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Jews mixed on public-school cuts

 
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Members of the state legislature held a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Bergen Academies in Hackensack to hear concerns about the proposed 2011 budget. From left are Assemblywoman Joan Voss, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, Sen. Bob Gordon, Sen. Paul Sarlo, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Assemblyman Fred Scalera. Josh Lipowsky

Public school teachers and students took to the streets this week in protest of last week’s statewide school board elections, which resulted in a rejection of almost 60 percent of New Jersey’s school budgets. As they struggle with high costs in the day-school system, Jewish communal leaders appeared mixed in their reactions to the emerging battle between the governor and the public schools.

Gov. Chris Christie is hailing the mass rejection as approval of his calls for schools to cut spending, including implementing a salary freeze for teachers. The state’s day-school system appears to have escaped largely unscathed, according to Howie Beigelman, the Orthodox Union’s deputy director of public policy, although community leaders are always concerned come budget time.

“We were extremely worried going into the budget; there were rumors of all kinds of cuts,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “But as far as Jewish schools go, we are seeing the same amount as last year in the [state] programs we use most — transportation and such — other than the lunch program, which has been inexplicably cut.”

State funding for non-public school lunch aid accounts for only 5 percent of a more than $8 million budget for the programs, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. That funding is a victim of Christie’s cuts, but the other 95 percent, which comes from federal funding, remains intact.

The state cut $7 million in technology aid to day schools in the 2010 budget, Pruzansky said. The schools have struggled to make up that funding but, in the proposed 2011 budget, they escaped the major cuts that will affect the public schools.

“On the whole, non-public schools are still hurting,” Pruzansky said. “The only thing we can be thankful for is there was no [major] decrease in aid.”

Pruzansky lashed out at the New Jersey Education Association for not accepting the governor’s call for a wage freeze for teachers. Public school teachers typically earn much higher salaries than their day-school colleagues, he said.

“Non-public school teachers are sacrificing far more than their public-school counterparts,” Pruzansky said. “The heroes in education today should be non-public school teachers who do more with less.”

For Yavneh Academy in Paramus, last year’s technology grant cut meant a loss of $27,500, according to the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Though the day-school system appears to have escaped the budget ax in the coming cycle, the cuts to the public schools are still disturbing, he said.

“We work closely with our public schools, and it’s hard to advocate for the needs of the yeshivot when public school funding is being questioned,” he said. “However, we should still try where at all possible.”

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of school at Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, sympathized with her public-school colleagues.

“Our hearts go out to the students and the families and the teachers in the public-school system,” she said. “We hope that the financial crisis will be averted in the near future.”

Teachers gathered outside state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s Teaneck office last week and students across the area walked out of schools in protest on Tuesday. Weinberg (D-37) and state Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Bob Gordon (D-38) held a community forum at Bergen Academies in Hackensack on Tuesday night, which attracted about 100 residents from across the county who mostly spoke out against the budget cuts. In response, Gordon called the budget proposal “reckless” and accused Christie of a “reverse Robin Hood” mentality.

“The legislature will put its own impact on this budget,” Weinberg told the audience at the end of the meeting. “We are going to be your advocate.”

Some Jewish organizations are going to bat in Trenton for public-school programs facing cuts in the new budget. Suad Gacham, director of School Based Services for Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, testified before an Assembly budget hearing last week about New Jersey After 3, an after-school program in danger of losing more than $5 million in state funding. JFS runs one program in Cliffside Park that attracts more than 235 youngsters weekly and may face cancellation.

“If these programs are to disappear,” Gacham told the budget committee, “30 to 40 percent of the children would be latchkey children, coming home alone at a very young age to an unsupervised home until their parents return from work. Children would be at risk.”

Praising the work of public-school educators, Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS, called Tuesday’s student walkouts “an exercise in democracy.”

“For some, it may be their first exercise in democracy — how you identify a cause and take steps to express your point of view,” she said.

Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, issued a statement earlier this week condemning the student walkouts.

“First, students belong in the classroom,” he said. “Students would be better served,” he added, “if they were given a full, impartial understanding of the problems that got us here in the first place and why dramatic action was needed.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association of Jewish Federations, said it has been working with other organizations advocating against the cuts rather than taking a lead.

“The governor’s seeking a shared sacrifice, and I think the agencies and the people we’re advocating with recognize that,” Toporek said in a telephone interview. “But they’re very much concerned that the impact on the clientele we deal with may be a little greater than the impact of the shared sacrifice on others.”

Democratic legislators have promised to make changes to the budget, but Christie has also vowed to veto any significant reversals to his cuts.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” said JFS’ Fedder. “I know that people are dealing with some very difficult issues. There are not any easy answers.”

 
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