UNION, NJ – To chants of “Save our -- PARAs” and “We are -- WORTH IT”, about 100 paraprofessionals, teachers, parents, and union members rallied in front of the Board of Education building, then walked to the high school for Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

“The Board fired 91 of our lowest paid members,” said Union Township Education Association (UTEA) President Ann Margaret Shannon.  “People who take care of the children.” 

Shannon said the district needs $2.3m to close a budget gap.  “We suggested they find ten line items and cut $230,000 from each.  But it’s easier for them to just cut it all off on one line.   We want them to re-look at the budget and change their minds.”

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At the May 4 Board of Education meeting, School Superintendent Gregory Tatum said salaries and benefits for the 91 paraprofessionals in the district with service one through six years is $3.9m.  He said in total costs for the 156 paraprofessionals in the district is $7.7m.   “Our revenues are not meeting our expenditures,” said Tatum.  “All of the things we talked about tonight, in terms of how this budget was prepared, was undertaken to try to maintain a quality education here in the Township of Union.”

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"It is an atrocious act that this Board and the administration is putting members of their own community out of work,” said James Frazier, former UTEA President and current Union County Education Association Vice President.  “Their mismanagement of our taxes through several budget cycles should be examined. The fact is privatizing paraprofessionals, many of whom are our neighbors, is a disservice to our students and families in our community.”  Frazier said facts show there is no true savings when outsourcing certain services. “Cheap never equals quality".

“This is completely unfair and unconscionable,” said Steve Beatty, NJEA Secretary-Treasurer.  “We know they have the money.  They hide certain things.  So, we’re here to support the paraprofessionals in any way we can to make sure they preserve their jobs.  The Board of Education needs to realize this cannot go on and we will stop this.”

“We don’t want strangers working with our children,” said Thomas Hardy, Northeast Regional Director – NJEA, “when we have the people, who are part of our community, who have worked for years with our children.  They are a part of the fabric of this community.”

“I’m here tonight to support the 91 paraprofessionals who are not being renewed by this school district,” said Lisa Palin, President of the Union County Education Association.  “It’s just not right.  The individuals who will be hired do not know the kids and the staff, and the kids don’t know them.”

Public comments, emotional at times, from paraprofessionals, parents, and teachers included:

“On May 15, 91 of the paraprofessionals in the district received their non-tenure notices,” said one paraprofessional.  “Those 91 paraprofessionals want to know what will happen in September.  They would like to know what company they’ll be working for.  What are their health benefits like?  Will they sign a contract?  What are they offering?”

“As a para and as a head rep, how am I going to convince these paras to remain in this district?  Please let me know what I’m supposed to say to them. Every day they ask me, do you know what’s happening?  What company are we going to work for?  Has a bid been submitted?  What are we going to do?  When am I going to know?”

At this point in the public comment portion of the meeting, Board attorney Lester Taylor said there is a grievance filed by the UTEA last Thursday “alleging certain issues, contractual violations regarding seniority, etc., and due to the pendency of that grievance, the Board and administration cannot respond publicly.  Some of the issues deal with personnel, procurement and contract issue.   Similarly, the Board cannot respond publicly about those issues.  Some of the questions – what company? What benefits? – all good questions, but premature for the Board to answer, because there has been no vendor selected yet.”

Several paraprofessionals invoked their seniority rights and presented Tatum with a letter invoking these rights.

“To those who are unaware, the Board of Education lost revenue when they missed cap adjustments they were entitled to,” said one paraprofessional.  “They lost $2 million that should have been in the budget four years ago.  This, and other misappropriation of funding, leads to a yearly budget crisis.  The quick-fix solution is to take away from a large group – the paraprofessionals.  This budget issue will continue to be ongoing.  The Board of Education is shortchanging the taxpayers and staff with the lack of proposed plans to replace 91 of 156 paraprofessionals.  It will be counterproductive as they scurry to fill the positions.”

