WEST ORANGE, NJ — At Monday's West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, many West Orange residents spoke out on behalf of Michael DuBose, the only African American male school counselor at West Orange High School (WOHS) whose position was recently cut as a result of COVID-19 budget cuts.
Even though the WOBOE is not allowed to speak specifically about issues surrounding personnel, President Ken Alper tried to quell concerns by explaining that the WOHS, headed by Principal Hayden Moore, runs "a multi-layered approach with a lot of supports," because it takes a village to raise a child.
In terms of school counseling, Alper continued that the high school maintains a low ratio of students to counselors, currently at 164-to-1 with 13 counselors, soon to be 178-to-1 with 12. However, these numbers are significantly lower than the ratio of 250-to-1 recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
Alper added that for years the district had been grappling with how to provide extra support for students who benefited from resource room and basic skills professionals in elementary school but lost that support in middle school.
This year, academic support was added for grades six through eight at Edison, Liberty and Roosevelt Middle Schools. But to accommodate those programs, Alper said that staffer reductions had to be made to reallocate resources and New Jersey law mandates that the first employees to be affected are non-tenured employees.
“That’s not discretionary on our end,” Alper said. “It’s not something that we can negotiate with the unions. It’s the law.”
Having more school counselors, as with other positions like nurses and classroom teachers, and reading specialists, is better, Alper said, but he explained that the Board has to balance parents’ wants and needs with what taxpayers can afford.
During public comment, many parents and community members challenged the district’s belief that it prioritizes diversity when the only African American male school counselor has been cut in a school that has a significant population of African American male students.
“The board should be doing everything possible to ensure our students have a strong, culturally competent counseling team to live up to your commitment of the development of strong, diverse, safe, and respectful schools and communities,” said West Orange parent Jackie Bazan, who started a petition to request the reinstatement of DuBose.
The petition currently has over 6,500 signatures and has been signed by other town officials including Mayor Robert Parisi, and Councilwomen Susan McCartney and Cindy Matute-Brown.
Bazan continued that the district’s conversations about race are “disingenuous” because the district would rather use financial resources to recruit and hire people of color instead of keeping one who was “deemed highly effective in his job” by parents, students, and his superiors.
Dr. Janice Johnson-Dias added that it is important for both black and white children to be exposed to black educators and black school counselors because in the case of black children, their capability to succeed will increase. And in the case of white children, who might become police officers, mayors, superintendents of schools or school board members, they need to understand “black humanity” so that they do not develop “a false sense of superiority.”
Fellow West Orange parent Rhonda Powell, whose children have been served by DuBose, added that in addition to making the district more equitable, retaining DuBose will also help students maintain continuity and continue relationship building which will be helpful when applying to colleges. She explained that DuBose was the second school counselor her children had in two years and that her younger son will have a third school counselor in three years next year.
In response, Alper said that he was sympathetic to students who will need to start over because of DuBose’s exit, but his contract non-renewal is because of New Jersey’s tenure laws.
West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone also responded saying that no matter what program or position is scaled back or cut, “there’s always a constituency that feels very strongly about that.”
He continued that the community is at a point where it needs to decide what its priorities are because the district cannot “perennially fund what we current spend and we certainly can’t add and augment programs without significantly cutting others.”
In response to some community members including former WOBOE member Sandra Mordecai who called for alternate cuts to capital improvement projects and Chromebook purchases, Cascone said those are priorities to ensure the proper maintenance of buildings and equity in technology access.
With the uncertainties stemming from this year’s $1.5 million cut in state aid, Cascone also said that he and the Board do not know about other additional losses which might be incurred over the next two to three months.
Cascone also said that parents should look at the bigger picture and look at the positive trajectory of culture and climate at WOHS shaped by Principal Moore, including increased graduation rates, decreased fights, and incidents of vandalism.
Cascone added that diversity continues to be a priority in the district, but he also asked the public to remember that DuBose’s position was only one of 30 positions which were cut from this year’s budget.
“[They] meant a lot to their students,” he said. “They meant a lot to the district; they served this district well […] in a distinguished manner and they have unfortunately not been able to be renewed.”
The next virtual WOBOE meeting will be on July 9 at 7:30 p.m., and a special meeting will on June 24 at 5:30 p.m.