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Teachers, School Board Bemoan Budget

Employees and employers express disdain for budget cuts.

A natural disaster today kept teachers out of the classroom. Last night, they fought off a manmade, fiscal disaster to keep them in school next year.

Ridgewood teachers overflowed the Board of Education's meeting and requested the district shift budgets cuts to ease staff layoffs.

Five teachers representing the huge gathering beseeched the school board to alter its estimated $2.14 million in preliminary staff cuts.

"Children should be kept as far as they can from budget cuts," Ridgewood Education Association President Maria Cannon said. "The media wants us to have a war with the Board of Education… We need to stay strong and work with each other."

The district estimates a $3.35 million budget gap based on flat state aid and a 25 percent increase in health insurance costs. Although large cuts are already proposed, Superintendent Dr. Daniel Fishbein said a 15 percent cut to state aid is expected. After Gov. Christie's budget message today and more concrete insurance figures, the district will learn how much more it needs to cut.

"The reality is that none of this is what we want," Board President Joseph Vallerini said. "This is a condition forced upon us. It's horrible."

Prior to teachers' comments, Fishbein and the board discussed cuts in more detail and revisions. Staffing cuts will eliminate several secretaries, two middle school world language teachers, a high school gym teacher, substitute teachers, four supplemental instructors, and numerous aides. Additionally, the library-staffing budget will operate at 80 percent.

Speaking up for "our librarian Margaret Best"—as she repeated in singsong style throughout her comments—Ridge Elementary fourth grade teacher Anita Kusy advocated against media center cuts.

"Our librarian Margaret Best affects every child," she said of the former Ridge teacher of the year. "What a detriment to the Ridge school to see our library staff cut."

Talking on her own behalf, Best noted a correlation between student achievement and full-time school librarians. "Does it make sense to close our library doors after approving two new ones in the recent referendum?" she asked.

Over the course of the meeting murmurs on a variety of topics wafted through the audience. Board member Sheila Brogan asked Fishbein to debunk two misnomers on how the cuts were devised and the potential to borrow from referendum funds.

Fishbein said each building offered its preference on cuts. "That doesn't mean we listened to them all, but the vast majority of what you see comes from them," he said.

Additionally, he said the district was prohibited from borrowing against the voter-approved $38 million in referendum funds.

Looking alleviate costs where possible, several board members offered suggestions to Fishbein and Assistant Superintendent for Business Angelo DeSimone. Board member Laurie Goodman was concerned that reconfiguring the subject area leader system "would put undo strain on an already imperfect system."

Brogan asked for an additional $10,000 in convention expenses to be cut from the professional development budget.

Board member Michele Lenhard wanted to absorb as much from this budget as possible to avoid future shortfalls. Alternatively, DeSimone will also look into a waiver for potential state aid cuts. However, that deferment would increase taxpayer burden.

Although the atmosphere was tense, teachers displayed solidarity by applauding each peer's speech. One affected supplemental instructor spoke and argued that by cutting their efficient positions—high school teacher Amy Nolan said the teachers work part-time, three don't receive benefits and none require subs—the district may incur tuition fees if special needs students transfer out of district.

Following the governor's address, the district will receive its proposed state aid and construct a budget. The budget will be officially introduced March 22, and the board must vote by March 31.

Upcoming budget meetings include:

  • March 22—Public Hearing on Budget at Board of Education Meeting (7:30 p.m. at Education Center).
  • March 23—Home and School Association budget presentation (7:30 p.m. at Benjamin Franklin Middle School).
  • March 24—HSA budget presentation (9 a.m. at George Washington Middle School).
  • March 25—HSA budget presentation (7:30 p.m. at Ridgewood High School).
  • March 31—Public Hearing on Budget at BOE meeting (7:30 p.m. at Education Center).
  • April 20—Budget vote at regular district polling places.

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