SOMERS POINT — Members of the Hispanic community told school board members they feel underrepresented in local schools after the layoff of three full-time teachers, including one Spanish teacher, was approved by the Board of Education last week.
“This community is severely under-served and disenfranchised,” said Pedro Santana, treasurer for the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County.
Santana was one of five speakers who pleaded with the Somers Point school board at its meeting Thursday to reverse its decision to lay off several staff members. Superintendent Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder said the positions being eliminated were decided based on union contracts.
“I welcome a diverse staff in our district that is reflective of our community. That being said, we have laws to follow regarding the nonrenewal of staff members, as part of that process race and national origin is never factored into these decisions,” CarneyRay-Yoder said. “As new employment opportunities become available in the future, I will continue to encourage all eligible applicants regardless of race or national origin to apply.”
During the meeting, the board approved a $18.9 million budget for the 2019-20 school year that includes a 2% increase in the school tax levy and the reduction of a part-time gifted and talented teacher, a part-time nurse, two full-time special education teachers, a full-time Spanish teacher, and three part-time teacher aides.
Cristian Moreno of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County told the board Thursday the cuts directly target the district’s Spanish-speaking population.
“Why is it that whenever there’s budget cuts, those are always the first (positions) to go?” Moreno asked.
He also spoke about the growing population of Hispanic residents in not only the state and country, but in Somers Point. The Somers Point School District has a large Hispanic population, making up about one-third of its enrollment in the 2017-18 school year.
“We matter,” said Moreno, who lives in Atlantic City. “Any cuts that affect our children are detrimental. We stand with educators who work tirelessly to provide a better education for the Hispanic community of Somers Point.”
CarneyRay-Yoder said there was misinformation about the cuts and that the full-time positions being eliminated will not be needed as the district rebuilds its master schedule. She said the students will not experience larger class sizes, any changes in their day-to-day activities and that no programming was reduced or cut due to the layoffs.
CarneyRay-Yoder said she welcomes building relationships and partnering with the Hispanic community “to collaborate and bring positive climate and culture to our schools.”
The district originally proposed layoffs for two part-time teaching staff, four full-time teachers, two part-time secretaries and five part-time aides, but three resignations allowed the district to keep those other positions intact. Declining enrollment coupled with state aid reductions were the impetus for the reduction in staff, she said.
“Notwithstanding these challenges, our budget approved last night continues to provide programming opportunities and educational resources for our students, but forces us to make difficult decisions with regard to staffing,” CarneyRay-Yoder said. “There is no way for the board to propose a balanced budget without reducing costs associated with our staff, which make up approximately 80% of our budget. Due to the declining enrollment the nonrenewal of staff will not affect students programming or education.”
Jennifer Rowe, Somers Point Education Association president, and Greg Yordy of the New Jersey Education Association both spoke about their disappointment that any staff cuts were happening.
“At last month’s meeting the message was clear, our community believes the educators are the No. 1 resources our students need to be successful,” Rowe told the board. “Nothing can replace the human interaction that each educator provides to his or her students.”
Yordy, who works as the associate director of research for the NJEA in Trenton, said Somers Point could save positions by raising the school tax levy an additional $94,000, which it has banked from previous years of not going to the 2 percent cap.
“The total (additional) cost to an average taxpayer would be $60 over the year,” Yordy said.
He said Somers Point also has a healthy surplus and could use that money to fund the position. CarneyRay-Yoder said that wasn’t a fair argument.
“We can’t just look at the end of this year, the beginning of next year. We have to look a couple years down the road,” she said.
On Friday, Yordy said he was “hoping for the best.”
“The board has the ability, it’s just a matter of where they want to spend their funds. It’s just a matter of shifting money within their budget to save these positions,” he said.