Union schools facing 200 layoffs with budget shortfall

UNION, NJ — About 200 non-tenured faculty and staff will receive reduction-in-force notices due to a budget shortfall in the upcoming year, Assistant Superintendent Gerry Benaquista said at a May 8 school board meeting. The news comes following an April 26 school board budget meeting at which officials originally said 49 positions — including custodians, teachers and security officers — could be eliminated.
However, Superintendent Gregory Tatum said May 8 that the draft budget of $133 million, which was approved by the school board April 26 and sent to the county superintendent, had actually proposed cutting 149 teachers, not 49 positions districtwide.

“I want it to be perfectly clear that only eliminating 49 teaching positions would not facilitate the amount needed to balance the budget,” Tatum said at the start of the May 8 meeting. “Therefore, as a matter of practice, … all non-tenured faculty and staff will be issued a letter of non-renewal as the district works to finalize the necessary budget cuts and a revise line item budget will be submitted to the county superintendent’s office for approval.”

The budget at the April meeting was passed with the “understanding” that Tatum would present the board’s concerns about certain line items to the county superintendent, LocalSource previously reported.

Although 200 non-tenured faculty and staff will be given pink slips, 100 faculty and staff — including 49 teachers — could potentially be cut, according to a statement by Tatum ahead of the May 8 meeting.

The school district now faces a $7.5 million budget gap, Tatum said. A budget presentation given by school district Business Administrator Gregory Brennan at the April meeting showed that the 2018-19 budgeted fund balance was $5.9 million less than last year.
Tatum did not respond to an email seeking clarification on the numbers.

School board President Vito Nufrio proposed rescinding the April 26 vote approving the draft budget, causing a shouting match among some board members. Nufrio said he was “disturbed” by some inconsistencies and unanswered questions.

“When that occurs and there are inconsistencies and vague numbers — or numbers that may be somewhat vague to the board — and yet the vote still goes through, doesn’t that some way raise a question about vacating the vote?” Nufrio asked Paul Griggs, the school board attorney.
Griggs reminded board members that state statute requires the board to approve a budget no later than May 14. The budget was was ultimately not rescinded.

The draft budget was approved in a 5-2-1 vote on April 26, with Marry Lynn Williams and Sherry Higgins opposing and Nufrio abstaining. School board Vice President Nancy Minneci was absent.

When asked by Nufrio if she still had concerns, Williams said she wanted to know which specific positions would be affected. School administrators were advised by the board attorney not to divulge which departments would specifically be affected by the cuts.
Higgins, meanwhile, said she was concerned the cuts would increase class sizes.

According to Benaquista, many Union elementary school classes currently have 15 to 17 students, fewer than the state-mandated number. And if class sizes were pushed to 23 or 24 students, the district would still have smaller classes than neighboring districts.

“I still feel those teachers could service those kids,” Benaquista said. “I feel like that’s something that needs to be on the table.”
There were 595 teachers and 94 support services staff in the district during the 2016-17 school year, state data show. There were about 45 administrators in the same year, data show. Tatum said the budget had not been clarified for board members, saying that “spending has gotten out of control” and his advice perhaps “fell on deaf ears.”

“I can tell you this much: people who were on the board at that time knew,” he said. “I won’t say that about brand new board members, but the people who were here, they knew. They were informed, and it’s on the record and it will reflect that … So people were forewarned.”

Tempers flared when Steven Le, a former school board member, began to ask questions about which non-instructional staff would receive pink slips. Tatum cut him off, saying the board attorney had already advised board members not to comment on specific departments.

Le responded that he was asking “because the school district is a mess right now.” Tatum responded that Le should take a look at his own record on the school board, saying he was “a part of this.”

The superintendent also referenced Le’s withdrawn lawsuit, which alleged $5 million in excess bond funds should have gone back to taxpayers.
“Do you want to give us back the money that you took from us when you took us to court and tried to shut our schools down in the beginning of the school year for no reason?” Tatum shouted. “Do you want to give us that money back? Because I can bring back a paraprofessional with the money you cost us.”

Before Nufrio called the meeting to order, Le called Tatum’s accusations against him “a farce.”

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