Paterson’s School Funding Woes Dominate Public Budget Hearing

Assembly committee is told Paterson school district is facing severe deficit, would have to make ‘massive’ staffing cuts if nothing changes

People came seeking more state funding, but only got three minutes to make their case before the Assembly Budget Committee. Wednesday morning’s session was dominated by the Paterson school district which is facing a severe budget deficit.

“The balanced preliminary budget adopted under duress last week will require massive cuts, including the elimination of 232 staff members and vacancies, 150 of which are teachers. Programs that were established to meet priority needs will be cut to the tune of $52 million. These cuts will devastate the Paterson public schools,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund.

Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer echoed those numbers.

“We are asking for an additional $28 million so we do not have to cut 232 staff members,” Shafer said. “All of the initiatives that we started last year will be coming to an end. Class sizes will increase. Student support services will be cut. Graduation rates will decline … Under the past administration we were also underfunded by $280 million. Our children cannot sustain — neither can our staff members — any more cuts.”

“We cannot afford to cut another staff member. We cut 526. If we cut 232 more to balance the budget for next year, we’re at 758. We don’t have it. We don’t have it to give,” Shafer said.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly represents Paterson, taught in its schools, and is the recreation director for the district.

Fearing the long-term impact of cuts

“You look at the long-term impact this will have. Paterson Public Schools is the second largest district in the state of New Jersey. We have almost 30,000 students, right behind Newark. We have been hit harder than anybody when it comes to budget cuts,” said Wimberly.

In a room full of kids in “Save Our Schools” T-shirts, there were more calls for added funding.

Credit: NJTV News
Julie Borst, executive director, Save Our Schools New Jersey
“Let’s be clear about something. A system that was underfunded by $9 billion meant that all of our students suffered,” said Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools New Jersey.

The committee chair, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, was sympathetic.

“I think we really need to look at that and how we can help Paterson, how we can help Newark. And obviously, still, we have a lot of other districts that are here today to testify that they need more money as well, and that money was taken from them. So we have to try to really sort it out,” the assemblywoman said.

Other topics included the millionaire’s tax. Liberal groups want it, but business groups do not.

For and against a millionaire’s tax

“The millionaire’s tax, taxing the people that earn over $1 million, is simply going to push the people who have the means to pick up their business or pick up their homes and leave the state of New Jersey and do just that,” said Christina Renna, senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.

“You’ve been hearing today, and you will be hearing for the rest of the day and in the past, many, many requests from people for expansions and increases in funding for important programs, and our state will not be able to meet those requests if we do not go forward with the millionaire’s tax,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Typical was the request from a parent of a developmentally disabled child that her daughter’s direct support caregiver get paid at least 25 percent above the minimum wage.

“Their starting wage is at $11 an hour, so there’s a crisis in the workforce. We can’t get people to do these very important jobs because the pay is so low. And with the minimum wage increase coming into effect in January 1, the crisis is going to be at a tipping point,” said Lauren Zalepka, member of the Arc of Monmouth. “So we need to keep the wages for DSPs 25 percent above minimum wage so that anybody with intellectual and developmental disabilities won’t be isolated from the community and won’t be victimized in the community.”

Departmental budget hearings begin next week.