The Bayonne Board of Education (BBOED) voted for a 40-percent staff reduction at a meeting on Wednesday, April 26, in order to alleviate a $6 million budget deficit. Reductions include 261 non-tenured teachers, eight engineers, 15 secretaries, two bus drivers, and other part-time and aide positions.
The decision comes after the board’s proposed budget, approved at a March BBOED meeting, was denied by the Department of Education (DOE) earlier this week. The Bayonne School District has a total of 646 full-time faculty. The proposed budget assumed 85 layoffs last announced in March, which are included in the 261 announced at Wednesday’s meeting. Some layoffs are effective immediately, while others are effective June 30, the day the current teachers’ contract ends.
The board said its “dire situation” necessitates staff reductions. The DOE, in rejecting the proposed budget, required the BBOED to levy a 5.6 percent property tax to make up for the budget shortfall, a much larger levy than the 3.7 percent originally proposed in March.
The 261 layoffs are far more than anyone expected after the board repeatedly planned to minimize, to the best of its ability, the number of layoffs.
“All the people who make up a school building you’re plucking one by one like a Jenga Board,” said local parent, Kayla Marcoe. “What happens when that building gets unstable? It’s going to crumble.And who’s going to pay? The kids.”
Meanwhile, the board, including Superintendent Patricia McGeehan, said at the meeting that it hopes to hire back two-thirds of its layoffs by September.
“This is extremely upsetting to me. Please believe me. This is not easy,” said McGeehan.“We are underfunded. You may not like to hear those words, but we are.” McGeehan told the crowd that she’s at the end of her rope, after pleading with legislators and even reaching out to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie personally on several occasions. “He is the one that will make the decision on where the funding goes,” said McGeehan. “It [the funding] is there folks, and it’s there for Bayonne.”
The administration is having difficulty turning the public’s attention toward a more complicated matter, like school funding, as long as parents, teachers, and students are consumed with rooting out perpetrators of the financial crisis and punishing them. Someone is responsible, they reason.
A forensic audit of the BBOED is underway and is not expected to be finished until September, at the earliest.
McGeehan and Bayonne Business Administrator Leo Smith have directly and indirectly accepted responsibility at times, and attempted to dispel perceptions of them as uncaring or irresponsible.
“I’m very concerned about all of you,” McGeehan said to teachers at the meeting.
“Because first of all, none of you would be sitting in this room unless I recommended you for your positions, so you have to believe me that [hiring teachers in the first place] wasn’t done frivolously. This was done because we need you.”
At the meeting, they both faulted to some extent former accountant, Brian Buckley.
“I was told we had the funding and I, as a CEO of this school district… must depend on those on my left and on my right,” said McGeehan. “I am not an accountant; I cannot watch the books… When I do project, I ask the people who work for us because I trust them. You can’t be a leader without trusting the people who work for you.”
“He let us down. He let us down tremendously,” Smith said.
“Staff should be cut based on merit, on performance.” – Loubna Maachi
Fighting the power?
The day after the layoffs were announced, on Thursday, April 27, students walked out of class and were joined by parents and teachers at city hall. Students then continued to Bayonne High School, where hundreds rallied outside, chanting “Where’s our money?” directed at central office administrators.
There were smartphones drawn, slogans, shouting, and some profanity as students crowded the driveway on West 28th Street, moving toward the central office and tennis courts.
Students agreed to a rally at Veterans Stadium, guided by Principal Richard Baccarella. “We want to speak to you, but the right way to do it, it can’t be standing here because there’s not enough room,” he said into a microphone in front of the crowd of mostly students. Mayor James Davis, State Senator Sandra Cunningham, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, and several council members responded to questions, with one student asking Chiaravalloti and Davis, “Where did that money disappear to? Who took that money?”
In a rare instance of raucous political engagement with high school students, Mayor Davis spoke to students, as he walked up and down bleacher stairs.
“The days of finger pointing and the days of nobody talking to one another are now over,” Davis told the students. “You have my word, as the mayor of this city, that the days of misinformation and hiding information are now over.”
Students cheered throughout the speech, even chanting “Jimmy” at times. They turned against the mayor though, and booed when he said, “Okay, we need to complete the school day.”
Confusion in crisis
Though the optics are good when legislators, city officials, and Board of Education officials accept responsibility for things that go wrong, at the same time they’re jockeying to come out of the battle unscathed.
Normally, property taxes go up in exchange for a better quality public education. When that contract betrays the public, trust erodes for the institutions, along with loyalty for local elected officials, even if the problem started before their time.
“My personal feeling is that instead of cutting, we should be fighting,” said Board of Ed Trustee and Assembly candidate Chris Munoz.“We should be fighting for our teachers and staff, and we should be fighting the state for more state funding.”
Legislators tasked with securing adequate funding for their constituents have their hands tied by a Republican governor who blatantly favors providing quality education for affluent suburban districts over urban ones.
“I’m telling you this isn’t just one area. It’s all over the state,” said Senator Cunningham of the systemic school funding issue. “But this is good to see. It’s all understandable,” she said, referring to the crowds of students who surrounded her, some engaging her directly about education issues.
In addition to a forensic audit already underway, Senator Cunningham, Assemblyman Chiaravalloti, and Mayor Davis issued a joint press release calling on the Department of Education to investigate the school district’s finances: “Putting monitors in place will help us get to the bottom of what is happening with the district’s finances and hopefully provide solutions.”
In April, BBOED Trustee Charles Ryan said, “Remember that if we don’t solve this problem, the state could take over the district. That’s the worst-case scenario. It’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re aware that it is a possibility.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.