Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Friday, March 11, 2016

(BOE) 2017 Plainfield school budget: More questions than answers

Graphic from PEA flyer says it all...

Plainfield schools superintendent Anna Belin Pyles hosted a community presentation on the the proposed 2016-17 school budget at the PHS cafeteria on Thursday evening.

Dottie Gutenkauf would have loved it!

For openers, the way attendees took their seats spoke volumes about the dynamics of the situation.

There were about eighty in attendance. Fifty or so union members sat in a phalanx across the back of the block of chairs, taking up more than half. Mayor Adrian O. Mapp sat with them and behind a knot of community members that included BOE members Emily Morgan and Deobrah Clarke and BOE candidates Lynn Anderson and Carmencita Pile. Board president Wilma Campbell, her husband (and BOE member) John and a tiny crew of supporters sat alone in the front right corner of the room.

Business Administrator Gary Ottman took attendees through the PowerPoint overview which was presented at the February 1 work/study session and he and Belin Pyles then took questions from the audience.

The $187 million proposed budget includes a slight ($2.5 million) increase of 1.8 percent in state aid but still projects a shortfall of $6.5 million. (The district's detailed budget proposal is online as of this morning -- see here.)

Before questioning on the proposed budget got under way, Superintendent Belin Pyles noted that the district had recently been billed by the City for $600,000 for the cost of School Resource Officers (SROs). This led to a somewhat lengthy discussion of these off-duty police officers and their duties, with a sharp contrast between the way Plainfield uses them and the way Paterson does. (I will take up the question of SROs in a separate post.)

Belin Pyles argued that the principal drivers of the fiscal situation are --

  • Increased enrollment in the city's Charter Schools, siphoning off funds;
  • Unpredicted increased enrollment in the District's schools;
  • Relatively flat funding in state aid year-over-year, while district obligations have risen at a faster pace
Despite probing by several questioners, Belin Pyles failed to give a convincing explanation of why the funds set aside for the Charters have put the District in such a pickle.

It was easier to understand how the increased enrollment affects the funding because the state bases its student aid on the number of seats occupied on a given day (October 15) each year. Enrollment figures are in constant flux with students moving away, new ones moving in, and others dropping out.

I asked for clarification on the proposed $1.5 million reduction in health benefits costs. My question was simple: Will the savings be coming from staff reductions (layoffs and attrition), from changes to the benefits program, or both?

I didn't really get an answer to the question. Nor did two subsequent questioners who posed essentially the same question yet again.

Finally Belin Pyles said that no answer could be given because she needed to have further conversations with the Board itself and with the unions. Union members protested that with the upcoming spring break, the budget hearing on March 29 and subsequent adoption the next week, there was precious little opportunity to "discuss" the matter.

Questioners probed proposed cuts to the Barack Obama Academy, the summer school program, the use of part-time and substitute teachers (which one teacher compared to making the Plainfield schools "the Walmart of school systems"), as well as teacher and support staff layoffs.

When one teacher complained about the cuts in money for supplies, saying that her budget only lasted into October and for the rest of the year she reached into her own pocket for classroom supplies, Belin Pyles blew her off by saying she (Belin Pyles) also buys items for the district out of her personal funds -- "because that's what we do".

Belin Pyles also suggested another factor in the fiscal situation was that the district's school buildings are "older". I can't buy this. It would seem the real issue is that the district needs to have a better preventive maintenance program and keep to it. It was scandalous that for several years students at PHS had to take online chemistry classes (meaning no real hands-on lab instruction) because the district had let its once state-of-the-art lab fall into disrepair and disuse.

Board member Emily Morgan sharply challenged the idea that Plainfield was an "urban school district" and asked Belin Pyles to characterize the district. After seeming to claim that the designation was somehow related to our proximity to Newark (does that mean Westfield and Summit are also "urban" districts based on their proximity to Newark?), she settled on the designation "Schools Development Authority (SDA) district". The first I can recall hearing that term.

As to the threat from Charter Schools, one teacher passionately suggested that perhaps "we should be in Trenton" where the decisions are made, rather than discussing the problem here in Plainfield, and that pressure should be put on our representatives in the Legislature.

The night's final question came from a PAAAS student who pointed out that while the District did a good job of keeping students informed of many school and community activities, it did not provide any information on SAT prep classes for those students interested in college. A good point!

At the very close of the meeting, Belin Pyles acknowledged BOE members Wilma and John Campbell and Henry Moore, which prompted BOE member Emily Morgan to ask why she and Deborah Clarke were not being acknowledged by Belin Pyles.

Embarrassed, Belin Pyles apologized.

And the meeting ended.

There will be an opportunity to discuss the budget once again at the Board's regular business meeting, Tuesday March 15 at 8:00 PM in the PHS Auditorium.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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