“We were also provided with an empty promise and blank faith,” continued the paraprofessional.  “You talk about the agency, but you didn’t put it on the table to discuss and let us know where we stand.  It’s negligence on the Board’s part.  When do you plan on deciding?  It’s May.  I need to know so I know whether I’m going to stay or seek employment elsewhere.  It’s unfair and unjust that a proposal has not yet been made.  We need immediate answers.”

The paraprofessional said from her research she has found that most agencies have bad reputations and tarnished records.  “By going to an agency and outsourcing us, you’re lowering your standards.  You’re also losing your ability to maintain stability and control.  You will lose quality, consistency and caring.”

One paraprofessional, who attended Union schools, said, “I love my job.  What the township is doing is incredibly hurtful to me and the other paras who have been cut.  You are asking us to plan our lives on a promise.  Nothing else.  A promise that you will find a company that will provide us with the same salary and benefits, without telling us what those benefits are or what the corporation will be.  It’s incredibly unfair to us.”

“I’m here to fight for a job that I love,” said a five-year paraprofessional.  “Nothing makes me happier.”

Rich D’Avanzo, UTEA Vice President, said nothing positive comes from privatization.  D’Avanzo discussed the many issues the South Orange/Maplewood school district is having as a result of privatization.  “[Board member] “Ms. (Kalisha) Morgan [Principal of Columbia High School in Maplewood] spoke positively as an administrator of how well privatization was doing in South Orange/Maplewood.  Quite interesting.”  D’Avanzo presented a recent article which included disturbing examples of problems with the paraprofessional outsourcing in South Orange/Maplewood.  “Since the temp agencies were engaged, quality has gone down and horror stories, like this one, have appeared.  There have been numerous allegations of neglect, incompetence and abuse and a documented case of a para stealing lunch money from a disabled student.  In the long run, those are going to be the new problems that you’re going to be facing.”

“Privatization does not save any money.  I don’t care what the company says to you.  They are all lies,” said Eloy Delgado, President of the Linden Education Association.  “What price can you put on your neighbors?  These people are your colleagues, your neighbors, they’re here for your children.”

“Please.  I urge you,” continued Delgado.  “Do not do this horrible mistake.  You’re going to regret it.  I can guarantee that.  You’re going to regret it.  Instead, work with the local union leadership and figure this out.  Our kids deserve the best.”

“This is a tough time for us parents who have children with disabilities because this fight is not just about administration vs UTEA.  It’s about our children,” said one parent.  “They key point that we all have to understand is the children that are affected by any decision that is made….this decision didn’t just come up.  These discussions didn’t just start.  Time and time again, we’re always coming at the eleventh hour and faced with the stress of some sort of impasse.  It takes a toll on the emotion of parents.  It’s been very stressful.”

Denise Policastro, NJEA, Associate Director of Research and Economic Services, said she represents Union, Essex, Bergen and Hudson Counties, with 202 School districts within those four counties. 

“Last week when I was here, I used the words ‘I’m worried’.  This week, I’m here to say I’m frustrated.”  Policastro said, “last week I brought up, in your agenda to approve appropriation transfers, I expected something in today’s agenda.  I have no idea where you’re moving your money.  And I will say very clearly:  I stand by the statement I made last week, with the $11.5m.  What that number means is that the revenue that you brought in in the 17-18 audit did not match what you spent.  That’s what that overage is saying.  Whether it came from surplus or somewhere else, you didn’t bring in that money, yet you spent it.”

“Almost every single line item had a budget transfer.  So, how does anyone in this public follow any of the money.  And when we think about this $2.3m, to me it’s a fake number.  It’s a fake number because you told the paras ‘you’re going to receive salary and benefits’ and they’re hearing ‘it’s the same’.  It cannot be the same if you plan on spending $2.3m.”

“These numbers [fund balances] aren’t making sense,” continued Policastro.  “Nothing is making sense here.  When I started thinking, talking, learning about what was happening here, it is the mismanagement of these funds that have caused a crisis.  But is there even a crisis?  Where’s the $2.3 million coming from?  I am asking that you reinstate the 91 paras.  You know you can do it.”