OLD BRIDGE – School officials are weighing the option of privatizing and outsourcing paraprofessional services as they continue to reel from the sudden reduction in state aid.
Emotions ran high at a Board of Education meeting on Feb. 19 as school staff, paraprofessionals and parents voiced their concerns on privatizing paraprofessionals, who they say have been an integral part in the lives of the most vulnerable students in the district.
Schools Superintendent David Cittadino said the district notified the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) on Feb. 18 the Old Bridge Public School District would seek request for proposals for alternative options, which would bring cost savings to the district; however, this would affect the paraprofessionals.
“We value our paraprofessionals and want to work with our paraprofessionals,” he said. “We have a responsibility to uncover every stone and look at every way to save costs. The impact of these decisions are still pending the state aid announcement [on March 5].”
There are approximately 160 paraprofessionals in the district, officials said.
Old Bridge Education Association President Tim O’Neill said outsourcing paraprofessionals, or paras, should not be an option.
“These people work closely with our most vulnerable population, consistently providing high levels of service [to students in] need [of] support the most,” he said. “Our paras in every measure are a bargain. The starting salary for a para is less than $16,000 a year and the average salary is $21,000 a year.”
O’Neill said more than half of the paraprofessionals have been in the district for 10 years or more, working with the same student or students, taking them through their educational experience.
“in addition, more than half of the paras have college credits; some are certified teachers who are in a role of a para,” he said. “All paras have received extensive training under district supervision. No private company would provide close to the same level of professionalism and experience our paras already provide.”
Other pending decisions include closing and consolidating Cheesequake Elementary School, one of the 12 elementary schools in the Old Bridge Township Public School District, selling an easement near the Nike Base, off Route 9 south, where it currently houses its buses.
Cheesequake Elementary has about 280 students and 25 educators, which includes 13 classroom teachers, four response to intervention (RTI) teachers, two special education teachers, a guidance counselor, principal and educators who teach special classes such as art.
According to Gov. Phil Murphy’s revamp of the School Funding Formula, which was approved by the New Jersey Senate and the House of Representatives on July 21, 2018, Old Bridge Township Public Schools will receive an approximate $12 million reduction in state aid over the next seven years, from approximately $45 million to $33 million.
“Based on the [amended] formula, [the state says] we are overfunded,” Cittadino has said, noting the district does not apply for state aid. “[The reduction] came without warning and did not provide us the time to put a strategic plan in place. [The handling of the reduction has been] irresponsible and it is detrimental to our students.”
Since 2008, enrollment in Old Bridge schools has decreased about 1,000 students. The school district has just under 9,000 students, 1,388 employees and 17 educational facilities.
School officials said they had been using state aid to cover recurring expenses including salary costs, collective bargaining contracts, a custodial contract, and health and medical benefits in the district’s $150 million budget.
Cittadino said they are continuously investigating ways on how to best handle the reduction in state aid.
“This district leadership and the board have the responsibility to explore all avenues to contain fixed costs in order to formulate the 2019-20 budget with an ever shrinking state aid number,” he said. “I assure you that we looked at everything from the terrible to the catastrophic. We have identified reductions in line item costs from everything from supplies to administrative costs.”
On Feb. 4, officials met with Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholder Kenneth Armwood, liaison to the schools, seeking county assistance. On Feb. 13, officials met with representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education.
“We pointed out erratic inconsistencies in the school funding formula as related to Old Bridge,” he said.
O’Neill, school officials and local legislators have called on employees, residents, and their families and friends, to sign a petition to show support for reinstating the full funding for all of New Jersey’s public schools.
In addition, O’Neill said a Support our Students campaign is leading a protest before the March 5 announcement of state aid and a Save our Schools campaign is also in support of districts who received cuts in state aid.
For more information, visit actionnetwork.org/petitions/restore-state-funding-to-old-bridge-public-schools.