School budget goes to voters

Plan calls for cutting nine teachers

Michael Arges
   Teacher layoffs, testing and paperwork headed the debate at Monday’s meeting of the East Windsor Regional school board, as the board voted to send a $49.8 million budget to voters on April 18.
   If accepted by voters, the budget will increase taxes by 5 percent in East Windsor and 7.6 percent in Hightstown.
   Under the proposed budget, school taxes in East Windsor would go from $2.23 per $100 of assessment this year to $2.34 per $100, costing the owner of a house assessed at $100,000 an additional $112.20.
   In Hightstown, school taxes would increase from the current level of $2.28 to $2.45 per $100 of assessment, costing the owner of a house assessed at $100,000 an additional $172.90.
   The proposed 2000-2001 budget would require nine nontenured teachers to be laid off, eight full time and one part time. Teachers’ union President Gene Grey insisted that the schools must stop wasting time on preparation for “very poor” state tests and eliminate excessive paperwork if they hope to provide a quality education with fewer teachers. Board members emphasized the importance of tests to measure the skill levels of students, while district ChiefSchool Administrator David Witmer noted efforts to reduce paper work.
   Mr. Grey suggested that the new budget represents a “do more with less” philosophy in the district. To make this work, he insisted, East Windsor schools must spend less time preparing students for state evaluation tests like the ESPA and GSPA. He urged the administration to eliminate “weeks of practice ESPAs and GEPAs that steal valuable class teaching time away from the students.” He promised to produce evidence from experts at the New Jersey Education Association (the state teachers’ union) showing “that the state tests fail to evaluate what they are intended to evaluate.”
   Mr. Grey also suggested that in order to “do more with less,” the district must allow teachers to spend less time “doing clerical, lunchroom and recess duties.” He reported finding teachers “in tears as they sit at their desk with mounds of paperwork.”
   Responding to Mr. Grey’s remarks, board member Bruce Ettman insisted the board’s real concern is a declining skill level among students — not declining test scores. He pointed to his conversations with Hightstown High School teachers who were reporting “that the level of skills of our better students is not what we would like it to be.” Even though it seemed that “the talent level was there,” the teachers were finding deficiencies in expository writing, vocabulary and spelling, Mr. Ettman added. He insisted on the need for standard tests to measure skill levels of students, though he admitted, “whether the test scores that we are forced to adopt do that, I don’t know —that’s for other people who have more expertise in the area to decide. We’re really stuck with the tests that the state administers.”
   Board member Holly Feder added that “this is the bar the state has set for us and we have got to meet it, so our children will be on an even playing field with children in the rest of the state.”
   On the issue of paper work, Dr. Witmer noted he has asked principals in each of the district’s schools to work with teachers to explore the reduction of paperwork.
   Disagreement also emerged about the ability of teachers to speak up about their educational concerns. Mr. Grey reported an unprecedented “low, almost submissive attitude” on the part of teachers. They are “afraid to speak up for what they consider educationally sound for fear of repercussions from upper administration.”
   Mr. Ettman replied he was “offended” by this comment, and asked to hear about specific examples, even if staff members felt the need to communicate anonymously.
   “I’ve never had a staff member seem shy to me about protesting what she or he felt to be unfair,” he noted, and added he had “never known anybody in our administration to act punitively.”
   There was also preliminary discussion of a proposed change in the district’s drug policy. In the case of a student suspected of being under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol, the proposed policy would provide for on-site urine tests to detect drug use, and for Breathalyzer or saliva tests to detect blood alcohol level.
   And, in response to recent bomb threats written on bathroom stalls at Melvin H. Kreps Middle School, Dr. Witmer reported efforts to supervise school bathrooms more closely.