The fear was obvious at Monday night’s school board meeting in Paterson. And sadness. Anger. Frustration. Parents tired of having children taught by substitutes, upset because sports and band and art and music are gone. Teachers and other school employees worried about their jobs and their inability to deal with out-of-control class sizes. Clergy members disheartened by knowing they are losing children to the streets. But, in Paterson, many are fighting back against budget cuts, raising their voices against the brutalizing effect of unfunded schools.
“What does it look like in Paterson?”cried Nicky Baker, an instructional aide. “It looks like a graveyard.”
“The state of New Jersey is doing to us what they think they can do to us and get away with,” said Benjie Wimberly, a Democratic assemblyman who opened the long meeting Tuesday night. “We should not let that happen–even if we have to shut down the Statehouse.”
Corey Teague, a former school board member, said what many–not just in Paterson, but in every major urban district in New Jersey–believe:
“Gov. Christie wants to destroy public education. ”
He called for a boycott and he used this logic: “Until the schools are fully funded, the children are not getting the quality education they deserve anyway.”
Nearly 500 people jammed into the Paterson school board headquarters–and scores more were turned away because there was no room. A year ago, the board eliminated 300 positions and many employees their jobs and instructional programs were crippled.
Now the same board is about to make additional cuts–the budget is short $45 million–and more jobs and programs are on the chopping block.
It’s happening elsewhere, of course, because Christie and the Legislature are treating obedience to the school aid law as if it were optional. And, while money shortages have been commonplace for years, this time, things are different.
This time, there is a plan–or, at least, many people believe there is a plan and the evidence for it is growing throughout the state. A plan to outsource education, privatize it, fill charter school classrooms with the youngest, most inexperienced, least expensive teachers.
“Charter schools do not help our children,” said Rev. Kenneth Clayton, head of the Paterson NAACP. “They just make other people rich.”
“We have four charters already,” said John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association (PEA). “One of great fears is that they will be closing buildings and that’s invitation to charters to come into town.”
That very day, the state announced the latest major expansion of charter schools in Newark, a district that, up until last spring, also was the scene of angry parents, students, and teachers protesting the state’s plans for he city’s future.
Newark is quiet now, the result of a deal between its mayor, Ras Baraka, and the governor that is supposed to bring back local control. Local control of a district in which half or more of the students may be attending charter schools and the public schools will be stripped of resources.
But, in Paterson, there is still hope and there is still struggle–and that hope was magnified by the obvious alliance among teachers, parents, activists, and clergy. Many teachers spoke, a teacher like Naomi Gamorra who has, for months, exposed the failure of the district to provide properly certified teachers to classrooms in Paterson.
“You should be getting rid of many of your administrators–we need teachers,” said Gamorra.
Christopher Irving, the president of the school board, said he was “amazed and proud” by the turnout Monday night. “But,” he added, “they don’t have any argument with us.” He said the board was forced to cut the budget because the state failed–as it has for six years–to provide the amount of state aid required by law.
“If we received the money we are owed, we would be able to fill the budget gap,” Irving said.
But the teachers and parents were not persuaded. Many demanded that the board refuse to adopt a budget with reductions. That doesn’t seem likely, however. The board meets again Wednesday night to announce its plans.
And the board will likely act, not in response to the emotional demands of parents and teachers, but according to the laws and regulations that, for many residents of Paterson and other cities, just seem to be so foreign, so tone-deaf, to the needs of real people, real children.
One moment showed that. It happened when Rev. John Givens rose to speak in opposition to the budget cuts. The audience in the overcrowded, overheated room stirred and a murmur turn into a wave of cries of anguish.
“A child has been shot,” someone shouted, and the words were repeated by others. “A child has been shot on Rosa Parks.” Rosa Parks Boulevard–just blocks from the school board office on Delaware Avenue.
Rev. Givens, instead of addressing the board, offered a prayer for the safety of the unnamed 7-year-old. Then after the “amens” fell silent, he turned back to the board and told the members what they need to do. He pointed his finger at them and said, simply:
“Reject this budget.”