WEST ORANGE, NJ — At the Black Lives Matter protest in West Orange on June 6, a petition was circulated asking for police reform within the West Orange Police Department. Alongside it, another petition was making the rounds, asking that Michael DuBose retain his position as a guidance counselor at West Orange High School. DuBose, in his first year at the school, is one of only two black guidance counselors on staff. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortfall of state funding to the district meant that staff cuts had to be made, and DuBose’s contract was not renewed for next year.
“You’ll find families who talk about how helpful he is,” Jackie Bazan, who started the petition and whose son is one of DuBose’s freshman students at WOHS, said in a phone interview on June 11. “And you’ll hear comments from other kids who weren’t counseled by him, but who know him because he’s so visible.”
WOHS has approximately 2,000 students; black students make up the largest racial group at approximately 46 percent, according to New Jersey Department of Education statistics. Having only two black guidance counselors — DuBose is the only black male — out of 11 total for the 2019-2020 school year is disproportionate to the student body, Bazan said.
“He’s had wonderful teachers,” she said about her son’s experience in the district. “But it has continued to be a struggle to have people in the classroom who look like him. We want our kids to experience diverse places and people.”
Bazan said she’s confident that the reason DuBose is one of the staff members whose contract wasn’t renewed is not because he’s black, but because he is the newest hire. Typically, when staff cuts are made, longevity is an advantage.
“I want to be clear, I am certain that his dismissal has nothing to do with him being black,” Bazan said. “I don’t think it’s a race issue. But because of the systems in this country, black people are always last in.”
West Orange Board of Education President Ken Alper deferred to Superintendent Scott Cascone when asked for comment on June 11. In an email on the same day, Cascone said he couldn’t comment specifically on DuBose because personnel matters are always confidential. He did, however, explain how the administration came to the determination of what needed to be eliminated from the district’s $171.3 million budget, after finding that there was still a discrepancy of more than $1 million between revenue and expenses.
“Because schools are comprised primarily of people — approximately 75 percent of budgetary costs — reductions needed to be made for economic reasons,” Cascone said. “The first review of personnel involves all staff without teaching responsibilities. We guard jealously the classroom and the instructional programs that are utilized therein. Only after all possible reductions are made does the district reduce classroom teachers. More than 20 individuals lost positions due to this economic shortfall.”
Seven of those more than 20 staff members were certificated classroom teachers, despite the administration attempting to avoid eliminating them.
According to Cascone, the state provides guidance on how nonrenewals of contracts are handled due to economic reasons. The factors include tenure laws, nontenured status, certification and licensing, length of service, caseloads, and class size.
“The bottom line is devoid of consideration for race, creed or nationality,” Cascone said. “As West Orange works very hard to hire, develop and nurture a diverse staff, an economic reduction in a budget can negatively impact those efforts. In preparing the 2020-2021 budget, the district lost some very valuable staff members, resulting in the district having lost some of its carefully recruited diversity.”
Thousands have signed the petition encouraging the district to retain DuBose.
“African American young men need someone who looks like them, and someone that they are able to relate to,” Amber Evans wrote upon signing the petition. “An African American male counselor is invaluable to our students, and if we say we care, and that we consider the welfare of our students, moving this man is detrimental, and seeks to do the opposite, in relation to helping our students.”
DuBose was Emma Renwick’s guidance counselor this year, and she also commented on the petition.
“He is an unbelievable counselor who truly cares about all of his students. He had only met me once when he yelled my name down the hallway asking why I had crutches/a boot and if I was OK,” Renwick said. “He went out of his way to help me then and throughout the year, and truly made my junior year easier. Letting him go would be such a mistake.”
Natosha London agreed in her comment on the petition.
“I agree that there aren’t many African American males in the counseling department, and they are needed,” she said. “Young African American men need to see more people like them in their school and in a position to help them grow and prepare for the real world.”
DuBose said in a phone interview on June 11 that the number of signatures and the outpouring of support was a surprise to him.
“I’ve had a wonderful time in the district. It’s been a great experience,” he said.
While he was surprised when he found out his contract wasn’t going to be renewed, DuBose said he wasn’t planning on fighting the decision. He does, however, hope he can keep his position with the advent of the petition.
“As the only African American male, I realize my absence will be a loss to the students,” DuBose said. “But I think it’ll have an effect on my legacy, that I’m a good person and I had a good influence on the school.”
According to Cascone, reducing staff is one of the most difficult and frustrating responsibilities of a superintendent.
“I am absolutely committed to building a diverse staff that reflects a commitment to high ideals, excellence in student achievement and a reflection of our student body. I welcome this responsibility and expect my performance to be so measured,” he said. “I am hopeful that the measurement of that performance will include more than a first year and the occurrence of an economic downturn.”
Bazan said DuBose has been more effective for her son in his one year at WOHS than other counselors have been in the past, whether at Redwood Elementary School, Edison Middle School or Liberty Middle School.
“Yes, he was the last in, but look at the impact he’s had this year,” she said. “Students need people to turn to. Their go-to is their guidance counselor. We have someone who is truly an asset to these kids. That speaks volumes. It’s important for people to engage with black people in authority, especially black males, to dispel negative associations about black people. You have someone here who can cut through all of that.”