Teaneck school budget highlights town’s fissures

Teaneck school budget highlights town’s fissures

Hundreds turn out to protest mooted cuts in day school busing

Parents packed the Teaneck school board session on busing cuts. Larry Yudelson

Call it the trial balloon that filled the room.

A proposal to trim $116,457 from the Teaneck Board of Education budget by consolidating bus stops for private schools drew a record crowd of hundreds of Jewish day school parents to a board meeting last week.

In the end, the president of the board, Dr. Ardie Walser, rejected the proposal.

But in the course of the evening, fissures in the township came out in the open.

Teaneck has about 4,500 students in its public schools. Some of them take buses to school. About 2,400 students who live in Teaneck are bused to private schools – day schools and yeshivas, secular schools, and parochial schools.

The state does not require school districts to pay for busing to private schools, though the state does partially reimburse the town for those expenses. Neighboring Bergenfield does not provide busing to private schools, and many day school parents choose which town to move to in part by weighing the benefits of busing against the higher property taxes that pay for it.

For those town officials planning on next year’s budget, the choices are difficult.

The proposed transportation cuts were part of a package of more than $4 million in budget cuts. The cuts would include outsourcing lunchroom aides, which would allow the board to pay less for their services, and eliminating 10 teachers and six nurses.

“Anything that is not mandated should be on the table,” said Howard Rose, a member of the board’s finance committee, which drafted the proposed budget and brought it to the full board last week.

What the proposed consolidation actually might involve, however, was not clear.

The day before the meeting, the district’s transportation coordinator, Karen Shabrack, had emailed the Jewish day schools that the budget cuts meant that “All parents will drive or walk their children to one of … our schools each day or it may change and be FDU parking lot for everyone.”

Mr. Rose and other board members denied that the proposed consolidation would be so drastic.

“That’s just fear-mongering,” he said.

Certainly, as Keith Kaplan, who lives near the Fairleigh Dickinson University campus, pointed out, FDU had not heard of any such plan before he called the school’s provost and general counsel to discuss the details. The provost, he said, noted that any centralized busing plan operating out of the school’s parking lots would raise questions of insurance coverage.

“I can’t fathom how anyone thinks adding hundreds of vehicles to that area or any consolidated area is anything more than a catastrophe,” Mr. Kaplan said.

And such a consolidation was shot down by Teaneck Police Captain Kenneth Croonquist, who strode up and cut into the line waiting to speak at the microphone – the people who were waiting willingly made way for him – and read a short statement that said that the police were not in favor of the plan as it had been presented.

“It will create a safety hazard for many, many people,” he said.

(Board members said police had not responded to earlier direct requests to comment on the proposal.)

Parents spoke out against the feared changes to the township’s busing as it now exists, and some were explicit that the 3 percent of the school budget devoted to day school busing is the price Teaneck must pay for the day school families’ support of the school district.

One speaker brought up the example of Ramapo in New York State, where yeshiva parents are now a majority of the school board – and have been accused of looting the public schools for the benefit of their yeshiva.

“It’s quite possible or likely the demographics of the school board will change,” he said. “When the majority of the people making decisions on the school budget will be non-public school parents, the decision you make now will affect how your students are affected.”

That was one extreme in the public comments. Most of the speakers, however, emphasized their personal support for public schools, even while asking that the board keep the needs of their non-public school students in mind.

Some warned that if cuts to private school busing forced private school parents to leave Teaneck and be replaced by families who would send their children to public school – or even if day school parents found themselves unable to keep their children in their schools – that would increase public school enrollment and expenses.

Yet with expenses – particularly salaries and health benefits – scheduled to continue to rise, “What is not on the chopping block this year will be in a future year unless we find some other form of revenue,” said Dr. Dennis Frohnapfel, the district’s business administrator.

“There are budget reductions that can cause an Excedrin headache, and budget reductions that can cause a Percocet headache.”

Mr. Rose said he was glad to see the crowd at the board meeting.

“Anything that impacts your kids is important,” he said.

The final budget will be submitted in May, following a public budget hearing on May 6.

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