TOMS RIVER — Could the start of school be delayed because of cuts in state education funding?

The Toms River Regional School District is facing a $26.5 million budget shortfall for the 2024-25 academic year that will force major cuts to staff and programs.

The proposed budget, which does not include enough funds to fill the gap, has been reviewed by the state Department of Education. District Superintendent Michael Citta said the state understands the situation and could extend the deadline.

During a May 7 public budget hearing, Citta said the district could cut 368 positions and add "dozens" of students to class sizes to provide a "rock bottom" education if no additional funding comes from the state.

"This school district cannot cut anymore because we wouldn't be providing a thorough and efficient education and I couldn't sign a budget that says so," Citta said. "That is not on the table."

During the public comment section of the meeting, Citta and Board of Education members were asked what happens if there is no additional funding.

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The state will have to decide

Citta said that besides academics the whole package of education for students in the Toms River district includes athletics and other extracurriculars. Those spending levels are not met in a pared-down budget.

"If we get to a situation where we need to make a decision the state needs to make the decisions," Citta said, adding that the district will begin classes as scheduled in September.

Gov. Phil Murphy's budget includes a record amount of spending on public education, but it also includes a drop in funding for nearly 140 school systems where enrollment has grown but is decreasing. The formula is still up for discussion as state legislators work out a final state budget.

Districts have a May 14 deadline to submit a final budget to the state but it could be extended.

One option off the table is a loan. The state has told other districts like Jackson and Lakewood that it will not loan any district funds to fill their respective gaps.

The Toms River School District serves students from Beachwood, Pine Beach and South Toms River. It has an enrollment of 14,594 students as of the 2020-21 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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