WEST ORANGE, NJ - Concerns about the West Orange Board of Education (BOE) and its upcoming budget proposal for the next school year dominated the public comments at a crowded and busy West Orange Township Council meeting Tuesday night.
West Orange residents, like Rosary Morelli of Ralph Road, felt that taking their grievances to the council was their only recourse, despite the fact that the council has no oversight of the school board. Resident Paul Turner said that he was frustrated by his efforts to demand accountability from the BOE.
“It’s a very hard to go to a meeting,” Turner said of the school board, “where you sit and can’t ask questions.”
If township voters reject the school budget, it has to go to the township council for review and passage. Turner found a humorous way to express the need to rein in the BOE’s spending increases and cut school taxes.
"The BOE is a sacred cow,” he said, “but the cow has no milk. You can’t tax your way to cheese.”
Morelli recited a list of complaints against the school board’s lack of transparency, citing their failure to release budget proposals to the public and their refusal to regularly broadcast meetings on the town’s public access television channel. Turner wanted to see the municipal government and the school board share more services in an effort to cut costs.
Council President Sal Anderton reported that some services, such as snow removal, have been under consideration for sharing. Business Administrator Jack Sayers said that it comes down to whether shared services – with one entity providing the services and paying the costs and the other paying for and receiving the services – can be more cost-effective.
Resident Paula Dickson-Taylor, meanwhile, expressed hope that the township council can work with the school board on providing more after-school activities for children and keeping schools open for summertime recreational activities. Dickson-Taylor stressed the need to provide amenities for children in West Orange to keep them active and engaged.
The proposed police layoffs, however, remained a more emotionally charged issue. The Rev. Greg Boyle, pastor of the Unconditional Love Christian Fellowship and a retired West Orange police sergeant, declared that the police deserved better for their devotion to keeping order. He spoke of the issue in moral terms, noting that policemen face evil in the form of violent crime. Resident Ed DeRosa re-iterated his many budget cutting and fee increase proposals from the February 22 council meeting, such as cutting back on the West Orange Outlook newsletter and higher parking violation fines, as ideas for saving police and fire department jobs. Both men received applause for their comments from the gallery.
Councilman Victor Cirilo said that the council was hoping to maintain a proper balance in dealing with budget cuts to offset higher property taxes. He noted that while only eight police officers may be laid off, 64 other public employees might join them, with another thirteen positions eliminated through attrition.
“We want to do our best in these hard times,” Cirilo said of the police issue. “We want to do what’s in our jurisdiction and power to make sure public safety is not affected.”
The citizens’ gallery was virtually empty when the township council considered two ordinances later in the evening. Both passed unanimously. Although the first ordinance, which added additional documents to be required for development applications, passed with little debate, the second one – which allows school bus parking and maintenance as a permitted use in certain areas – sparked a long discussion. Larry DiSabato of Allstate Salvage on Standish Avenue, who is negotiating with a school bus company for use of his property for vehicle storage, hoped to ensure that the ordinance can only apply to school busses. At issue was how any property granted for school bus storage might be interpreted to allow busses of any nature in the future. Councilwoman Susan McCartney endorsed an amendment to recognize that distinction. But because such an amendment would have to allow the planning board to re-examine the proposed ordinance, and because DiSabato could not negotiate a lease with the bus company without its passage, it was ultimately approved as currently worded.