Anger is running high among parents of students at Oak View Elementary School in Bloomfield over the township’s school board and its proposed spending and staff cuts for the 2012-13 school year budget. The cuts are expected to adversely affect all of the elementary schools in the district and severely compromise their world language programs, as well as a program for academically talented (AT, or “gifted”) children . . . and attempt to use computers to fill the gap. Oak View parents, especially Oak View Home and School Association (HSA) president Laura Heyman, are particularly concerned.
“It’s a mistake to think that, because of computers, better learning is taking place,” Heyman told Barista Kids, who spoke for herself and not for the entire Oak View community. She said that there should be a higher standard for teaching than to just have children “pressing buttons in the classroom.”
The Bloomfield school board is trying to do more with only a little more money. The 2012-13 budget includes a 1.77 percent increase in spending, with an average tax increase of $244 per household. Many Bloomfield residents feel they are being taxed enough already, and the modestly increased spending is more about keeping up than moving ahead. Bloomfield schools get 71 percent of its funding from local taxes, and the school board has admitted that state aid has been underfunded by $16 million over the last three years even as ratables have been decreasing. With Bloomfield already ranked second lowest out of 105 New Jersey districts in money spent per pupil and with the district at $3,658 below the state’s per-pupil spending average, Heyman fears that the school board is setting up a Hobson’s choice between teachers and technology.
The $90 million budget presented by the Bloomfield Board of Education on March 27, which is up for a vote in the April 17 school board elections, calls for the elimination of eleven teachers. All four world language teachers in the elementary schools and one elementary AT teacher would be dismissed. The world language programs for upper elementary school students would be replaced by Rosetta Stone programs, a strategy Bloomfield School Superintendent Jason Bing says is gaining favor in other districts. Bing believes that this strategy will not only save money but will also offer a wider choice of languages.
Lisa Milbrand is one of many Oak View parents who is unconvinced. She thinks that the variety of languages offered by Rosetta Stone is irrelevant when it comes to continuing the study of specific languages in high school. “Say they only have world language teachers in high school that can instruct in Spanish and French, but not in Mandarin, and your child chooses Mandarin from Rosetta Stone,” Milbrand explains. “They may develop a bit of an ear for the language, but won’t be able to continue that instruction on the high school level, where it’s live teachers in lieu of computer programs.”
Meanwhile, the school board is planning to reduce its staff of elementary AT teachers from two to one, calculating a student-teacher ratio of 1:15 and saving approximately $100,000. Renzulli software – a program described as a sophisticated variant of Google – would be used to allow gifted elementary students to find subject matter that interests them. But while this gambit may aim at efficiency, it sounds like a bad idea to Heyman, herself the mother of a gifted student. She feels that the AT program would be compromised by one remaining elementary AT teacher with a heavier workload, which would be both unfair to the teacher and the students. She’s even more afraid of what could happen if the budget doesn’t pass – the elimination of the AT program altogether. Currently, the AT program allows gifted students to learn in a special environment, and they meet at Bloomfield High School every month to meet and talk with each other as well. A program like this allows them to learn at their own pace and find acceptance among their peers.
“If the budget doesn’t pass, then the program could be gone,” she says. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
That said, Heyman supports Bing’s efforts to maintain quality standards and inject energy into the learning process. But she remains skeptical of the increasing reliance on computers.
“I’m not a huge fan of technology for teaching world languages and AT students,” says Heyman. She notes that students in world language and AT classes benefit from discussion and exchange of ideas in an interactive, interdependent fashion, an advantage computers can’t replicate.
Superintendent Bing defends the greater use of computers. “This is a flat world due to technology,” he says, referring to Tom Friedman’s book about the leveling of the world economy through globalization. “Our students need to learn to operate in this new global economy; the use of technology does not make void critical thinking. These kids take in, process and store information much differently than we do, so we need to address this in our classrooms.” Bing makes the case that technology can be an added value that, when combined and balanced with other teaching methods, can level the playing field for Bloomfield students and put them on par with others.
Ultimately, though, for all of the benefits technology produces, many Oak View parents would obviously prefer to see computers supplement, rather than replace, teachers. But it’s unlikely to get better for Oak View or any Bloomfield school until and unless the $16 million deficiency in state funding is addressed.
“The state has admitted that they have underfunded Bloomfield schools since the new funding formula was developed by an estimated $16-plus million,” Bing says. “It makes developing and balancing a fair budget [for] taxpayers and students very difficult.”
Bing is urging the community to contact their representatives in Trenton to address the issue, and school board president Mary Shaughnessy has already gone to the state over the issue, but Milbrand hopes that the rest of the board steps up such efforts, for the good of the children.
“This is really, I think, the biggest issue . . . that we have been apparently underfunded to the tune of $16 million,” Milbrand says. “Our teachers are the lowest paid in the state, and our school is among the lowest in expenditures per student. I can tell you without doubt that the taxes I pay to the state and local levels are not at the lowest levels in the state, and I feel that more of the money that I’m contributing should be spent on my daughters’ education.”