For three hours state legislators took testimony from education officials, parents, and community leaders on the impact budget cuts are having on the state-operated school system at the Eastside High School auditorium on Tuesday morning.
“This is to shine a light on what’s happening here,” said assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who presided over the hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.
State-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans began by shining the light on all the progress that has been made so far under his watch. He cited the district’s ever increasing graduation rate and the success of the city’s gifted and talented program.
Evans also mentioned the deep cuts his administration had to make in light of the flat funding from the state and inability to raise the school levy. Evans’ presentation showed in 2015 the district cut 500 school and district level staff members; in 2016, the district cut 118 staff members (85 at the district office and 33 at the school level).
The district realized the teachers reduction in 2015-16 school year while the central office cuts will be realized in the 2016-17 school year, according to the district.
“We cut more programs than staff this year,” said Evans.
School board president Christopher Irving told the committee at this rate the district will have nothing to cut next year.
“We made significant reductions. We had to cut services,” said Irving. “This district will be bankrupt next year.”
Irving said flat funding and the expansion of charter schools have taken their toll on the district. “Things are in horrible shape. We’re in peril,” he said. The district has been underfunded by $278 million in the past eight years, according to the Education Law Center.
President of the teachers union John McEntee painted a picture of a district with decrepit and ramshackle buildings and little funds to make repairs. “My members working conditions are Paterson children’s learning conditions,” he said.
Valerie Freeman, whose daughter attends Alexander Hamilton Academy, told the committee the cuts in courtesy busing impacts her child. “It’s unfair and it’s a safety issue,” she said. She suggested without courtesy busing many children will have to walk through rough neighborhoods to make it to school placing themselves at risk.
“Give our children a fair chance to compete with other kids,” said another parent.
Other parents pointed out in some schools substitute teachers have been manning classrooms because of the district’s inability to hire certified teachers.
Rev. John Givens, whose Paterson’s United Pastors Council is considering filing a lawsuit against the state for failing to fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to all New Jersey children, said the state has failed to provide the funding needed to educate the city’s children.
“We’re raising a community of uneducated kids,” said Givens. Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver encouraged the pastor for his role in opting to take the state to court citing the many court rulings that have helped minorities.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly pointed out approximately 600 city high school students are on the verge of not be graduating this year. Those students still have opportunities to graduate on time by passing tests and completing other options, according to the district.
“We do not expect that number to be the final number,” said district spokeswoman Terry Corallo on Wednesday morning.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter asked the superintendent about overcrowding. She said 25-percent of classrooms in the district have 22-25 students.
“We find ourselves in a difficult situation,” said assemblyman Gary Schaer. He said the state should be providing equal education opportunities to all New Jersey children, but noted, “Right now, I don’t think we can say” that’s happening.
Schaer and Wimberly said they will discuss the underfunding of the city’s school district with education commissioner David Hespe at a budget hearing tomorrow morning.
“Our students are entitled to a thorough and efficient education and I am very concerned that these financial challenges are affecting the district’s ability to meet the students’ education needs,” said state senator Nellie Pou, who was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict, in a statement.
Pou said after last year’s and this year’s cuts the district cannot afford to cut any programs or staff members without severely impacting instruction.
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This report was last updated on April 20th, 2016 at 12:30 p.m.