PLEASANTVILLE — More than 20 school employees, including the director of facilities, lost their jobs as the school board attempted to mend a $1.5 million budget deficit and avoid future loss in aid.
On Tuesday, the board approved a resolution for a reduction in force, also referred as a RIF, for 21 employees effective Oct. 5, including 11 custodians, five secretaries, two maintenance workers, and a computer technician.
Most of the employees affected earn less than $40,000 a year.
Included on the resolution was Atlantic City Councilman William “Speedy” Marsh, the district’s facilities coordinator who earns a salary of $138,145, and Carmen Torres, the district’s Title I Family Involvement Coordinator, who earns a salary of $71,642.
At the start of the school board meeting, Superintendent Clarence Alston read a three-page letter detailing the state’s concerns over moves made by the board after approving its budget in the spring leading to the projected deficit for the 2018-19 budget.
The letter, dated Aug. 8 from the Department of Education, states that loss of state aid, new hires by the board, the board’s contract with the Pleasantville Education Association ratified in May and reinstatement of several employees scheduled to be laid off in July led to the budget woes.
“I felt it important that we hear this in public because of the pending recommendations coming from the superintendent to address the serious financial issues facing our district,” Alston told the board.
Alston said the decision was “gut-wrenching,” but that the district has a responsibility to address it.
The letter directs the board to address the deficit or face future loss of aid and state intervention. In a rare moment of public comment, state-appointed fiscal monitor Constance Bauer addressed concerns from Board President Carla Thomas over the projected deficit.
“How come now we’re coming to this? How come there was no one from the state that said, ‘Listen, Pleasantville (school board), this is what needs to be done?'” Thomas asked.
Bauer said that when the budget was approved in April, it was balanced, but actions taken by the board after that, as well as the loss in state aid, culminated in the current situation.
“Going back to April, I had started to ask the questions about how is this going to be paid,” Bauer said, referring to the expected union salary increases.
She said a state-appointed budget manager has come back to the district to help resolve the issues.
Board member Lawrence “Tony” Davenport chastised the board for trying to blame others for its own problems.
“It’s decisions that we make that cause these problems,” he said, adding the board’s actions affect both the budget and the students’ education.
“On both of them, we're failing,” he said and urged the board to look at making cuts to the “third floor,” a reference to where the administration offices are located in the middle school building, which he said is bloated.
Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins said the district’s budget problems come from a variety of places and that firing the staff of the third floor wouldn’t come close to solving them. He said out-of-district placements, including tuition to the county vocational school, cost the district more than $5 million each year.
“It’s a lot of things that came into play after the budget,” he said, including $4.9 million in retroactive pay to union members who were without a contract for two years.
Teachers and support staff flooded the cafeteria inside the high school Tuesday to fight what they say are violations of their hard-won contract signed by the district and the union in May.
Pleasantville Education Association President Tim Newkirk said prior to the school board meeting Tuesday night, the district hadn’t made agreed upon changes to its benefits plan and that it removed increased benefits compensation from paychecks for retroactive pay increases, despite agreeing not to. But the last straw for the union was the reduction in force announced hours after the school day ended Friday.
Newkirk said the district notified several employees in the district by email late Friday evening that their positions would be up for discussion at the Tuesday meeting.
According to Newkirk, the employees were caught off guard by the notification when they returned to work Monday and at least one who was out on medical leave never received a notification.
Several of the employees received similar notices in June, but most of those employees had their positions reinstated at a July 10 meeting after several executive session meetings.
After the board meeting, Alston said the district was working on a plan for maintaining the buildings, but that it couldn’t outsource the positions to a third party per its contract with the union. Alston said Thompkins would now be in charge of the maintenance department.