WEST ORANGE, NJ -- The West Orange Board of Education finalized the 2016-2017 school year budget during their April 25th meeting. This was one of the most highly attended meetings of the year, with more than 400 teachers in the audience as the Board explained its spending priorities for the year.
Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky said priority was given to certain areas such as staffing, special education, facilities, transportation, supplies, and athletics.
Shared services such as the Morris Union Jointure for professional development, the Alliance of Competitive Energy Services, and the partnership the school district has with the township which allows them discounts on fuel, road salt, and more were highlighted.
Rutzky dedicated a sizeable amount of time to explaining items annually mandated by state, but not funded by it, including PARCC, Special Education, HIB, Professional Development, and Staff Evaluation. The approximate total for these mandated requirements was around $3,000,000.
Director of Buildings and Grounds Bob Csigi briefly spoke about how his budget was used through the year to make school repair, building repairs, and overall construction improvements in the department of concrete, floors, and the implementation of the Energy Saving Improvement Program.
One reason for the large turn-out by teachers was the deficit in the preliminary budget of nearly $4 million. To partially offset that, 20 positions were on the chopping block to reduce costs. In the end, there were six staff reductions, which included losing an in-house counsel, a custodial supervisor, two teachers, one assistant coach, and one athletic equipment manager. In addition, one seventh grade reading class was also eliminated, but Italian classes in middle school was retained. Residents, students and employees had expressed their upset about those reductions on social media, especially an untenured English teacher who was not rehired. Despite those reductions, Rutzky was clear there would be no layoffs.
“There’s not one person who is currently in the district who is going to be out of a teaching job,” he said, adding that the two teachers who were removed from the previous position would be offered a job in a different area due to attrition, and that the custodial supervisor would be also given a new position. “We all felt this is what we need to do. We all have a phenomenal district. Unfortunately, this is not the end of budget challenges. We still live in a 2% cap. We have to make sure people get raises, new programs are put in place, and on and on.”
Rutzky said that the new budget would allow for improvements such as classes being able to remain a similar size, access to the New Jersey School Board Association Grant Writing Data Base, improvements to special education programming, the addition of basic skills instructors, and the implementation of a fulltime dance teacher, an inclusion that many residents don’t feel is necessary. Rutzky explained the class was a requirement that had not been addressed properly before this.
“We are required to have a program to offer a class,” Rutzky said, adding “We’ve been completely out of compliance from offering it through the step team.”
Technology was a big focus of the budget. K-2 classrooms will now have access to five computers, Google Doc accounts will be given to students 3-5, security systems will be upgraded, and over two thousand Chromebooks will be leased to students grades 3-6.
New courses such as “Introduction to Journalism”, “The World of Wall Street”, and “Literary Study of Rock and Hip Hop” will be new additions along with a wide range of new textbooks.
Regarding professional development for staff, numerous programs were addressed including Next Generation Science Standards, guided reading, applied behavior analysis, reading/writing workshops, and technology infusion across the curriculum. Rutzky said professional staff development was as important as student development.
“This board is very committed to every student and staff,” he said. “And if you don’t commit to the staff, then the students aren’t going to be as successful as they can be. Having programs for staff will be good for student success.”
“We have to use it effectively,” he said. “Technology is effective when it’s put into a place where it’s appropriate.”
In closing, Rutzky spoke of the passion of the BOE and their commitment to their responsibilities.
Addressing the increased taxes from last year’s budget, Rutzky said the quality of staffing and education and keeping up with cost-of-living made it necessary.
“Some will say ‘why do we have to raise the taxes at all?’” he said. “Well, to keep quality staff, quality programs, and to support kids and staff, we have to continue to stay up with the cost of living. When you are faced with 2% cap and continuing heath costs increases, it makes budgeting very challenging.”
“What’s really clear by the board is we also have to remember all the people who live in this town," he continued. "As the taxes continue to rise, we have to stop the bleeding,” he said.
Board President Laura Lab spoke of the effort it took to get the budget done.
“As you saw, there was many changes to the preliminary budget that was shown five weeks ago,” she said. “This was done through a lot of initiative on the board’s part – including a lot of hours.”
Lab said that they were able to save a lot of money by making certain changes. She cited the switching of health brokers, which saved the township $600,000. The Italian program, which was previously cut in the preliminary budget, remained intact.
Board member Ron Charles said the budget process lasted five months, "sometimes three or four nights a week.“ Board member Irvine Schwarzbaum was impassioned when speaking about the board role’s in the school district.
“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We as board members understand we have to be leaders. It’s never easy being leaders. You have to make difficult decisions, but we are passionate and cognizant of the fact that every decision impacts individuals, and it never changes..
He added, "I must say that we did a very good job in that we were able to mitigate all the costs. And we really give the superintendent and the business administration as well as all the teachers a lot of credit.”
Board Vice-President Mark Robertson focused his thoughts on the staff.
“As I look out at the sea of teachers, I appreciate your passion and comradery,” he said. “It’s been a great challenge of me and our colleagues to work through a four-million-dollar deficit. Student achievement is the #1 reason we are here, and you are our pride, our resource, our brain trust," he commented, adding "You deserve the resources we can give you. We appreciate your patience throughout the process, and we look forward to providing support in any way we can so we can all help students achieve their very best.”
Board member Sandra Mordecai thanked everyone for their input in the process.
“We know that we have highly qualified staff,” she said. “We’ve heard from many of you. We received many letters and phone calls. We truly appreciate you coming out tonight.”
The in-depth PowerPoint documentation of the presentation can be found here. It gives a full break down of every aspect of the budget, as well as an elaborate explanation for the budget expenditures, the total tax levy, and more by Business Administrator John Calavano.