SPARTA TOWNSHIP, NJ – Unhappiness with losing four teachers was the prevailing feeling among the audience at the board of education meeting Monday, March 4, a meeting that lasted until shortly after midnight.

The board introduced a $65,490,228 budget, calling for a $56,193,972 tax levy at the meeting. The budget includes $6,118.810 in debt service for the high school expansion, a project on the verge of being closed out.

The tax levy does not require voter approval, because the $50,702,294 amount without the debt service is within the state-imposed two percent cap on spending.

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However, because the board did not budget up to its cap limit for a couple of years, it can actually include an additional $1,003,000 in the budget, but members chose not to.

Several residents questioned why the board would not spend up to the actual cap to avoid laying off the four teachers. Three were general education teachers, and one was a special education teacher.

The initial budget proposal called for six teachers to be laid off, but two elementary school positions were reinstated, keeping class sizes in the range they have been for several years, according to Superintendent of Schools Dennis Tobin.

Enrollment is down in the school system, and the school district did not have the population to justify for the one special education teacher to be let go. 

The layoffs take effect in the 2013 through 2014 school year.

Most of the criticism was directed toward changes in the middle school language arts program which will be down both teachers and period length. The middle schoolers have 44-minute periods, with 88 minutes for language arts, taught by two teachers. Tobin said that has not resulted in good test scores, so the administration decided to institute 56-minute periods for all subjects.

The 10 classes of language arts will have 14 teachers, curriculum coordinator Dr. Melissa Varley explained. She said on two days every week, children will be offered instructional support. The plan in place now, which Varley admitted was “not set in stone,” calls for a rotating schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and students who need extra help as well as the high achievers, will both receive the benefit of more instruction.

Tobin said the district is returning to a more traditional middle school plan. He said the  actual schedule will be finalized soon, and IEP's will be accommodated.

Bob Medina, who has taught middle school language arts in the district for 15 years, said the program has changed about seven times. He said the changes have been part of the problem.

“The best model has been two language arts periods,” he said. “Teaching writing, literature and reading. The teachers need to be comfortable with the curriculum. They need consistency, then the scores will go up.”

He questioned why supervisors were not cut, instead of teachers.

Varley said new state laws will double the number of observations teachers must have each year. She said supervisors in the middle school do teach classes.

Several residents asked why the board refused to include the allowed $1,003,000. Board member Maureen Myre said since the last two times the public could vote on a school budget, Sparta voters turned down the budget, and the board felt the public was saying keep taxes down.

“The voters don’t want to spend,” she said. “I don’t get the sense there is an interest in exceeding the cap.”

Myre also told the public, although most had left by the end of the meeting, “Nobody wants to lose teachers.”

The next step in the budget process is for the board to send the draft they introduced to the Sussex County Superintendent of Schools.

Board Business Administrator Linda Alvarez said the county always makes changes to the budget.

It will come back before the board for a public hearing on Monday, March 25.


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