Kids left out in Guttenberg budget cuts After-school activities sliced due to voter rejection of referendum
by : Jim Hague
Oct 25, 2005 | 945 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Basketball practice for Anna L. Klein elementary school's famed boys' and girls' teams were supposed to begin last week. The boys' program has been around since the school's namesake was still alive.

Basketball has been a part of the fabric of Klein School since the 1900s. But those practices were delayed for at least several weeks.

And there are unlikely to be meetings at all of the school's student council or art club at all this year. The same can be said for the school yearbook and student newspaper. Marching band practices, cheerleading sessions, get-togethers for the school's color guard and flag wavers - are things of the past. There will be no sweet sounds from the school chorus.

Last May, Guttenberg voters were asked during the regular Board of Education elections to vote on a special referendum that would have earmarked $186,000 of increased taxes toward funding the school's extracurricular activities, teams and organizations that have kept Guttenberg's children occupied and safe for decades. The referendum was voted down.

Now, the school's kids do not have the programs that kept them off the streets after school. And it's a pain that has filtered throughout the close-knit school community, with school officials and residents alike wondering how this could happen.

According to the Board of Education's business administrator Jolene Mantineo, the board was forced to make several cuts to fit within the state-mandated 3 percent cap on budget increases. Teacher salaries and health benefits were a major concern.

"They were fixed costs," Mantineo explained. "So we had to sit down and make cuts right down the line. Our state aid did not increase, so we had to make some tough decisions, and regretfully, all the extracurricular activities were cut."

However, the Board of Education devised a way that would have kept the programs functioning, by placing a special referendum on the ballot that would have called for a minimal tax increase.

"A matter of pennies per year per each household," Mantineo said.

Voted down That referendum was voted down, with two current members of the Board of Education, Vasilios "Bill" Scoullos and Sari Zukerman, campaigning against it. Scoullos said that it was the wrong way to go about handling the budget problem.

Scoullos has been an active opponent of the current town administration headed by Mayor David Delle Donna, and has run for Town Council unsuccessfully on several occasions. He was elected to the Board of Education last year. He denied charges that his campaigning against the referendum was politically motivated.

"This has nothing to do with politics," Scoullos said. "I was on the budget committee and I felt that the increase of health benefits by 33 percent across the board was too much. To me, it was a wrong approach to put the question on the ballot. It was a tactical mistake by limiting that question to only the extra items. I did campaign against it, but I felt they made a wrong decision. They took a calculated risk and lost. I feel bad, but it was a gamble the other board members took. The bottom line is that they lost with that gamble."

Since the item appeared on the ballot and was voted down by the general public, New Jersey state education laws clearly state that the programs eliminated by budget cuts cannot be reinstated as school activities, even if someone donated money to help fund the programs. They can be reinstated in next year's budget, but not now.

"We're out of luck no matter how you look at it," Mantineo said.

"We tried to do some creative things with the budget, to keep the programs active," said Guttenberg Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Penna. "We also did not replace a teacher's aide, a reading teacher, and a bilingual teacher that retired. The first place where we made cuts was with staff. But we weren't going to eliminate positions."

Teachers can't volunteer There was talk among some of the teachers to volunteer their time to keep the programs active. However, since the Guttenberg Education Association, the union representing teachers and staff, has begun negotiations on a new contract again - the teachers are currently working without a contract, since the old one (which took nearly three years to ratify) expired last June - the officers in the union were told to instruct the teachers to not volunteer for anything.

"Some wish to volunteer and some don't want to," Penna said. "It's been a tough time."

Other organizations have stepped forward to try to help.

Mayor Delle Donna and the Town Council have decided to fund the basketball, cheerleading and outdoor track programs, placing them under the umbrella of the town's recreation department.

"To not have a Klein School basketball team would have been unacceptable," Delle Donna said. "I refused to allow that tradition to die. From what I understand, we have to hire people to coach the teams and keep the teams going. The voters decided that unless everything is funded, then the programs for the kids should be eliminated. I find it very disturbing to think that way. I'm kind of at a loss for words over it. The only people getting hurt by this are the children. And it's a shame that a current board member [Scoullos] and another board member who was an educator from another district [Zukerman is a retired teacher] actually lobbied against the budget."

Added Delle Donna, "We currently have the lowest cost per student in the state and the voters still voted this referendum down. I have to abide by that, but it's still very disturbing to me."

Basketball, cheerleading, track can remain While the basketball, cheerleading and track programs' costs will now be absorbed by Guttenberg Recreation and will beginsoon, the other programs remain either in limbo or are now history. Penna said that the school's Parent-Teacher Organization is looking into raising funds to help the other programs remain active.

"The PTO is trying very hard to raise the funds and pick up the costs," Penna said.

Penna was particularly disturbed to see the end of the school's marching band, which is something that he worked diligently to restore three years ago.

"It broke my heart," Penna said. "That's what really hurt me the most. The band is my baby."

Mantineo said that the losses of the after-school programs will only lead to problems down the road.

"We don't want the kids hanging out on the street corners after school," Mantineo said. "Because that only leads to trouble for everyone. No one realizes just how tight we are, cutting back on staff, supplies, now this."

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