22 Aug 2014
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Students Report Little Impact of BOE Budget Cuts

Beyond activity fee, life appears to be same as it ever was.

Students Report Little Impact of BOE Budget Cuts

Last spring, Westfield residents were stunned. The state was cutting $4.22 million — or 90 percent of the aid it received the previous year. The Board of Education predicted a lack of library books, fewer teachers, overcrowded classrooms and the doom Westfield's schools.

Some parents protested. Other residents pushed for more cuts. Most agreed that teachers should take pay cuts to save programs.

Meanwhile, many WHS students and teachers discussed the situation, with students taking vocal opinions during in-class discussions but rarely showcasing their anger in the streets. And a small group of them picketed the offices of Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Summit), asking the Christie allies to help the Westfield school system.

Neither was around – the legislature was meeting in Trenton – but the group presented a letter to the office calling on Munoz to address the restoring the cuts.

Now, two months into the school year, when these same students are asked about the effects of the lost state aid, they call it a non-story.

"I have not noticed anything," senior Megan Kaveney said.

Many high school students are showing the same thoughts as Kaveney, saying they have not noticed an impact of the cuts that adults were fearing back in the spring. The activism present amongst some students in the spring has declined, with students saying that the only impact is the student activity fee and then it applies only to the students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities.

The student activity fee was not part of the original budget proposal following Christie's cuts – which called for eliminating the intermediate school fall dramas, intramural sports and eighth grade athletics. The fee was placed in the budget proposal a week later, after parents around the community asked for the implementation of the fee to save the programs.

School district officials said the fee – which is structured in two tiers to accommodate athletics, theatrical programs and clubs – has been working with no student turned away from participating. School officials have said the district is overcoming the learning curve of implementing the fee for the first time and no student has been turned away from participating for being unable to pay the fee.

While school officials have been saying that the plan has gone off without a hitch, at least one student said she was unable to participate in a sport as a result of the fee, but not because she could not pay.

"I did not do cross country this year because I did not know about the payments," Emily Bailey said. "I am starting my sports year later."

While the activity fee is meant to fund athletics and clubs, many students have resulted to increasing fundraising efforts to fund uniforms and other items to participate. During the WHS Back to School Night in early October, more teams and clubs had set up tables selling mugs, water bottles, license plate holders, Blue Devil apparel and other items, literally accosting parents in the halls to raise funds for their teams and clubs.

"It's kind of ridiculous because we did not get new uniforms," WHS junior Justin Ricardo, a member of the cross country team said while sitting in the White Diamond in Clark.

Ricardo remained mum on the other impacts of the fee and the budget cuts, saying he had not seen many impacts in person. While he remained silent, his father, John, was vocal, blaming the teachers union and BOE members for the cuts, due to the controversial teachers contract – which includes a 3.9-percent annual raise for three years along with increased health care contributions – that passed a week before Christie implemented the cuts.

Ricardo called the two organizations out of touch, placing much of the blame at former BOE member Richard Solomon, who was the contract's most vocal defender last spring. Solomon lost his reelection bid in April – a result which he said came from his vocal defense of the contract.

Ricardo said the contract and the cuts made have had an impact based on which teachers left the system, not based on student activity fees.

"The cuts are bullshit. Who gets cut? Do you need four principals in the school?" he said. "They don't cut what they need to cut. The teachers who are tenured don't get cut but the new teachers who care, don't get cut."

In a September presentation to the Board of Education – which appeared to be a public relations ploy aimed at TV-36 viewers – on the impact of the budget cuts, Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan painted a picture of the beginning of the impact of a smaller amount of teachers during an era of rising student enrollment. She said that the elementary schools have been the hardest hit, with each of the six in town losing ne teacher a piece, causing a rise in class sizes in each school.

At the same time Dolan said the immediate impact has been spread out causing a smaller hike in the class size, but still one that she is not pleased with and one that has caused teachers to rethink teaching strategies to accommodate the higher class sizes. At the same time, she said the elimination of two teacher positions at the high school has had less of an impact due to the ability to juggle schedules in order to allow for a less noticible impact on students.

At the same time, students said the impact of the teacher reductions are seen in a different way, one not noticeable as you stroll the halls of Westfield High School.

"The teacher cuts effect sports teams as well as their coaches," senior Shannon Mooney said.

Mooney said the departure of teacher Brooke Smith from the school system – a result of the layoffs resulting from the budget cuts – has hit the state champion girls swim team. Smith had been coaching the team, but her acceptance of a new job caused her to leave the swim team behind as well. Mooney said the girls team has not been given a new coach, with boys swim coach Jeff Knight currently slated to take the helm of both teams.

Mooney said that while Knight is a good coach for the boys team, it could be tough for him to coach the larger program of the combined teams and she urged Board of Education officials to hire a girls coach in order to allow Knight to focus on the boys team and a coach to work with the girls.

Students did say they believe the library has had an impact at the high school from the cuts, an area Dolan touched on briefly preferring to focus on the elementary and intermediate school library situation, which has caused librarians to travel between schools instead of being planted in one school during the day.

"It is closed a lot," junior Kevin Oster said of the library.

Oster said he would like to see more early morning hours implemented for the library, mainly to allow for the use of the computers so students can print out materials before school when the computer labs are not always opened. He said the students have seen some secretaries from other offices helping out in the library, but noted he is not sure if that is to cover from budget cuts or if a reshuffle of secretarial posts in the high school.

While calling for some changes of the allocation of resources in the budget, students also noted they'd like to see some other programs receive cuts, including the Project 79 alternative education program.

"It did not get any cuts?" Oster said of Project 79. "If it is state mandated then I understand."

Project 79 is the high school's 31-year-old alternative education program which involves a team of teachers working with a small group in the program on a regular basis, including regular meetings between teachers to share ideas and teaching techniques. The program is not mandated by any state or federal law and has been credited as lowering the district's drop out rate.

Patch has learned that while Project 79 was not lost in the most recent round of budget cuts, it has been impacted in previous budget cuts. Eight full-time staffers were once dedicated to the program, but only one remains.

BOE member Jane Clancy said that she is seeing the cuts reach the point of no return for the district, with more projected cuts in student related programs. Clancy said the previous rounds of budget cuts focused primarily on administrative issues and not teacher reductions and supply reductions with a classroom impact.

"To hear you speak, it is touching a kid's life," Clancy said after Dolan's presentation about the cuts.

It just doesn't seem as though the kids were watching.

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