A week after the school board unanimously urged state-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans to eliminate the proposed 2-percent tax hike, the superintendent returned to the Board of Education on Wednesday evening seeking a higher 2.8-percent school levy increase.
The 2.8-percent translates to $1.16 million more in revenue for the district. Homeowners contributed $41.45 million to the Paterson Public Schools in the 2016-17 budget.
Evans said the pending complaint filed by Newark-based Education Law Center prevented the district from making changes to special education programs. The complaint to the New Jersey Department of Education alleges the district failed to provide legally required services to special needs students. He sought to bring special education services in-house rather than sending students out of district to generate $4.3 million in savings.
“You don’t change a program while it’s being investigated,” said Evans. He noted the changes were not intended to reduce services. Without special education savings, the district faces a $4.3 hole that it has to fill by making adjustments elsewhere. A memo provided to board members on Wednesday night outlined $3 million in staffing cuts at district office, school administrative, and school instructional staff levels. Each area is being cut by $1 million, according to the memo.
It also listed increasing the school levy from 2 to 2.8-percent. “I don’t even know what to say about that,” said school board vice president Chrystal Cleaves. She took into account Evans’ explanation, but added, “It’s still not acceptable.”
Cleaves led her colleagues to urge the superintendent to eliminate the tax hike on homeowners last week. School board members were not happy to see the tax levy back on the table and at a much higher rate.
The district faced an almost $34 million budget shortfall driven by state flat funding, salary increases, health benefit hikes, pension expenses, workers’ compensation costs, transportation for Don Bosco bussing expenses, and the expansion of charter schools.
Evan’s administration had closed the budget gap by slashing consulting budget by $710,000, cutting $1.8 million from elementary schools, reducing $1 million in administrative cost at high schools, eliminating $3 million worth of school level positions, and reducing courtesy bussing by $930,000.
The district is also creating $1.2 million in savings by postponing technology upgrades. It’s also relocating an alternative education program to save $1.2 million and the newcomers program to save another $1 million. The district is slashing $75,000 from its twilight program, relocating credit recovery to save $84,246, according to the district.
“I’m sick of our kids being treated like crap,” said city resident Julie Pagan as she shed tears before the board urging the district not to cut programs. “How could you sleep at night? You are hurting kids.”
Pagan’s son graduated from the district to find himself wholly unprepared for college, she said.
“We weren’t happy to see there are cuts to 29 school budgets this year,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, an education advocacy. She was happy to see nurses budgeted for almost every school, she said.
Evans said the district needs two more nurses on payroll to ensure every single school building has a nurse on staff.
Schools to see the biggest budget reductions were Dale Avenue, Yes Academy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, and School 7, according to the Paterson Education Fund. Dale Avenue and Yes Academy will see their budgets reduced by more than $1 million each. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School’s budget is being reduced by $500,000. School 7 is being cut almost $400,000.
“The school barely has books and supplies,” said Raquel Soto, whose 12-year-old son attends School 7.
School board members thought the budget was inadequate. “I don’t think this budget is doing it. Any time we’re taking something away from our children we’re not providing them a thorough and efficient education,” said Cleaves.
“In this budget. It’s not there,” said board member Emanual Capers. He said the resources the students need are absent from the budget.
It’s not clear how many staff members the district will eliminate this year.
There were discussions to privatize instructional aides and chiefs of custodians to generate savings. This sparked a small protest at the school board meeting on Wednesday. Both instructional aides and chiefs of custodians, many of whom are Paterson residents, argued against privatizing their jobs.
School board members were confused by the protests. There were no full board discussions of privatizing either of the two services. The district has outsourced custodians, but has kept chiefs at schools to oversee the works.
“Is this money worth it? We live in this community. Privatization don’t solve everything,” said Daniel Rodriguez, a chief of custodian in the district.
“We’re not doing either one,” said deputy superintendent Eileen Shafer to applause from custodian chiefs and instructional aides at the John F. Kennedy High School auditorium. She said the privatization of both were discussed behind the scenes as part of strategies to reduce the budget gap.
Capers suggested furloughing employees to avert layoffs. He told business administrator Daisy Ayala to produce calculations of how much the district will generate in savings through 1 furlough day every marking period. Ayala was quick to warn Capers of the unpopularity of instituting furloughs — an idea that she floated two years ago.
Ayala said she had to be escorted to her car by two police officers when she raised the idea at a state board of education meeting in 2015.
“We don’t want to cut teachers,” said Capers.
The district’s proposed budget is for $551 million. The district provided the public the first several pages of the “user-friendly” budget at its hearing on Wednesday evening. This budget did not reflect the higher tax levy increase.
School board members received two different budget documents. Majority of the board complained about lack of transparency in the budgeting process. “We’re almost begging at this point to see the documents to ensure our children get a thorough and efficient education,” said board member Lilisa Mimms.
“I’m just concerned about the lack of transparency,” said school board president Christopher Irving.
The board earlier in the month voted on the “tentative” budget without seeing the document. Irving expected the document the next morning, but received nothing, he said. He said the trust between the board and the superintendent has eroded a little as a result. “I think it’s eroding public trust,” said Irving.
“I felt like I’ve been kept in the dark,” said Manny Martinez, school board member.
A budget adoption vote is scheduled for April 5th, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. at 90 Delaware Avenue. The district’s preliminary budget can be found online by clicking here.