WEST ORANGE, NJ — Although content with the final budget for the 2019-2020 school year, which was presented and adopted during last week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, WOBOE member Mark Robertson said that the district could do more to offset the financial burden that the budget poses not only to the district, but to taxpayers.

“While this budget has helped to compensate for some things that should have been done before, there are still things that we have failed to do,” said Robertson. “We have a grant writer we have not used in almost three and half years. We pay [New Jersey School Boards] $7,000 a year to research unlimited grants and […] we haven’t written with them.”

Robertson stressed that the district needs to take advantage of opportunities to seek out monies that will “enrich and grow programs for our children” in areas like sports, the arts and STEAM. He also expressed the hope that fellow members Terry Trigg-Scales and Cheryl Merklinger, who he said campaigned on the use of grants for the district, will assist in “carrying the standard forward to get these monies.”

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West Orange resident Adam Kraemer had different thoughts about how the board handled the budgeting process.

“John Marshall famously said, ‘The power to tax is the power to destroy,’” said Kraemer, adding that even if the board values education, the district should also value the ability for West Orange residents to be able to afford to live and age in the township.

Referencing the $138.28 tax increase over last year, Kraemer said that the WOBOE cannot tax the residents and then divorce itself from the issue that West Orange has with foreclosure.

“You can’t say you budgeted,” he said, stating that although New Jersey gave West Orange a significant increase in state aid, the WOBOE “still whacked the taxpayer over the head with another levy,” which he noted has increased by more than $5 million since last year’s budget.

Following the 2019-2020 budget presentation, Kraemer said the district—which serves approximately 6,750 students—is now spending more than $24,400 per student.

“[This number is] way more than almost any other district in the state [and] every other district around here,” he said. “That’s not budgeting; that’s not cutting. That’s budgetary growth; that’s fiscal irresponsibility.”

West Orange High School (WOHS) teacher Jan De Rosa commented on the budget presentation with concerns about the state of the district’s fountain water.

“I drank out of a water fountain today at the high school and I saw that it was working,” she said. “Is the water safe? I need to know that, and I need to know that with absolute certainty.”

As a cancer survivor, De Rosa said she is not only concerned about her own health, but also that of her students.

“I write every day in my sign-in sheet, ‘is this [the water fountains] going to be fixed today?’” she said. “I need to know, and my colleagues at every school need to know.”

Business Administrator John Calavano, who presented the budget along with Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez, responded that all fountains should be shut off. However, he said the biggest step that the district must take before the water can come back on is to come up with a final management plan after the most recent testing results are analyzed and processed.

De Mendez also added that consultants are scheduled to “look at the long-term issues” over the summer.

“We’ve put in place all of our short-term [remediation efforts] right now,” said de Mendez, who added that the fountains that are not supposed to be in use are turned off. “But the rest of them should have filters on them…We will continue to provide the water [bottles] to anyone who does not feel they want to drink from our fountains until all the issues are resolved.”

In addition, based on feedback from the audience and Aarushi Bhatnagar, a student liaison to the WOBOE, de Mendez confirmed that Robert Csigi, Director of Building and Grounds for the district, will be invited to present a five-year plan that “will outline what needs to be done as far as our capital and our building maintenance.”

Referencing the recent survey and community meetings organized as part of the superintendent search, West Orange resident Jeremias Salinas expressed concern about R-Pat Solutions, the firm selected to conduct the search.

Although he respects the firm’s educational and professional backgrounds, Salinas said he is not confident that “two people are capable of going through all of this information in such a short period of time.”

WOHS Coach Lamont Jackson conceded and elaborated on Salinas’ point by suggesting that de Mendez become the official superintendent. Although he was unsure whether de Mendez wants the job or is even being considered, Jackson felt her appointment to the position would help the district to remain consistent.

WOBOE president Ken Alper assured Salinas that the firm is currently aggregating quantitative data, which will be used to develop interview questions over the next few weeks. Alper also agreed with Jackson’s idea of consistency.

“I agree really strongly with you,” he said. “Continuity is good for everyone and yet at the same time choosing a chief school administrator is the most or one of the most important things the school board can do. We would really be shirking our responsibility to not conduct a full search and what the world has out there to offer.”

Alper also confirmed that the cost to hire the search firm is $9,000.

Click HERE to read about the budget presentation and adoption.

In other news, updates regarding the state of the diversity committee will be discussed at the next WOBOE meeting, which will take place at the high school on May 20.