Disagreement Over Use of Surplus Dollars Dominates West Orange Board of Education Meeting

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WOHS student Katherine Meyerson says transgender students must have the right to select the bathroom of their choice
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Matthew Giacobbe, Esq., conducts a brief board member ethics training at the WOBOE meeting.
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WOBOE members came together with students from the Washington and Hazel Elementary Schools, who presented the technology they are learning as members of the Afterschool Coding Club.
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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Even with the West Orange Board of Education’s (WOBOE) approval of the 2017-18 budget earlier in May, an exchange of disagreements between WOBOE member Irving Schwarzbaum and other members occurred at the WOBOE meeting on Monday regarding the use of an estimated $900,000 in “surplus” funds this year to cover some of the new budget’s approved appropriations as opposed to receiving these dollars through a 2-percent increase in taxes.

“If we have $900,000, we don’t have to go to the taxpayers for these funds,” said Schwarzbaum. "This has no effect on our expense lines. We have the available funds.”

He added that the money being put aside as surplus “just pads the budget and can be viewed as a 'slush fund.'”

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Business Administrator John Calavano said that the State of New Jersey recommends putting aside 2 percent of the budget as surplus to cover emergency situations. He said this would make the surplus for the district closer to $3 million. He added that the board will only truly know what the final surplus figure will be this year at the end of June when all the bills are paid for the schools.

Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky said that even Schwarzbaum has agreed in the past that covering next year’s budget will be challenging, especially with no bank cap available.

WOBOE President Sandra Mordecai said that she agreed with the state’s strong advice to put monies aside for emergencies. She said that just in the past few years the township has had to deal with a roof collapse, flooding from storms and asbestos issues that affected the schools.

Matthew Giacobbe, a lawyer who provides legal services for the WOBOE, said that monies should also be held back to cover possible claims and legal fees should several law suits against the WOBOE come to judgments for the plaintiffs. Giacobbe estimated that there is between $100,000 and $500,000 in exposure for the WOBOE if the plaintiffs win their cases either in full trial or in a settlement.

Schwarzbaum disagreed with the high side of this exposure assessment, saying the lawsuits against the WOBOE should be no more than $150,000 in payouts. He continued to disagree with the need to hold $900,000 for emergencies, saying insurance would cover most of this cost.

During the petitions and hearings of citizens portion of the meeting, Schwarzbaum was criticized by several residents for his “no” vote on a policy that included establishing a gender-neutral bathroom at the high school.

Katherine Meyerson, a student at WOHS, said that Schwarzbaum should have taken into account that there have been “zero reports of transgender people attacking others, while 73 percent of transgender people have reported being attacked by others.” She added that because of this safety issue, transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.

“It is illegal, according to New Jersey law, to deny transgender students the right to use their own bathroom,” said Meyerson.

Resident Nicole Davis told Schwarzbaum that “it is frightening about what you said about transgender people’s rights.” She asked for a board training regarding this issue.

“Let’s not do more harm to these young people, who are in danger of harming themselves,” said Davis.

“I hear the concerns and the sensitivity,” said Schwarzbaum in response to these and other remarks. “I have no issue with this policy other than the locker rooms…We are in an education setting where there is a diversity of ideas. My issue is in the locker room. My concern is with litigation.”

He added that the gender-neutral bathroom was not his concern.

Rutzky said that New Jersey law trumps the WOBOE’s policy on this issue.

“The time has come for the board to have true ethnic diversity and gender diversity training,” said WOBOE member Mark Robertson.

In a related matter, Giacobbe conducted a short board-member ethics training early in the meeting.

“Board members make policy,” he said. “They make sure schools run well. They do not run schools…It’s not your job to interfere with administering programs or personnel.”

During the personnel report, Robertson noted the retirement of WOHS teacher Michael Wensen, who taught physical education and health in the district for 27 years. Robertson wished Wensen well, and said he would be missed.

The next WOBOE meeting will be held on June 12. 

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