WOBOE raises taxes by 1.86 percent

Board of Ed passes $128.8 million budget, cuts only six positions despite original plans to cut 20

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education unanimously approved the proposed final budget for the 2016-17 school year, which increases taxes by 1.86 percent to make up for an approximately $3 million deficit but reduces fewer positions and classes than the preliminary budget did.

According to the budget presentation made by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky and district business administrator John Calavano during the board’s April 25 meeting, the tax levy for the general fund will be increased to $128,852,883 — the highest amount to which the district could increase it in accordance with the 2-percent tax cap — from last year’s $126,326,356. But thanks to state aid plus the amount that the district saved in refinancing, the tax levy for the debt service will actually be decreased to $5,001,495 as compared to last year’s $5,084,539. That means the overall tax levy will be $133,854,378, a 1.86-percent increase from last year’s $131,410,895.

As the average assessed value of a house in West Orange is $338,302, the average homeowner will pay $124.04 more annually than last year.

While these financials are the same as those debuted with the preliminary budget, in this adopted budget they were calculated differently. To make up for the deficit largely caused by an increase in health insurance costs, the preliminary budget contained a reduction of 20 positions for a savings of approximately $750,000 as well as a cut in two middle school classes. However, the final budget eliminates only six positions — one in-house counsel, one custodial supervisor, two teachers, one assistant coach and one athletic equipment manager — and one seventh-grade reading class. And, according to Rutzky, almost all the affected employees will be reassigned instead of terminated, while the loss of the reading class was judged to be not substantially detrimental to students after the district conducted extensive research on it.

The reason for this major change stems from the district and board’s commitment to its staff, Rutzky said.

“We all felt this is what we need to do,” Rutzky said. “We really have a phenomenal district. And when you start carving away at that, that’s when things start to happen.”

But despite this commitment, the school system still had to deal with the health expenses, which increased approximately 12 percent, as projected. Therefore, Rutzky said, the district decided to obtain a new health broker because Horizon, West Orange schools’ longtime provider, was not shopping the benefits. As a result, the superintendent said it was able to bring the increase down to 10 percent, which Board of Education President Laura Lab said saved roughly $600,000 and a lot of staff positions as a result.

Board member Sandra Mordecai also mentioned that the board did its due diligence to minimize expenses, going over the budget closely to eliminate unessential costs, such as clock repairs, while also maximizing shared services.

As for the eighth-grade Italian class that had originally been slated to be cut, Lab said she actually obtained a three-year grant during a conversation with Francesco Genuardi, the consul general of Italy in New York, that will keep the program intact. This satisfied the several members of UNICO and Italian students in attendance who had planned to speak out against the class being cut. One student in particular thanked the board for saving the program, pointing out that eighth grade is when most students get on track for taking the language in high school.

Meanwhile, the final budget included many additions as well, including one full time principal for the early learning center, one full time dance teacher at West Orange High School, 1.2 basic skills teachers for grades kindergarten through fifth grade, the Wilson Fundations Phonics Program for kindergarten through second grade and the Orton-Gillingham Program, a program that instructs district teachers how to work with students with reading difficulties.

In addition, the following six classes will be added: introduction to journalism, marketing and advertising applications, newspaper I, the world of Wall Street, literary study of rock and hip hop, and elements of dance. Rutzky stressed that the dance class and the studio that goes along with it had to be added so that the district complies with the New Jersey Core Curriculum content standards, which require dance as one of the four arts disciplines.

Also, the final budget calls for the addition and upgrading of security cameras at all schools and the implementation of a grid security system, which the superintendent said will greatly aid emergency personnel when responding to a crisis situation. Plus, it includes several districtwide capital-improvement projects, the purchase of six new editions of textbooks and the maintenance of professional development toward a variety of subjects spanning co-teaching to differentiated instruction.

According to the board, the budget once again shows a continued commitment to the infusion of technology in the curriculum as well, featuring the leasing of 2,100 Chromebooks for children in grades three to six, and the provision of five computers for each classroom in kindergarten through grade two, an existing laptop for every preschool to grade five teacher, 50 iPads for students districtwide and a Google Docs account for all students in grades three to five. Board Vice President Mark Robertson was especially enthusiastic about these resources, pointing out that it supports teachers as they educate students in today’s digital world while also finally allowing West Orange students to have 1:1 access to computers.

