UNION, NJ — Superintendent of Schools Gregory Tatum drew applause at the Aug. 21 school board meeting when he announced that “a huge number” of nontenured teachers who had received reduction-in-force notices in the spring have been hired back.
In an Aug. 24 phone interview Tatum said the number of teachers who have not been rehired or found jobs in other districts is “down to six or seven.” Of those, some will be offered temporary jobs filling in for other teachers who will be taking four- or five-month leaves to start the school year.
“I’m proud of the fact that that number is where it is right now,” Tatum said at the meeting. “I’m going to tell you something. I know there’s a lot of people in this room, in this community, who didn’t think we were going to be able to do it. I know it. But you know what, we did. I’m proud of it. And I thank my staff. We’re going to continue till we get as many people back as we can. We’re getting down there now. We’ll continue to look at enrollment day by day and up until the very last minute.”
Assistant Superintendent Gerry Benaquista said at the May 9 school board meeting that about 200 nontenured faculty and staff were to receive reduction-in-force notices due to a budget shortfall in the upcoming year.
Tatum characterized that number as a “safety net” and said there was “never the intention of laying off 200 people.” He said he received a recommendation from the board’s business office to lay off 149 teachers.
“My response was, ‘That will never fly,’” Tatum said.
So, the proposal to cut 149 teachers was whittled down to 49, in an attempt to bridge a $7.5 million budget shortfall.
Tatum said that as some teachers left for other districts and others retired, he gave the teachers who had received the notices first choice to fill the open positions.
Tatum said he also looked closely at teachers’ certifications to see if there was an opportunity to move them into a different role.
“Let’s say we had a general education teacher who’s duly certified in special services and special education,” Tatum said. “Well, that same certified person was unable to occupy a position that might have been vacant by a person who may have retired or elected to take a job in another community. So therefore, what I pledged to do was for every teacher that had an appropriate certification, I would actually rehire them back before going to the outside or advertising for the position for someone qualified in another district.”
Tatum also said he has been monitoring enrollment closely, calling a class size of 25 students the “magic number.” When class sizes at a school exceed 25, he begins to consider opening a new section and, consequently, a laid-off teacher is offered a position.
“As a former teacher and a former primary teacher, when you are dealing with youngsters in first, second grade and so forth like that, once you maximize your class size of about 25, it becomes more and more difficult, and not really manageable in terms of being able to really give the attention to the students’ individual needs,” Tatum said.
The superintendent said he prioritizes class sizes in the lower grades. In first grade, for example, “students begin to learn how to read with some level of proficiency,” he said.
And, he has had to hire back some of the teachers for special education classes, for which class size is dictated by federal and state guidelines.
Tatum said critics have harped on the shortfall, “but, what they don’t really talk about is what we’ve done in terms of repurposing the funds that were frozen by the state when things were being appropriately operated. Last year, no one mentioned that we had recovered over $1 million just in federal aid, just in bringing things up to par that is actually acceptable by the state of New Jersey.
“That’s the kind people in the district don’t want to talk about. They want to talk about the shortfall in state aid that we’ve gotten over the past couple of years.”
Tatum said that the shortfall has been in the making for the better part of a decade, and that former Gov. Chris Christie “took the district’s surplus money” and then cut funding.
“If you just take the average of the amount of state aid we’ve received, it’s really about on the average $1.7 million a year,” Tatum said. “We lost $15.6 million in this district due to there being an enormous amount in our budget back in 2011, I think it was. And, Gov. Christie did this with a lot of districts where he came in a found that money was being stockpiled and he took the money and reduced the aid.”
A $133 million budget was passed in April, the LocalSource previously reported.
“I’m pleased to hear that many of our staff members will be returning,” said Union Board of Education President Vito Nufrio. “But since I’m not certain how many are still outstanding that are waiting to be recalled, we do have a concern as a board. We are hoping for more recalls and returns of staff members, but that is all predicated on what is decided by both the superintendent and the fiscal status of our district.”