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Jefferson Township Public Schools Business Administrator/Board Secretary Rita Oroho Giacchi.

The Board of Education unveiled its plans for the 2021-22 school year budget during its monthly meeting at the Jefferson Township High School on Monday. Attendees, however, were more focused on more immediate affairs, continuing to call for the return of full-time in-person learning before the end of the current school year. 

Presented by Superintendent Jeanne Howe and Business Administrator/Board Secretary Rita Oroho Giacchi, the budget presentation revealed that general funding from the state decreased by over $2.7 million. Among the biggest challenges are drastic increases in health care, homeless, special education, and vocational school students. Initial budget reduction considerations include staff reduction, moving to an in-house behaviorist from contracted services, and changing the elementary world language program. 

Howe said that the district’s efforts with the collective bargaining associations and unions, namely the Jefferson Township Education Association and Administrators’ Education

Association, were able to come up with a settlement that saved $1.4 million in benefits.”

“This is going to allow us to maintain a very low class size in the elementary buildings,” Howe said of the settlement. “We can also keep programs in the middle school and high school.” 

These reductions also carry an unfortunate casualty, as Howe confirmed that Milton Elementary School will be closing, as keeping the Oak Ridge staple on School House Road was deemed to be not financially viable. Alternate use of the school could be used to develop additional sources of funding. 

“Milton is a lovely school and it’s been a part of the community for a long time,” Howe said. “But, unfortunately, there has been a decline in enrollment. We have too few students in-district and we have to make some tough decisions on how to deal with these cuts in our state aid.” 

The discussions of the future were of little comfort to those gathered, who carried on the fight their children waged at the prior meeting in March

Jefferson continues to employ virtual learning as the school year approaches its end. But parents calling for a full-time reopening are refusing to concede that the 2020-21 school year is a wash, reasoning that their children have not had a “real” year of school in two years and that other districts have returned to full-week in-person endeavors. Wednesdays have been designated virtual days to account for deep cleaning.

Returning to the podium were local residents Monica Soules and Katherine Benfante, Board meeting mainstays who have been the most prominent advocates for in-person learning. 

“You probably hate seeing me, but I’m not going to stop fighting for the seniors, I’m not going to stop fighting for the middle school and high school students. They’re the forgotten ones,” Soules, the mother of a senior daughter at JTHS, said in a testimony that drew applause. “My daughter is going to college to be a nurse, she’s petrified because half of the classes she hasn’t even had online. I listen, I see what they’re doing, they’re sleeping. You have them on a computer for six hours, they’re not paying attention. You lost our children and, unfortunately, it’s sad to say, you failed our children. They needed you.” 

Benfante mentioned that several parents would be happy to volunteer to partake in the cleaning if it would increase the likelihood of full-time, in-person learning by the end of the year. 

“If more custodial staff is needed, you have a lot of parents who are used to cleaning things who would love to volunteer to do whatever it takes to get things done on Wednesday to help the custodial staff ,so they don’t have to have that overflow,” she said. “Whatever we can do to help, we will do it. We all have kids. I’m serious about that. If we can do it, we’d all wear PPE, we can clean. Let us help.” 

Benfante also raised concerns about the path to returning full-time in the fall, asking for transparency in terms of a guidance checklist as to what had to be changed in terms of cleaning, desk spacing, staff levels, and lunch schedules, again insisting that Jefferson parents would be happy to help. 

Accusations of double standards were further raised by Michele Elmers, who demanded to know why JTHS athletics were allowed to commence while the arts programs remained exclusively in virtual settings. Elmers previously raised such concerns over the virtual meeting platform in February but this time addressed the Board in person, alongside her husband Dennis.

Though full weeks of in-person have remained elusive, the Board did discuss plans to hold an indoor prom and outdoor graduation ceremonies. The state of New Jersey recently announced that indoor capacities would increase to 50 percent (maximum of 250 individuals) and outdoor events would be permitted to welcome 500 individuals, each taking effect May 10. 

“I am also passionate about the (lack of in-person learning), and we will continue to look at the options,” Howe said. “The New Jersey Department of Health released changed guidelines very recently. If they release additional guidelines to relax some of the social distancing requirements that are in place, then we will adjust accordingly.

“We’re still continuing to monitor the students we have in-person, the numbers of students we have in virtual. If we can make any adjustments to in-person learning, we will certainly do so.” 

The Board will next meet on May 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the JTHS auditorium.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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