SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield Board of Education last week voted in favor of its $59.7 million spending plans for 2016-2017 (visit https://www.tapinto.net/towns/south-plainfield/articles/south-plainfield-board-of-ed-approves-59-dot-7m-spen  for more information on the budget). In doing so, the board also approved the Reduction in Force (RIF) of several positions, including some tenured, and a major change to the K-4 foreign language program.

According to school officials, restructuring of the special education department will lead to the reduction of numerous paraprofessional positions throughout the district. At the high school, two tenured teacher positions (Spanish and math) will be eliminated due to scheduling while a guidance position and a secretarial vacated due to retirement will not be refilled. Also, at the middle school, Italian, which was to be implemented for the 2016-2017 year, will be scratched.

At the elementary level, two non-tenured teachers positions have been eliminated along with two reading support staff (K-5) positions and two tenured foreign language (K-4) positions.

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As a result of the K-4 foreign language cuts, the program will be restructured and, beginning in September, Spanish will no longer be offered as a 40-minute ‘special’ once a week. Instead, the language will be taught in the classroom through an online program available to the district.

Elimination of the foreign language positions, according to Alex Ferreira, the district’s business administrator/board secretary, will save an excess of $110,000 plus benefits; the cost of the online program is estimated to be between $0 and $63,000, depending on which state-approved electronic platform the district selects to use; www.Fluencia.com is among those being considered. 

“No one of the board, not one administrator or any of the people we consulted in establishing this budget with have an agenda,” said Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Johanna Ruberto during the April 27 board meeting. “The decisions the board made were hard decisions. They were 360 decisions and they weren’t arbitrary. They weren’t made without careful decision.”

During the meeting, Diana Joffe, president of the South Plainfield Education Association and a foreign language teacher at the high school, spoke out against the changes, stating that data shows starting children in a foreign language early on enables them to acquire that language far better.

“I am living proof of it…” said Joffe, who herself began taking a foreign language in kindergarten. “I implore you to please find a way to keep this programing going. We cannot, in the 21st century, lose foreign language.”

By changing the program, added Joffe, the district is not only letting tenured teachers go but also contradicting its own mission statement.

“In your mission statement you say your goal is to ‘develop lifelong learners who are prepared to succeed in a global and diverse society’ – a global and diverse society - and what are you doing but cutting foreign language in the elementary schools,” she said. “This flies in the face of your own mission statement. You represent this statement, we represent this statement and now we aren’t putting our money where our mouth is.”

Board of Education President Debbie Boyle agrees. “Our mission is to ‘develop lifelong learners to succeed in a diverse and global society’ … yet we are willing to take out a section of foreign language which promotes the global society,” said Boyle. “Foreign language is important to our curriculum and we need to continue the language that we offer and extend the languages into our other schools.”

Although she voted in favor of the budget, Boyle said she is not in favor of what has been eliminated from the spending plan, specifically the changes made to the K-4 foreign language program and the reduction in staff.

“While we discussed many times areas that would be omitted I cannot support the RIFs when there are funds that can enable the continuation of these programs …”said Boyle.

After careful review and a line-by-line comparison, Boyle said she feels the budget contains $295,000 in overages that could support the continuation of the foreign language program and maintain staff. She presented her findings to the superintendent, business administrator and members of the board’s finance committee prior to Wednesday night’s meeting.

Board member Doug Chapman, however, feels the school district isn’t in the position to be ‘tinkering’ with funds, stating that South Plainfield Schools cannot afford to take an aggressive approach based on an ‘assumption’ that the money could be there.

“We need to take conservative approaches,” Chapman said. “[If] we take aggressive approaches and are wrong, halfway through the year we are going to have a cash flow problem and have to start eliminating positions.” He continued, “We have professionals in this district who know a lot about this kind of stuff … if those assumptions you tinker with aren’t accurate it’s going to come back and bite us in the future.”

Board member Carol Byrne added, “We have to be conservative and make sure we have sufficient monies to run the district the way it needs to be run … Supporting this budget, whether you like every piece of it or not, is something that needs to be done.”

Byrne also feels ‘tinkering can be done at a later date.’ “Some funds may become available during the school year through grants and diligent searching and then hopefully we can replace and repair the things that have been either eliminated or damaged,” she said. “But at this point, we need every single penny…”

The South Plainfield Board of Education voted 9-0 in favor of the 2016-2017 budget on April 27 with the aforementioned cuts and changes in programming going into effect September 2016.

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