Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to cut state aid to schools by up to five percent of the total school district budget has been met by anger from the head of Westfield's teachers union.
Westfield Education Association President Kim Schumacher said the governor's proposal, announced in this afternoon's state budget address in Trenton, could easily result in layoffs to local school district's, including Westfield. Board of Education budget officials were working under the assumption of a five, 10 or 15-percent cut in state aid based on last year's state aid payment, not an aid cut based on five percent of the total budget.
"When you talk about five percent of the overall budget, how do you do not have massive layoffs?" Schumacher said. "That's scary."
Board of Education budget officials have been in emergency meetings all day, since media reports came out this morning regarding Christie's proposal, which he finalized in the early afternoon. The state Department of Education is not expected to announce district state aid numbers until Thursday, but it is possible that the numbers could become available this afternoon.
The first numbers in state aid cuts came in a speech to suburban education leaders from state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler two weeks ago. Schumacher has serious problems with Christie proposing a budget that she sees as far worse than what Schundler had assured education officials two weeks ago.
"As an association president that is really frightening," she said.
Rough estimates show that a 15-percent state aid cut in Westfield would equal approximately $750,000, while a five percent cut in the total budget would equal $4 million. Last year's state aid payment was just over $4 million. Last month, Christie cut from the remaining state aid payment due to Westfield for the current fiscal year.
Schumacher said she has briefly talked with Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan and BOE Business Administrator Robert Berman and she intends to have further conversations with them regarding the budget. She said she would like to work with them on potential cuts and how to handle the proposals coming from Christie.
"I have to give the administration a lot of credit," she said. "We have an excellent working relationship. They are open to hearing from the teachers. I plan on talking with Peggy and Bob later on today."
Schumacher also took aim at Christie's proposal to require teachers to contribute towards their health benefits and change pension rules to require more teacher payments for teachers hired after July 1. She noted that the pension proposal, sponsored in the legislature by state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), would not cover the projected shortfalls in the pension system and would penalize teachers.
In terms of the health benefits, Schumacher said the governor's proposal would harm home rule and take away the right of local school board to negotiate benefits with local unions. She noted that last week the Westfield BOE approved a new contract with the WEA which requires teachers to pay part of the health care costs. Schumacher said many districts already require this and the decision should remain as a part of the local decision making and not a state mandate.
"We agree that these are difficult financial times and we are willing to pay," she said. "But we don't want the state to get into it."
Westfield teachers have been wearing red today in opposition to the pension and health care proposals, part of a state teachers union initiative saying that Christie is "bleeding teachers." The plan is scheduled to continue on Friday and possibly on later days this month as the pension bill advances through the legislature. The national teachers union has sent the material around to other states in an attempt to build national solidarity with New Jersey.
Schumacher said she can see Christie's budget having long term effects on property values in Westfield. She noted that 86-percent of respondents in the school district's latest community survey said the quality of the schools was a factor in deciding to move to Westfield. She said cuts from the state could impact the quality.
Schumacher said that she has found Christie's education proposals to be anti-teacher since he took office. During last year's campaign, Christie declined to seek the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association, saying he believed the group was biased towards then Gov. Jon Corzine. In his budget speech, Christie called the state teachers union an "empire", a characterization that Schumacher disagrees with.
In that past Christie has noted his mother was a school teacher and in his speech today, Christie noted he was a public school alum. Schumacher said this is not enough.
"He doesn't send his kids to public schools," she said. "It is unfortunate that he is hurting hardworking educators in my opinion."