As a growing number of area public employees face layoffs driven by cuts in state aid, Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday called on teachers to agree to voluntary wage freezes.
Southern New Jersey municipal governments and school districts are turning to layoffs to deal with tight budgets and a reluctance to raise property taxes.
Atlantic County has been particularly hard hit, with more than 500 job reductions already proposed, most affecting police, teachers and other staff in the county’s schools.
Northfield School District Superintendent Janice DeCicco Fipp said the message from the Board of Education was “save services to children, retain staff to the greatest extent, but please do not pass the burden on to taxpayers.” Six positions will be eliminated and local taxes will go up just 1.7 percent.
On Tuesday, Christie sent a letter to the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association asking them to approve wage freezes for 2010-11 and require employees to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries to their health benefits plan.
In a letter to school superintendents, Education Commissioner Bret Schundler said the two provisions could save between $750 million and $800 million next year — about the same amount the state needs to make up for the $820 million not available in federal stimulus funds for schools this year.
The school boards association had already proposed a wage freeze, and spokesman Frank Belluscio said about 60 percent of district officials responding to a survey said they have discussed reopening contracts. Local reaction has been mixed.
A meeting Monday to reconsider staff cuts in Margate schools was canceled when the union declined to reopen its contract.
Galloway Township teachers are negotiating a new contract. Union President Ed Zimmerman said Monday a freeze would have to be discussed by the entire membership. The district’s budget eliminates or reduces the hours of 69 jobs.
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said each district’s union can decide how to proceed, but that NJEA members “will not be bullied by this governor into paying for his misguided priorities.” The union supports reinstating for one year a tax on residents making more than $400,000.
In the Egg Harbor Township and Mainland Regional school districts, some administrators have agreed to take a wage freeze.
“They’ve volunteered, I want to emphasize that,” Mainland school board President John Medica said. He said if the teachers also agree to a freeze, it could reduce the 16 positions slated to be cut in the budget.
Millville School District Business Administrator Bryce Kell said if teachers were to pay into their health care, that could save some of the 43 jobs slated to be cut, 30 of them teaching positions.
Municipal jobs are also threatened, many of them police positions.
In Buena Borough, up to six police officers — three full-time and three part-time — and 10 dispatchers — five full-time and five part-time — could know by the end of the month if they will lose their jobs.
Vineland Mayor Bob Romano said he wants to avoid laying off 21 police officers currently funded with money from the city's Urban Enterprise Zone that Christie wants to cut. He said he is somewhat optimistic that the money will be retained.
"At least 50 percent of the senators are against taking the UEZ money," Romano said.
Not just jobs are at stake. Programs and extracurricular activities in schools are also being cut back as districts give priority to academics.
Egg Harbor Township cut 70 jobs and eliminated summer school and middle school clubs and sports.
In addition to staff, Absecon will cut summer school, summer programs, summer curriculum writing, technology purchases and facility improvements, Business Administrator Tina Davisson said. But the district will maintain full-day kindergarten, extracurricular activities including band and chorus, sports and after-school tutorial programs.
Athletic programs will also be hit, although athletic directors still don’t know to what extent.
Middle Township High School Athletic Director Scott Lodgek said officials, coaches and staff are all talking about likely cutbacks.
“Athletics are not immune to this,” he said.
Still, some districts are faring better than others.
Teachers at Cape May Elementary School will get salary increases of 4 percent per year under a new three-year contract. The small district’s local property tax levy is already at the state minimum, so it could not be cut any more, school officials said in explaining the raises.
The financial crisis is also on the minds of students. Monday night, in a report to the Galloway Township Board of Education, eighth-grader Brendan Williams said he knows money is tight.
Williams, a student council member, said his group is trying to do more fundraisers to earn money for special events such as the eighth-grade trip.
Speaking before a crowd of employees who were about to learn just how many might lose their jobs next year, he said, “We have been trying to raise awareness to the students that things aren’t the way they used to be.”
Staff writers Tom Barlas, Steve Lemongello, Eric Campbell, Derek Harper, Emily Previti, Michelle Lee, Dan Walsh, Ed Van Embden, Richard Degener and Trudi Gilfillian contributed to this report.
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