WEST ORANGE, NJ – Holding signs that read “600 Days—No More Excuses—Settle Now” and “No Contract—Still Working—Still Caring,” a large crowd of West Orange public school teachers held a mass demonstration in front of the West Orange High School on Tuesday.

They were protesting the impasse in contract negotiations that have now exceeded 600 days.

The demonstration took place a day before the West Orange Public Schools 2017-18 Preliminary Budget Presentation was presented to the public at a meeting held at the Liberty Middle School. If this budget is approved, 13 West Orange teachers will lose their jobs next year due to deficits brought on primarily by rising healthcare insurance costs and mandated programs that are not funded by the State of New Jersey. 

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“We are at a crossroads with this budget—especially after the two that preceded it, which have put us in this quandary,” said West Orange Education Association (WOEA) President Mark Maniscalco. “We must decide whether our children are worth the investment. We must decide whether our town is looking towards a bright future or whether we are steering West Orange towards a bleak future. We must act aggressively to maintain the quality of our schools.”

At the demonstration, leaflets were handed out that encouraged parents of students to “help end the crisis by calling the board of education or speaking at a BOE meeting and urging them to come to a settlement.”

“All we want is a fair settlement with maintenance of health benefits and an actual raise that appears in our paychecks—after years of shrinking take-home pay,” the leaflet statement said.

Among the most active parents supporting the teachers are Nicole Ruffo and Elizabeth Redwin, who organized an Essex Rising demonstration on behalf of the teachers on International Women’s Day earlier in the month. This demonstration began at Gregory Elementary School before the parents marched to Roosevelt Middle School.

During this demonstration to show parent support for the teachers, Ruffo, a former teacher, said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky and the entire West Orange Board of Education should do more to recognize the valuable work of the teachers “who work long hours for too little pay.”

“Many of our teachers have to work two jobs to support themselves and their families,” she said. “It’s stressful enough to be a teacher, without adding the stress of trying to make ends meet.”

Both Ruffo and Redwin said they have never seen teacher morale so low.

“It’s nothing less than amazing that they continue to do a wonderful job,” said Ruffo. “It’s hard to be positive when you’re constantly beat down, which is how most of the teachers feel without a contract. It’s time for parents to stand up and support our teachers who do so much for our children.”

Rutzky did not respond to this publication’s request for an interview on the issues brought up by WOEA and the parents associated with Essex Rising.

Even with the threatened cutbacks in personnel next year, the preliminary budget is adding new teachers where deemed necessary. This includes a new kindergarten teacher at Redwood Elementary School, two STEM teachers in the middle schools, a biology teacher at West Orange High School, a principal for the preschool program and a custodian for the preschool program.

During the demonstration, Maniscalco questioned why the preschool program is being expanded at a time when teachers “doing an excellent job” with the current programs are being either let go or not being compensated in the way they deserve.

The proposed budget, if adopted, would also cut two supervisors, two assistant principals, 20 fulltime and four part-time paraprofessionals, three administrative assistants, a clerical aide and a technology technician. Even with these cuts, the tax impact for West Orange residents to avoid even further cuts will be $271.43-per-year more than last year.