Students on School Budget Cuts: No Big Deal
Prices on notebooks and lunch top their concerns.
After the biggest budget cuts in Scotch Plains-Fanwood school board history, what are students' biggest complaints? Their agenda books now cost $5, and – as always – lunch lines can be long.
"There's nothing too bad," sophomore Jeffrey Pershay Jr., 16, said. "Sometimes it takes a long time to get food…but that's it."
The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education lost about $3.8 million in state aid in March. One month later, voters rejected the board's proposed budget, and the board accepted another $860,000 in cuts recommended by the Scotch Plains and Fanwood councils. Those reductions, adopted when voters approved the revised school budget in May, effectively eliminated the middle-school sports program, which was and remains a sore point. It is an issue that the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Patch examined in its first EduNation installment in September.
But as Board of Education President Trip Whitehouse pointed out in a September telephone interview, "There's that old cliché, 'Trying to make the cuts as far away from the classrooms as possible,' but it's true." For the district's students, the board's efforts appear to have been effective.
Agenda books, once given free to every middle school and high school student, now are available for purchase at the school stores. Lunch prices went up slightly – from $2.50 for a lunch meal at the high school to $2.60. And the long lunch lines? That's been a complaint since schools started serving mystery meat, and it was addressed last month, when the district implemented a new swipe-card system.
"The more automated you can become, the less mistakes can be made," Whitehouse said. The new system, which allows parents to place meal points on their children's school ID cards, has taken some getting used to, he said, but "we're doing what we can to move the line along."
Some students expressed frustration with the agenda books. "I don't have anywhere to write my homework," junior Anthony DeBellis, 16, said. "Now I can't get my work done." He acknowledged that he has not tried writing his assignments in a regular notebook.
Most students, however, said they understood the need for the changes. "Instead of buying us agenda books, they should keep the teachers," senior Miles Petre, 18, said. "We need to learn." Seventeen teachers and support staff were laid off as a result of the 2009-2010 budget, and the board eliminated 13 more positions in 2010-2011.
"I don't want to deem it successful," Whitehouse said of the most recent budget. "From the standpoint of a marginal impact, their statements are nice to hear."
The question, then, turns to what next? In a first round of cuts, budgets have room for reductions, painful or not. But now, months after those cuts have been made, and with the board's Finance Committee now working on the 2011-2012 budget, what is left to trim? And will it be enough to satisfy voters, who must approve the budget in April?
"The easier parts are the contractual obligations," Whitehouse said – those are already figured out. "Enrollment has been relatively flat…so there will be some shifting of teachers, instead of incremental growth."
Overall, he said, "We're seeing we're going to be okay." The challenge, however, is "we've got a lot of anger in the public on taxes in general. You see that folks want relief, and we're one of three areas that drive taxes. Ours is the only budget that does get voted on by voters. We can conceivably present a budget that shows a growth of only 1.5 percent, but it can still be defeated. That's my concern."
District Business Administrator Anthony Del Sordi, who leads the budget-crafting process each year, said he planned to address the district's long-term budget plans. "We're keeping the cuts as far away from the classrooms as possible. The difficulty is that, at some point, we will need to start looking at the classrooms," he said. "We will eventually need to make staff reductions."
Meanwhile, despite the elimination of some extracurricular activities, namely middle school sports, Scotch Plains Police Department Detective Lt. Brian Donnelly said that his officers have not reported that there are many more students on the street after school. Nevertheless, he added in a telephone interview, "From my own experience, having kids at home on their own, without a directed activity or supervision or a mentor there, is cause for concern."
He noted, however, that the department's patrol officers have not reported an increase in student crime. "They're still finding positive things to do after school," he said.
These are all issues that the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Patch will continue to explore throughout the EduNation series.