School board members approved a preliminary 2020-21 academic year budget on Friday that slashes 260 jobs and raises property taxes by 15 percent.
Board members approved the $618.55 million preliminary budget in 5-4 vote.
School officials said the job cuts, mostly teachers, will be spread across the district’s more than 50 schools. Some schools will be impacted harder than others, said business administrator Richard Matthews.
“We are now laying off people we cannot afford to layoff,” said longtime school board member Jonathan Hodges during the video conference. Last year’s layoffs led to classes with 30 or more students.
Hodges asked whether the shuttering of schools because of Covid-19 led to any savings. He did not receive a figure from Matthews.
“Why is it that every year the teachers are on the chopping block?” asked school board member Corey Teague. He told superintendent Eileen Shafer and her administration to cut supervisors and administrators before cutting teachers to balance the budget.
Shafer shelved a plan that would have reduced the bloated administrations at the academically failing Eastside High School and John F. Kennedy High School. Kennedy has eight principals and vice principals while Eastside has six principals and vice principals. Both schools are broken into academies, each with its own principal and vice principal.
“I really don’t see the administration has made significant, bold changes to be able to put us in a better financial situation,” said school board member Joel Ramirez.
Ramirez said last year the district raised taxes 14 percent.
The 2020-21 budget raises the school tax by 14.9 percent. It increases from $47.44 to $54.49 million. An average home assessed at $190,000 will pay $241 more in taxes per year, according to Matthews.
“That’s a heavy burden during this time,” added board member Emanuel Capers. Sewer and municipal taxes went up, he said.
School board president Kenneth Simmons said the Shafer administration began with a $63.7 million shortfall at the beginning of the budget process and reduced it to $14 million.
“For a long time, the district put the municipality before the kids,” said Simmons. School officials said the district has raised taxes just three years since 2006 while the municipal government has raised is virtually every single year.
Matthews said the local taxpayer’s contribution should be $107 million.
“The city’s contribution to education has been extremely low,” said school board vice president Manny Martinez. “It’s a small price to pay to improve the quality of education for our students.”
Except, the quality of education in the district has not been improving. Graduation rate has dropped two years in a row and test scores continue to be some of the lowest in New Jersey.
Matthews said the district is underfunded by both the state and the local taxpayers. He said the district will send $75.89 million to charter schools in 2020-21, up $7.95 million.
Health benefits for employees has increased from $83.75 to $98.82 million, a whopping $15 million spike.
Before the vote, the school board president warned his colleagues rejecting the budget will incur the wrath of the state. He said the school board has a duty to balance its budget. He said if it fails to do so the state will intervene by removing board members and the superintendent.
Board members Vincent Arrington, Oshin Castillo, Martinez, Nakima Redmon, and Simmons voted in favor. Capers, Hodges, Ramirez, and Teague voted against the preliminary budget.
Prior to the vote Teague requested to hear Redmon’s position on the preliminary budget vote.
“I would like to hear her position on this publicly,” said Teague.
Redmon said she asked Matthews for a flat budget. During the vote, Redmon, who is running for the 1st Ward seat on the City Council, claimed the budget was already ostensibly approved because the Passaic County government reviewed it and sent it back to the district.
“It’s unfair to single somebody out,” said Martinez defending Redmon.
“You’re not going to tell me what questions to ask, man, don’t even try it,” answered Teague.
Redmon voted last year on a budget that raised taxes 14 percent. Martinez also voted in favor of the same budget.
Capers and Hodges said they could not support a budget that did not provide a quality education to students.
“I do not see a thorough and efficient education being produced,” said Hodges. “We’re cutting our throats here.”
A virtual public hearing and final vote on the budget is scheduled for Thursday at 5 p.m. The public may review the district’s preliminary budget online by clicking here.
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Updated May 9 at 11:50 a.m. Public hearing on the budget has been moved from Tuesday to Thursday.