“This was a dream, this was a goal, this is where we need to be in this technological age,” Robertson said. “It will help us to achieve what I’ve always called competitive excellence. It’s another step forward.”

Overall, Lab said the board members put a lot of “blood, sweat and tears” into making the budget what it is, with board member Ron Charles pointing out that they all spent long hours going through each line item to see what could be done to save funds and positions. In the end, they were satisfied with what they were able to accomplish.

“It’s never easy to be a leader,” board member Irv Schwarzbaum said. “We need to make difficult decisions, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that every decision impacts individuals.

“And I really must say that I think we did a very good job,” Schwarzbaum continued. “We were able to mitigate all the cuts.”

But not everyone in attendance at the meeting was happy. Throughout the evening, the board members gazed upon a sea of red shirts representing numerous — approximately 400 — members of the West Orange Education Association teachers union, who flooded the WOHS library media center in solidarity and protest against the district over what they feel has been ongoing mistreatment. And they were not afraid to discuss it during the public comment, with one teacher mentioning a colleague who was docked a day’s pay to attend her husband’s funeral because she was out of personal days. Another teacher said she was also docked a day’s pay after being unable to fly home from Colorado; though she had a good attendance record and more than 100 unused sick days, she was denied an emergency day and was told her situation did not qualify the use of a personal day.

Then there is the general feeling of disenchantment with the district that many union members discussed. Maureen Donohue said the morale among teachers districtwide is low, and the way that they have been treated by the district is the direct cause of that.

“The administration says we are highly respected professionals, but actions speak louder than words,” Donohue said. “Not only do we feel that our time is no longer respected, we also feel undervalued as professionals and human beings.

“The administration has claimed to understand the pressures of (recently imposed initiatives), but all we have seen on our end is arbitrary demands that deplete the little time we have left,” Donohue continued, mentioning the new lesson plan format as an example. “Mr. Rutzky says the district is doing everything it can to ensure quality over quantity, but I have yet to see evidence of this.”

Many teachers echoed this same frustration with regard to new initiatives, stressing that they are willing to accept change, but introducing numerous new programs and concepts at once makes it extremely difficult to keep up. Yet whenever they voice this concern, they said they feel ignored by the district. And several testified that they do not even feel comfortable speaking their mind for fear of retribution, which has created a “climate of fear” among teachers, something that never existed before and should stop.

“Neither the WOEA president nor the WOEA members, many of whom you see here today, should be threatened either explicitly or implicitly for standing up for the high quality of education that we all create together here in West Orange,” David Sehr said. “Please don’t attack us. Work with us as partners in educating the young people of West Orange.”

WOEA President Mark Maniscalco was referenced a few times as an example of feared retaliation. Maniscalco’s position as dean was originally included as one of the reductions in the preliminary budget, and some teachers alleged this was an attempt at “union busting.” Though Maniscalco’s position was saved in the final budget, some teachers felt that the district was trying to send the message that they could be the next ones targeted for speaking up.

Maniscalco himself did not address his situation in going before the board, though he did send a pointed message about collaboration.

“We trust that you’ve heard these concerns and take them to heart,” Maniscalco told the board after the teachers had spoken. “We need you to do so in order to calm the waters and start to heal so that our schools can once again be positive, productive and cooperative for students and staff alike. Together, we can move in a better direction. We can do amazing things for our students and our town. But the cornerstone of all progress is respect, and as you’ve heard from many experienced and varied voices, it is sorely lacking at this point.”

The board members said they were shocked to hear this level of frustration from union members, saying they are not aware of what goes on in the schools on a day-to-day basis. They each stressed that they have tremendous respect for the teachers and will look into making sure the situation will change for the better moving forward.

Rutzky said he will reflect on what the teachers said and will consider what steps to take next, though he said he never meant any ill will toward the teachers.

“I don’t want you to confuse disagreement with disrespect,” Rutzky said, eliciting groans of disbelief from the union members in the audience. “I’ll step back. I’ll take a look at things, listen to what your comments were, and we’ll go from there.”

The teachers union has been without a contract for nearly a year.

Correction: The article in the print edition of the West Orange Chronicle said that approximately 80 persons came out in red to support teachers. The story has been updated to reflect that fact that more than 400 were in fact there.