WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) approved a 2017-18 budget of $153,033,219 in total appropriations at a public board meeting held Monday at the Liberty Middle School.
All the WOBOE members voted for this budget except for Irving Schwarzbaum, who was the only member of the board to vote against it. Among his reasons for voting “no” was the concern he voiced that the $1.8 million in reserves is too high, and that part of those funds could be better utilized elsewhere.
“Our cash flow doesn’t need that much reserves,” he said. “We could extend payment terms with our vendors if necessary, which would be preferable to having $1.8 million in reserve funds.”
Both Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky and Business Administrator John Calavano argued that the reserve funds are needed for emergency situations and to take care of the township’s aging school buildings. Calavano said that extending payment terms with vendors can only go so far because everything dealing with the schools must be paid by the end of the school year in June.
Schwarzbaum also expressed concern about spending approximately $987,000 in payouts to teachers who opt not to take the healthcare insurance plan that is offered by the schools. Calavano responded that the funds these teachers get are an incentive for teachers not to take the health insurance plan, which costs the WOBOE far more money if they were to take it, he said.
Another area of the budget that Schwarzbaum found wanting—because it “didn’t give the public an accurate picture” of what was happening—was the cutting of 21 fulltime and two part-time paraprofessional positions.
“We’re saying to the public that we are cutting 23 people, but if we need them, we’re going to have to hire them,” he said.
Rutzky explained that as of now these 23 paraprofessional positions are not needed, but thngs can change as the new school year approaches.
“A child may not need a one-on-one aide anymore…Kids may leave the district,” said Rutzky. “Projections are done in every district, and we may have to bring paraprofessionals back. We will not know until September. If we don’t have a deal with the teacher’s union for a new contract, we will have to reduce the budget by $1.3 million in salaries…But I am confident we’ll have an agreement.”
Schwarzbaum took Rutzky up on the contract issue, saying the union negotiators walked out of the last meeting on Friday. He said this was very disappointing, given that they had agreed on salaries and the healthcare insurance plan, but walked out on issues he deemed as “menusha.”
During the part of the meeting when citizens could voice their concerns and ask questions, West Orange High School teacher Tony Edelstein spoke directly to Schwarzbaum.
“If the issues that remain were only menusha, the board could have given into them as easily as we could have,” he said. “They chose not to.”
Resident Adam Kramer pointed out that with the 2-percent raise in taxes on homeownes, coupled with the $5,719,471 in debt service, the total tax increase will be 4.1 percent to cover the new budget.
“No one I know is getting a 4.15 salary increase,” he said. “We’re paying more, and not getting more. A lot of taxpayers are irked about this. The budget doesn’t serve the community and should be voted down.”
Resident Michael Kessel that the taxpayers ask for a good return on investment and that this is not.
“We are seeing lower graduation rates and SAT scores going down,” he said. “This spend-and-tax way of doing things is not sustainable. New home buyers will go on to the next town.”
The school that will be the hardest hit by the new budget is the Edison Middle School, according to Rutzky, where nine staff members will be reassigned to other schools and two positions will be eliminated. Rutzky said this is because Edison has been a “focus school” over the past few years, and thus has gotten increased staffing.
Even with budget cuts, new programs will be added next year, according to the board’s presentation. These include several new programs for grades 11 and 12, including calculus, college math, culinary arts, and statistics. Dance II will be added for grades 10 through 12, and a science program will be added for grades K-5.
There are also plans to open a new preschool program, which Rutzky said is needed to begin the process of addressing the overcrowding issues facing the elementary schools. With a new preschool building, classroom space would open up at the Kelly Elementary School, which now houses the preschool program.
WOBOE President Sandra Mordecai said that the preschool facility would be a lease, and it has yet to be finalized.
Board member Mark Robertson said that a paradym shift is needed to address the funding requirements of our schools. He said that private funding and more corporate partnership will be needed in the future.
Robertson agreed with Kessel that the SAT scores and graduation rates are not what they should be, but that this should not negate the many “outstanding” things going on at the high school.
“We have an engineering department I would put up against anyone,” he said. “An Instituture of Math/Science (IMS) sending students to top colleges, 15 AP courses, and a theater-arts program bar none. We have much to be proud of at our high school."