New Jersey schools struggle to find ways to stay within the state-mandated 2 percent property tax cap.
After Parsippanny Superintendent John Fitzsimons said the recent staffing cuts were due to overstaffed classes, he met with parents last week and said steps needed to be taken to meet the required cap, according to a parent who attended the meeting.
At the meeting last Wednesday night, Fitzsimons told about 80 parents from Central and Brooklawn middle schools that "the district saved $150,000 by reducing non-tenured teachers," said Parent Arlene Sklow, adding that Fitzsimons stated the purpose of this was to build credibility with the taxpayers and this money is going into a non-specified "surplus fund" to offset the 2 percent state cap.”
Since the meeting, Sklow said she was informed of "the board’s next step in their money saving plan: Central Middle School will be reduced from three to only two educational teams next school year. All reading and writing classes will also be eliminated. These classes are the foundation for all learning and success in life.”
“Through continued research and discussion with knowledgeable board members, administration, and the PTA, who are all speaking off the record for fear of retribution, I have come to understand the superintendent and majority of the board's master plan,” Sklow said. “The district will continue to take away money from our children's educational programs as an attempt to stay below the 2 percent tax cap, so the taxpayers do not get to vote on how the administration is using our tax dollars.”
Fitzsimons could not be reached for comment.
Sue Tindal, assistant to the SBA and assistant board secretary, sent an email to the board of education members containing a list of capital projects for 2013-14 and the anticipated list of projects for 2014-15 on behalf of Ron Smith, interim business administrator.
After looking over the list of projects, Board Member Anthony Mancuso replied in an email that although he appreciates the information, he is “still a bit confused” because the “list of items totals 2,476,800 for 2013-14; BUT the Superintendent is asking for an increase 3 percent of the total budget. If I use just rough numbers 3 percent of 136 million is about 4 million. So there is about 1.6 million dollars that you have not explained to us. With a sum as large as that I am sure you can understand why I or others may be hesitant to ok this sum for the upcoming budget, especially all in one line item.”
Mancuso adds in his email that “there is now absolutely no growth in any other area if you are using the 2 percent cap max toward this item” and asks for clarification if the district is planning to do this or not.
“If so what is the additional 1.6 million being used for and where does it come from?” Mancuso asks in his email back to the district. “Also how exactly do you cover all the new salary increases we have added since the last budget if there is no growth?”
Sklow adds that despite the savings in the recent reduction of staff, "yet, the new administrative positions he hired total $250,000.”
Fitzsimons said in his statement last week that after “careful analysis and review, we discovered that we were over-staffed in our middle school teaching positions” and that it’s “a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of the community to not over staff our schools and once discovered, act to correct the situation.”
Joseph Kyle, president of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association, said that this statement from Fitzsimons is "misleading."
“The problem is that student enrollment for the this school year was known in the Spring, as it always is, and there were no major changes of that enrollment heading into the summer,” Kyle said. Moreover, I have confirmed information that Dr. Fitzsimons spoke to the CMS administration on their schedule-making in late July.”
Classes and Students
Another topic on the minds of parents, teachers and community members is the immediate effects of the cuts.
Fitzsimons said in a statement last week that "some students may have a possible change in their teacher and classroom location.”
In response to this, Kyle said the "some" Fitzsimons is referring to equates to “over 1,100 students who will have new teachers because of this situation. That number is based on the information that was sent to the PTHEA by the Assistant Superintendent. Those are their numbers.”
Fitzsimons also said that a “significant number of classes (had) five or fewer students enrolled and (the district) began the process of collapsing classes without doing major damage to the master schedule.”
Kyle said during Fitzsimons' meeting at Central, “he told (parents) that 20 or more classes had five children or less when the school year opened. He is misrepresenting the truth. (The administration) sent me documentation ... and only two classes in the entire middle school population started the year under five students.”
Kyle said the documents showed that “of the 31 classes that were collapsed, that they got rid of, seven classes were on the schedule with under five and five of those classes are quarter classes” that don't start until February or April.
“Of those 31 collapsed classes, 22 had student enrollment over 10 students, and nine of those classes had over 14 students. To see it another way, less than a quarter of all collapsed classes had fewer than five students, while over 70 percent had over 10 students,” said Kyle.
Another discrepancy Kyle found in the documents shows “classes with zero on it and (after calling the district) they said that it was a mistake ... (which means that the superintendent may be going off of outdated or incorrect documents),” said Kyle.
“The thing that stands out the most is the effect on the students. Teachers at the schools say that students are just completely upset and lost,” he said adding that “teachers are doing their best at helping students in this difficult time.” And although the “district told parents that the administration is working with the teachers giving them support,” Kyle said some teachers have not received adequate direction, instruction or policy from the administration.
Sklow said at last week’s superintendent meeting, “one eighth grade parent said that his daughter has gone from 13 to 28 students in her reading and writing class,” and parents at the meeting talked about the trauma inflicted on the teachers and students, who were told about the reduction during the school day, without prior notification.
“No curriculum preparation or plan was in place to assure teachers and students could transition more easily,” Sklow said. “Classes that are halfway through reading different novels were senselessly combined.
Another concern that has risen is the future of reading and writing classes in the schools.
Parent David Comora said “the idea of cutting the reading and writing program is terribly misguided. Other districts, like Mountain Lakes, just implemented a separate reading and writing program like ours, because the program works. Our current board majority is not focused on education, and that is a shame for all of the children who have their public school years ahead of them.”
In regards to reading and writing classes being cut, “we've heard not just rumors but the new superintendent has been in the middle schools talking to staff and consistently saying that we don't need these classes,” Kyle said. “Teachers and supervisors in language arts and English have all spoken about how these classes have enhanced student's reading and writing skills ... and teachers in the high school say that students come in with a high reading level thanks to those classes (at the middle school level)”
Later this week is the school board meeting on Thursday at 8 p.m. at Parsippany High School.
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