an assigning judge who will appoint an administrative law judge to preside over hearings and to offer a recommendation to State Education Commissioner Hespe. The commissioner’s office declined to comment on pending issues, but Superintendent Tomazic said he hopes to have a decision by end of this calendar year.