Margate teaching staff and parents packed the meeting room to protest cuts that affect the district’s teaching assistants.


MARGATE – The Margate Board of Education is faced with difficult decisions in right-sizing its budget amid declining enrollment.

“I don’t think we can afford not to recognize the impact of the declining enrollment that we are dealing with in the district. And it is steady and steep. Four years from now, there’s a good chance we will have under 300 students in Margate with two large schools and a staff that hasn’t been cut back in a long time,” Interim Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said when he presented preliminary information about the budget to a room filled with concerned teachers, paraprofessionals and parents.

Margate is a Type 1 school district with a Board of School Estimates that approves the budget. The board is comprised of the three city commissioners and two school board members.

Baruffi said the board has fulfilled its goal to put together a budget that maintains educational integrity and is fiscally responsible.

But many of those who attended a work session meeting held Wednesday, March 6 at the William H. Ross School, say the board is cutting into educational programs with its plan to reduce nine full-time paraprofessionals to part-time status without benefits.

Teachers, paraprofessionals and parents wearing T-shirts bearing the message, “We Stand Together,” took to the microphone begging the board not to disrupt the stability teaching assistants provide for students, especially those who need special education instruction.

Margate Education Association President Sherry Scott spoke for the teaching staff saying the district prides itself on being the best, which is evident in the Eugene A. Tighe Middle School gaining National Blue Ribbon status.

“The Blue Ribbon didn’t happen on its own. It happened because the people – all the individuals who stand with me tonight – worked together to educate our children. We are the best district because we have the best staff. We are able to maintain the best staff because we value our staff,” she said.

Paraprofessionals of the Margate school district will be cut to part-time status and lose their health benefits if the school district budget is approved by the Board of School Estimates.

Paraprofessional Patty Holland who has been working in the Margate schools for 20 years said although the enrollment is decreasing, student needs are increasing, and that the pros of the plan do not outweigh the cons.

“We are an invaluable support to the teachers we work with…and a consistent irreplaceable lifeline to the students we work with every day,” she said. “The Margate Board of Education is implying we are not only replaceable but overvalued. Not only is this an insult to us, but it will undoubtably have a negative impact on students we work with. Our students rely on us to be a consistent presence in their lives.”

Cutting teaching assistants to part-time will force them to seek jobs elsewhere and create a “revolving door” of new certified teachers working as paraprofessionals until they find permanent employment as a teacher in another district, several speakers said.

Additionally, children with special needs do not like to have changes in their daily routines, others said.

Because they are paid a “meager” salary, most paraprofessionals work because they love helping children or work for health benefits, several speakers said.

Cutting her to part-time and eliminating health benefits would “be a devasating hardship,” said 17-year paraprofessional Joan Bartone, “but losing my job will hurt the children more,” she said.

Most of those who spoke against the plan made impassioned pleas to maintain full-time status and health benefits for the teaching assistants.

However, none spoke about other cuts to the budget, including eliminating one classroom teacher, reducing full-time performing arts, health and Spanish teachers to part-time status, combining the LDTC instructor with another position and eliminating one full-time custodian.

“We can still provide those services by reducing those positions, and there is an obligation to do that,” Baruffi said.

Parent Nick Palmisano said he chose to move his family to Margate because of its excellent schools, and that the schools should be used as a marketing tool to attract other families to the city.

Tracy Barkalow, who has four children in the district, one who is legally blind, said she appreciates the feedback she receives from members of the public who call the district the “public private school.”

“I’m not Margate money, but I would go broke to stay here for my kids,” she said.

Resident Brian Duffey said the district has not raised school taxes for nine years.

“It’s time to increase it,” he said. “The right decision is to keep these people employed in Margate.”

And Frank Marciani said the board was just catering to a handful of complainers who have been calling for school consolidation at numerous public meetings over the last several years.

“Catering to them is a detriment to my children,” he said.

The district currently has 354 students, down from 562 students 10 years ago. Baruffi projects that in four years, the district will have fewer than 300 students, which could spur consolidation to one school.

“(The budget) recognizes that this is a district in transition,” Baruffi said.

The $12,683,342 operating budget as presented Wednesday evening is 2.9 percent less than last year and carries a $10,426,730 tax levy and a .81-cent tax rate decrease based on last year’s total assessed valuation. Cuts to the paraprofessionals account for about $200,000 of the $381,110 total reduction, board member Tracy Santoro said.

Baruffi said the district failed to reduce its budget over the last nine years and continued to fund salaries without reducing staffing to go along with decreased enrollment.

“With those enrollment numbers going where they are going, this dilemma will only get worse,” he said.

Board member James Swift said the district needs more children and can no longer “stick its head in the sand” and pretend enrollment is not an issue.

“We have to deal with it. Collectively, you have come up with a solution. You have to throw us some cards back so we can deal with it. We are 100 percent in favor of the teachers, but you can’t disregard reality,” he said. “We need flexibility and cooperation.”

Baruffi said the district could look to increase enrollment by becoming a choice school district if state funding is reinstituted.

“There is talk about opening that up again and giving more districts the opportunity to get involved,” Baruffi said. “This district has saved a ton of money over the years by sending students to Ocean City High School,” which is a school choice district with tuition fully funded by the state, he said.

Baruffi said the board could revise its budget by the time it is approved at a special meeting 5:45 p.m. Monday, March 11 at the Tighe School Media Center. At that meeting, the board is scheduled to approve the budget for submission to the Atlantic County Executive Superintendent of Schools.

Once approved, the budget will be presented to the Board of School Estimates 5 p.m. Thursday, March 28 at Historic City Hall, 1. S. Washington Ave.

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Categories: Downbeach

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.