Thursday, July 20, 2006

BOE Faces Budget Crisis

In pain since December, first-year teacher Bari Erlichson put off leg surgery until July 5 so she could stay in the classroom.

“It was a great year,” she said at Thursday’s school board meeting.

But then she knew a worse pain. On July 6, she returned from the hospital to find she was among 300 non-tenured school district staff who received termination notices.

Erlichson, who came to the microphone in a bright pink leg cast with matching toenail paint, was among many staff members who spoke out on the indignity and shock of getting termination notices Thursday after they thought their jobs were assured for the 2006-07 school year.

The district had to send out the “reduction in force” notices due to budget issues that arose after Gov. Jon Corzine demanded in May a flat budget from all 31 Abbott districts, despite voter approval of school budgets in April. For Plainfield, it meant cutting out $14.2 million to drop back to 2005-06 funding levels.

But Schools Superintendent Paula Howard said Thursday, “Zero does not really translate into zero,” because of rising fuel costs, contractual issues and a new charter school opening in September.

In talks since a May 31 deadline to submit the flat budget, the district dickered with the state Department of Education over the proposed cuts. Howard said the district requested $4.8 million back, including a request to hold off on the $2.8 million cost of starting the new charter school. But on June 26, the state said “no deal,” according to Howard, and the RIF letters were then sent out.

The charter school leader was never informed of the district’s ploy, Howard confirmed Thursday.

Plaintalker tried to reach Shamida Coney, lead person of the Central Jersey Arts Charter School, without success.

As of Thursday, 60 to 70 teachers had been called back, Howard said, with more expected to be called today.

Howard said her own chief of staff, Angie Chiaravalloti, and business administrator Victor Demming, both received termination letters.

She told the teachers, “This was not us against you, it was everyone.”

The district will meet July 26 with state officials to discuss budget issues and again in August. But Howard said, “August may be too late.”

The district is encouraging people to voice concerns to the Department of Education.

Howard and speakers including Assemblyman Jerry Green said the district must present a unified front when dealing with the state.

“We are not a collaborative district,” Howard said . “We are at odds with each other.”

Green asked for a written statement of what the district wanted him to push for in his role as Assemblyman.

“We need to get together as a community,” Green said.

Green claimed that the state said the district did not submit all the necessary paperwork. Howard disagreed, saying everything was turned in.

Another issue was the unresolved contract with the Plainfield Education Association.

“The state is telling me one thing and the district is telling me another thing,” Green said. “We have to settle the contract. It’s embarrassing.”

--Bernice Paglia


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