LACEY – At the March 18 meeting, the Lacey Township Board of Education introduced the tentative budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 and local parents had concerns.
Before the figures were even presented, Superintendent Dr. Vanessa Clark attempted to dispel rumors that the board was planning to cut paraprofessional staff members in the district to satisfy budget cuts as part of S2.
“I know that there is a lot of uncertainty…but there’s also a lot of misinformation of how the budget will impact our district,” Clark said during the meeting.
S2, or Senate Bill 2, is legislation that imposes drastic cuts to state aid to local school districts over the course of the next few years.
“The loss of state aid that Gov. Murphy signed into law last year is a problem for many school districts in New Jersey, including ours,” said Clark. “If you’re angry, you should be – we are.”
With the imposition of S2 on Lacey School District, the district will see more than $4.7 million slashed from the budget over the next seven years.
“For us in Lacey Township, state aid comprises 30 percent of our operating budget,” said business administrator Patrick deGeorge.
The total proposed budget for 2019-2020 is $75,828,979, $51,555,279 of which will be raised by taxation.
“The lion’s share [of the budget] is from our local tax levy which will increase 2 percent,” said deGeorge.
The tax rate will be .01322 or $1.322 per $100 of assessed valuation. This is up from last year’s $1.313. From July 2019 to June 2020, the average taxes will increase to $3,676.48 per household, which is an additional $43.41 per year or $3.62 per month, deGeorge explained.
This budget is “the first of six very challenging budgets,” he added, since the state law will impact all of those years.
In total, Lacey School District will be losing $4,764,040 in state aid over the next few years. The upcoming school year will see a loss of $623,156.
Because the board is required to fill the hole left in the budget, they landed on alterations to the paraprofessional staff.
According to the NJ Department of Education, a paraprofessional is “a non-certified instructional staff person who does not hold the position of teacher, but assists in the classroom under the guidance of a teacher.” These “paras” are sometimes called teacher aides or instructional aides and also assist with special needs children.
“First and foremost, students always come first,” said Clark. “Students who require paraprofessional assistance, as determined as their IEPs [Individualized Education Program], will continue to receive those services exactly as they have in the past.”
While the district plans on doing their best to serve special needs students, they will be reducing the overall paraprofessional staff in the district by about 35-40 percent, according to Board President Shawn Giordano.
Of the 70 to 80 paraprofessionals employed in the district, about 60 or 70 of them work full time right now. The budget cuts would come from laying off a percentage of those full time paraprofessionals, who also enjoy benefits, and hiring them back as part time employees without benefits at an hourly wage.
Giordano said that this staffing change would provide the district with “roughly $1.1 million in savings.”
To this, numerous local parents had a lot to say during the public portion of the meeting.
One parent who has an autistic child in 3rd grade at the Lanoka Harbor School was close to tears while addressing the board. “Having a consistent, caring para is the difference between his success and his failure,” she said.
Renee Stracuzzio’s daughter has a para that is so involved in her day-to-day that she acts more like a nurse. “I have very high expectations of who is with my child…I will not accept another para,” she said.
Edward Scanlon said: “I have a grandson who is special needs; if he loses his aid…he’s not going to be able to function.”
This was a concern for many: with the reduction in full-time aids, will my child still have their same para next year?
To this, the board could only explain how they might go about the re-hiring process. Clark said that they will hire back paras based on “seniority,” which is a term they are currently still trying to define with the help of a labor attorney, she said.
While some paras act as student aids and others work as bus monitors, seniority essentially means that it could be either kind of para that gets hired back to assist your child depending on their “seniority” status. Unfortunately, parents may not see the same para paired with their child next year.
Another parent brought forth the concern: what kind of para will stay in district for less money and no benefits?
Clark told parents that the board is working on determining a proper hourly wage for those paras that get rehired for part time. This number could land anywhere from $10 to $18 per hour.
“I’m not going to throw out a number because we are not quite there yet,” she said.
Board member Frank Horvath had an emotional reaction to parents’ stories and experiences with their children’s paras. “My heart’s being ripped out,” he said.
Horvath said he ran on a “students first” campaign and he had struggled to come to terms with this decision.
Giordano emphasized to parents that no decision was to be made immediately, that the budget is tentative. Parents and concerned residents will have another opportunity to voice their concerns on May 6, when the board will hold a public hearing and adopt the final budget. The district must submit their final budget by May 14, 2019.