To the Scotch Plains Fanwood Board of Education:
First, I want to make it known that I am the first person to advocate for athletics and their validity in our community’s culture. I grew up my entire life playing sports competitively, even getting to the collegiate level at the University of Minnesota back when I was much younger. Both of my kids are heavily involved in the local athletic community here in town and I consistently promote physical and emotional wellbeing through athletics. I understand that athletics have a strong presence in this town, and for good reason. It is a unifying force that carries a very proud history in Scotch Plains.
But today, there are bigger forces at play than our community athletics. We are currently facing one of the most difficult and trying times that our town has ever seen with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our lives have been completely uprooted and turned completely upside down. A disproportionate amount of our community members has lost their jobs, our kids are trapped at home attempting to learn the most they can virtually, and our once vibrant streets have been left desolate in the name of social distancing. At the national level, we are currently seeing the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression; the dollar is strained.
However, you, the Board of Education, have taken if upon yourselves on a Zoom session to approve a new budget that allocates $1.5 million for new football lights. This figure is not one to take lightly given everything going on. This pass increases the financial strain on households across the community, raising taxes in Scotch Plains over 2% and in Fanwood over 1%. This is not the time. And to pass such a measure over a virtual conference, without consulting with those who would be affected is beyond insensitive to the concerns of the community.
The possibility of the football season resuming in the fall is still yet to be determined given the current circumstances, and with our state facing such a massive financial crisis $1.5 million is not pocket change. I know for certain that this large sum of money can be used for a multitude of more appropriate alternatives during this time of need when residents are losing their jobs or taking salary cuts to stay employed.
Yes, I realize the lights were part of the approved school budget submitted to the county. They are a capital expense that comes out of a special capital account, and those funds, by law, cannot be used for operating expenses. And thus, the lights are already approved unanimously. Shame on you. Still shame on you. These capital resources could be spread out throughout the Board of Education to other worthy departments that also support of students overall wellness.
It's not my job nor focus to say where but let's be frank: It's time be creative. Both with our spending and with choosing where exactly capital money should go in the current climate in which we have found ourselves. Period.
When War happens we rethink. We pause and make mindful decisions: “crisis begets pause — restructuring of finances, time and energy.” I'd say this: time to restructure. Imagine if the board only said this: “We realize we are spending at a time of crisis, we would like to explain and be transparent.” But no, behind closed doors on Zoom is how this decision took place. We can reallocate resources. As a community we just have to demand it. So who wants to do what's right?
Students in our schools are going to need all the support they can receive after this crisis subsides. The damage that will have been caused by COVID-19 will be pervasively felt and affect every student in our school, whether it be financially, academically, emotionally, or any combination of the sort. Instead of focusing on a football team with a less than stellar record, we should use such large quantities of funding to support other organizations that help everyone feel included and heard. Perhaps ramping up in-school counseling services or boosting meaningful organizations that reflect the interests of the entire student body would be a more appropriate venue to channel this money rather than new football lights. It is time that, for once, the Board of Education think of the mental health and wellbeing of students before unnecessary athletic spending that has little impact on the community.
The state funding that we all think will be coming in the near future is certainly at jeopardy given the current state of our finances. What will that mean for funding necessities such as teacher’s and other faculty’s salaries? Will we see layoffs or salary cuts for educators and mentors in the name of shiny new lights?
It is hard to believe that this is reflective of the values of the community as a whole. The fiscal responsibility behind this decision is absolutely backwards and reprehensible, leaving the education and wellbeing of our youth as an insignificant factor in your decision-making as a unit. It is utterly disappointing to see such attitudes in action during a time when so much good work could be done to benefit our entire community. Truly, it’s a shame.
In the name of our community’s wellbeing, I implore you to reconsider this budget proposal and look to allocate this sum of money towards initiatives that are more pressing given the current climate. I, along with the rest of our community, look forward to seeing what decision the Board makes and where interests truly lie.
Annette Ferrigno, LCSW, CCS
Giancarlo Castro, American University Student, SPFHS alumnus
Scotch Plains, NJ