By Brenda Flanagan
“Where we’re headed is down a fiscal cliff and a fiscal shortfall of no return,” said President of the Paterson School Board Christopher Irving.
Paterson’s Board of Ed president says the state-run school district teeters on the brink of a $45 million budget hole after years of chronic under-funding by the state. He told the Joint Committee on Public Schools, unless something changes, “This district will be bankrupt next year. I want to be very clear regarding that, bankrupt. There’s no place to cut. There’s no teachers to reduce. No schools left to close.”
“Our children are not corporations. They are live, breathing, flesh-and blood beings who are sent daily into antiquated and dilapidated schools,” said parent Victoria Oquendo.
“It’s very disheartening to advise parents, ‘My hands are tied due to state takeover,'” said Board of Education Vice President Chrystal Cleaves.
Paterson’s facing 115 job cuts, slashed special education programs and reduced sports programs. The state-appointed superintendent asked for a tax hike to support his proposed $558 million budget. The locally-elected board unanimously voted no.
“The argument of the people of Paterson is that we pay our fair of taxes,” said committee member Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly.
Wimberly complained after 175 teacher layoffs last year, and cross-the-board cuts.
“That is so insulting to residents of the city of Paterson. You’re not doing us a favor,” he said.
Superintendent Donnie Evans acknowledged the district faces challenges but focused instead on accomplishments: a 78.2 percent high school graduation rate, a 93 percent school breakfast participation rate and he claims fiscal management has improved as well.
“We have made tremendous, tremendous progress in that area, so much so that one of the auditors commented a couple years ago, that we had the best audit ever since the district has been under control,” Evans said.
“Unfortunately you’re the poster child for what’s not working in terms of state takeover districts. And that’s not acceptable,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey.
Critics contend the state still owes Paterson millions in unpaid state aid. The superintendent says Paterson’s improved performance moves it closer to regaining local control, but lawmakers want conditions.
“We certainly don’t want you to get it back with a $186 million deficit,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver.
Legislators made it clear while they support fully funding schools, Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed bills that would restore state aid to Paterson. Some legislators urged parents and community leaders to consider litigation.