'Tough Decisions:' Fair Lawn Schools Made Sacrifices This Year
68 staff positions eliminated, as well as world language in early grades and transitional programs leading into high school and middle school
Fair Lawn's K-12 world language program has been considered a model for other schools to follow. But this year, the school district's youngest students will go without Spanish or French teachers.
Would-be golfers and gymnasts won't have teams to play on. At-risk students won't have extra summer help transitioning into new phases of school. And 23 fewer teachers will be on hand to education Fair Lawn's youth.
The district made hard choices after the losing more than $4 million in state aid this year. It weighed its classroom priorities against its diminished finances. And ultimately, that meant making staff and program cuts.
The school district's budget is for 2010-11 is $81.8 million, $1.6 million less than last year's $83.4 million. World language courses in kindergarten through second grade, library services in elementary school, and business education courses in high school were all cut. Also eliminated were the "Bridging the Gap" summer program that helped eighth-graders transition into high school and the "Making the Connection" program that did the same for fifth-graders before middle school (sixth grade).
Fair Lawn eliminated 68 staff positions, among them 23 teaching jobs (20 of those include teachers who retired but were not replaced).
Superintendent Bruce Watson said that going from $5.2 million in state aid in 2009-10 to $1.1 million this year forced the school district–which has an enrollment of 4,800 students (15 more than last year)–to engage in a serious cost-benefit analysis.
"Due to [the decrease in state aid], and looking at the budget, and trying to maintain a focus in the classrooms first, we had to make some very tough decisions," Watson said.
The district's K-12 world language program was designated a model by the state's Department of Education, Watson said, with other districts visiting to observe it. As a result of the staff cuts, kindergarten through second-grade students who previously learned Spanish and French won't have teachers for those languages, and will instead receive "some exposure [to the languages] through videotapes and reading materials," Watson said.
He called the solution "not authentic, but we will do the best we can."
World language is important in the early grades because it helps children's thinking process and overall development, Watson said. Music and arts instruction serve similar purposes, and the school district didn't cut back on either of those programs, he said.
"These are things we are trying to keep in because education is more than just science and language arts and mathematics, it's more than that," Watson said. "So, you get to a balancing act, [asking] 'What can you keep?' and 'What do you have to give up?'"
Despite the school district's interest in giving students varied instruction beyond the core subjects, Watson said the highest priority remains on math, language arts and science–and that is why the world language program needed to be scaled back.
"It comes down to priorities of everything we have to do," Watson said. "The district, in itself, has to make a decision as to what else do we believe is important in the education of a student."
"We have other ways of having students feel success, whether they're struggling in math but they might be very successful in music, and that music will help them become better learners anyway," he said. "But the focus in literacy in obviously the number one focus, because that leads into everything else."
Cutting the transitional programs into high school and middle school was painful because at-risk students–including those with learning disabilities, social and emotional issues, or problems at home–need "help and support, especially in the transition years," Watson said.
Instead of summer help for at-risk students–which had included tours of the high school and middle school buildings, counseling, and help in individual subjects–Fair Lawn schools are giving at-risk students extra attention during the actual school year, but "it's clearly not as thorough as it could have been done over the summer months," Watson said.
"Those are major transition points and some children need additional support and they need to feel more secure going into those new buildings, those new grade levels," Watson said. "And that's what these two programs provided."
Sports Take A Hit
After years of having 30 of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's 31 sanctioned high school sports–the only exception being girls field hockey–the high school still offers a robust 28 of 31 possible teams after the cuts, Watson said.
Cory Robinson, Fair Lawn High's athletic director, said golf and gymnastics were eliminated because that move impacted the fewest number of students–about 12 on the golf team and eight on gymnastics, he estimated.
"It's unfortunate when you have to make any kind of a cut, let alone cut two programs," Robinson said. "But, on our end, we affected the least amount of kids possible by cutting those."
The high school lost six coaching positions, but the cuts were spread out so that sports outside of golf and gymnastics were spared from elimination.
"The coaches have been reduced in numbers, but it's not to the point where can can't offer the sport and coach it well," Watson said. "It's painful, but we are still offering it for children."
A Less Visible Loss
The school district's staff cuts included eight custodial positions. It may be easy to overlook custodians, but Watson said those losses because schools need to be secure, clean, and well lit.
"I think if all those things take place you're ahead of the game for any student to come in and feel good about learning," Watson said. "I think if we have our students coming into buildings that are anything but that, it affects the learning."
"We're hoping that on a rotating man basis now, that we'll be able to keep up with much of that, but I'm sure we're going to have our issues, when you lose eight people," he said.
Fair Lawn classrooms used to be vacuumed and cleaned every room every night, Watson said, and the current scaled-back cleaning process involves emptying trash cans in the rooms every other night.
"There are shortcuts that you have to go through just because of the lack of manpower," Watson said.
Fair Lawn schools recently got some relief. The school district received $168,312 in federal aid on Sept. 20 under the Education Jobs Act (intended to help states save or create education jobs), but Watson said he needs to conduct a thorough analysis and make recommendations to the Board of Education before the school district can decide how to use the funds and whether to use them this school year or next year.
This story is part of a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on local schools. For more on the impact on Fair Lawn schools, see here.