WEST ORANGE, NJ — With healthcare insurance costs increasing by 9.8 percent and costs for special education increasing by approximately $400,000 from two years ago, West Orange Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky told those in attendance at the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting on Monday that the 2017-18 preliminary budget poses “serious challenges” that will entail major cutbacks in all the options he presented.
“This will be one of the worst conversations we’ll be having because of the budget challenges,” said Rutzky, who presented three options that would all entail cutbacks in personnel.
Option 1 would have a tax levy of 2 percent, plus a banked cap that would still need $3,084,394 in cuts to balance the budget. Fifty-six positions would be cut in this option.
Option 2 would have a tax levy of 2 percent without a banked cap that would need more than $5.2 million in cuts to balance the budget. This option would result in a loss of 104 positions.
Option 3 would have a tax levy of 1.5 percent, leaving a $5.9-million deficit, with 111 positions being eliminated.
According to Rutzky, Option 1 would cost West Orange taxpayers $271.43 per year. Option 2 would cost taxpayers $203.81 per year.
“As the superintendent, I am strongly recommending Option 1,” said Rutzky. “We must do everything we can do to not let the cuts get to the student in the classroom.”
Even with Option 1, he said, cuts would include losing two supervisors, two assistant principals, 23 full-time and four part-time paraprofessionals, and 11 teachers.
Board member Irv Schwarzbaum said he would like to see many more options put on the table. He urged Rutzky and the other board members to take a closer look at other areas that could be cut other than personnel—particularly focusing on reducing the supply budget lines further.
He also called for not purchasing the new pre-school facility for $225,000, which is being considered due to overcrowding.
Board member Mark Robertson also favored cutting the purchase of products and supplies as much as possible to save jobs. He was less definitive on the purchase of the pre-school facility.
“Do we take a short-term hit to fill a long-term need?” he said. “I believe we’ll need more space, possibly sooner than we realize.”
Robertson called for a greater effort to secure corporate and foundation grants to produce new streams of income for the schools.
Board member Laura Lab said that the supply budget lines include $182,000 for security, $154,000 for maintenance and $120,000 for major construction that is needed. She said the board is “not talking about pens and pencils” when it talks about supplies.
Rutzky said the budget he is proposing already cut a lot of supply budget lines. He urged the board to approve the funding for the $225,000 pre-school facility, which he said was perfect for this usage and affordable.
He added that the pre-school program for the Washington/Hazel Elementary School students is needed to provide these students with the proper foundation to succeed in school.
During public comment, many parents spoke out on behalf of the teachers getting a new contract with a salary raise. Among them was Jessica Jacobs, who has two children in the public schools.
“Teachers will stop writing letters of recommendation for students—rightfully so—if they don’t get a contract,” she said. “They do this voluntarily, and don’t want to take this action, but they will if the contract isn’t settled.”
Resident Ken Alper urged the board to go slightly over the 2-percent cap if needed to save teacher’s jobs.
“We don’t want to be putting people on the chopping block for an extra $10 in taxes a year,” he said.
Paul Petigrow, who now has a grandchild in the school system, said the WOBOE wouldn’t be facing these “disasterous” options if they had spent up to the cap amount in past years and had more reserves on hand.
“In the long run, you have to spend up to cap,” he said. “Eventually the chickens come home to roost, as they are now. We lost $800,000 that one year when we didn’t spend up to cap. We could certainly use that money now.”
Mark Maniscalco, president of the West Orange Education Association (WOEA), noted that “people flock to towns with good schools.”
“We should be budgeting for what we need to run the schools, and take it to the voters,” he said.
WOBOE President Sandra Mordecai said that taking the budget to the voters would be a mistake. She said the last time this was done, the budget was voted down, and more than $6 million was lost with an additional $2 million cut from the budget soon after.
It was announced at the meeting that a public presentation of the preliminary 2017-18 school budget will be held at the Liberty Middle School on Wednesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. The next WOBOE meeting will be held on April 17.