HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — More than 200 public school employees protested state school funding cuts Friday with a noisy picket line outside the Mays Landing Country Club where Gov. Chris Christie attended a fundraiser for Republican U.S. Congressman Frank LoBiondo.
Chanting “Save Our Schools” and holding signs saying “Support Our Schools” and “We are the solution, not the problem,” teachers from districts throughout Atlantic County, some of whom have received layoff notices, said they want to make the public aware that a $820 million shortfall in state school aid will affect teachers, programs, and children.
“The message to voters is ‘Please vote for the (local school) budgets and support our schools,’” said John Carlson, an Egg Harbor Township teacher and vice president of the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations, which organized the event.
A small group of teachers stood on the corner of Route 40 to get the attention of afternoon rush-hour traffic.
The rest lined up outside the country club, chanting at arriving guests, most of whom were surprised to see them. The only minor disturbance came when one woman opened her car window and made a comment about hoping teachers did lose their jobs.
The teachers booed loudly but remained outside the parking lot. There was no police presence at the event until just before Christie arrived, and parking lot attendant George Terry, a retired teacher and principal from Pennsylvania, said he was sympathetic to the teachers even if it was causing him an unexpectedly hectic evening.
Darlene Beasley, a speech therapy teacher in Egg Harbor Township, sported a sign saying “Tax the wealthy, not the workers.” Both Egg Harbor Township and Hamilton Township, where she lives, are making cuts to school programs and staff.
“And we still have to wait to see if the budgets pass,” she said. “(The cuts) could go even deeper.”
The NJEA has called on the governor and Legislature to reinstate an extra tax on residents making more than $400,000 per year, which could raise at least $600 million and restore some school aid.
Janet Siano, an English as a Second Language teacher in Galloway Township said she was there because the funding cuts will hurt the students.
“I’ll still have a job,” she said, carrying a sign that said, “Tax break for the rich at the expense of our kids.”
Charles Brandt, president of the small K-8 Estell Manor Education Association, said cuts will affect almost half the staff of 21, including art and music teachers.
“We’re small, but we’ve always have great test results,” he said.
Meg Markkanen, who gave up a casino career to become a Spanish teacher in Egg Harbor City, said she has been told she won’t be rehired next year, and the district will use a video series instead of a live teacher.
“I’ll never find a job around here,” she said. “I’m already looking in South Carolina and North Carolina, and I’ve lived here for 30 years.”
Other teachers who received layoff notices said they too many be looking out of state because there are not expected to be any jobs in New Jersey.
As the sun set and the wind kicked up, some of the protestors began to leave. Christie was behind schedule, and at about 7 p.m., Brian Currie, president of the Buena Regional Supportive Staff Association, moved his union banner closer to the country club entrance.
Currie said he wants the governor to realize that many of those losing jobs are lower-wage workers. His union represents cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, security and aides, and about a third could lose their jobs in the new budget, which also includes the possibility of privatizing the cafeteria.
“We’re taking the biggest hit,” he said. “The average salary of our members if less than $19,000 a year.”
He said asking those employees to take a wage freeze, while not asking those making over $400,000 to pay a little more, is just unfair.
Mary McCarty, a second-grade teacher from Galloway Township, sported a large homemade sign asking the governor if he would also freeze her electric bill, gas bill, water bill and gasoline prices.
A few posters were more personal, calling Christie a liar and saying he had reneged on promises to support education. Relations between Christie and the NJEA have been tense, and the NJEA on Friday apologized for a memo from the Bergen County Education Association to its locals that read, in part: “Dear Lord this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.”
Association president Joe Coppola said the “prayer” was a joke and was never meant to be made public. But he apologized, saying he had made an error in judgment.
The New Jersey Education Association also issued an apology Friday, saying the attack wasn’t funny and that it takes away from the more serious discussion the group would like to have with the governor.
At an appearance in New Brunswick on Friday, Christie did not see any humor in the memo.
“They said they didn’t intend it to be public,” the governor said. “So private prayer for my death would have been OK?”
Christie had no public contact with local teachers Friday.
At 7:20 p.m., the governor’s dark SUV quickly drove past the chanting crowd and around the back of the country club, where Christie quickly exited. Media and the public were not allowed into the club.
The protestors chanted outside for a few more minutes then gave into the cold and headed back to their cars.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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