Part II: Approaching the Turn of Another Century in Public Education
My previous post looked at our school district early in the 20th century, when it was becoming established, and again mid-century at the height of the baby boom and the heyday of public education in the United States. Today I will look at a year toward the end of the century to see how our schools fared after a generation of rapid change.
25 Years Ago:
The world was a very different place by 1987, but both our schools and our towns maintained much of their traditional character.
The district continued to be very strong. An internal audit found that students did well on tests: elementary and middle school students scored above the national average on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, and SAT scores were up more than 50 points from 1982, and above state and national averages. CHS would be named a Blue Ribbon school in 1992, boasting 14 AP classes.
But some stresses and anxieties were starting to tell. Columbia High School (CHS) had had a disappointing performance on the first statewide sitting of the HSPT proficiency exam in 1986 with just 76% of students scoring proficient or better on both the math and language arts sections. (Performance would improve to 91% in ’87.) And the district was increasingly comparing itself to the neighboring districts of Millburn and Livingston, both of which had developed their malls, thus easing their residential tax burden even over a period of sharply rising budgets.
Nonetheless, it was a quiet start to the year, with organizational issues—plans for more supervisory staff to improve consistency of programs across the district, and changes to class size policy— as the focus of Board of Education (BOE) budget discussions. Interest in the upcoming BOE election was weak. Despite several pleas from sitting board members, in early February there was just 1 incumbent candidate for 3 open seats.
But things heated up quickly. A week later, there were 4 candidates declared, and by the final deadline (extended owing to the Lincoln’s birthday holiday) there were 9 candidates for 3 seats. At the same time, the curtain rose on what can only be described as a brutal budget season, as community leaders and citizens faced the dilemma we grapple with yet today: balancing the needs of the schools against the ability of residential property taxpayers to foot the bill.
The superintendent had capped all departments/buildings at a 6% increase in early planning. A major technology initiative was rejected outright by the BOE as way over that limit. Much smaller exceptions were made for music (band buses) and home economics (new stoves). But increasing enrollment (after a decade of declines) and a proposal for reduced class sizes pushed the preliminary budget to over $31 million, a 12.5% increase (the maximum permitted by the state) over the previous year. That was reduced to a 9.75% increase before being presented to the Board, which voted it down, 7-1. A compromise was finally reached, for an 8.75% increase and a $30.5 million budget was sent to the Board of School Estimate (BSE).
The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) had criticized the proposed budget from the start, calling for much sharper cuts, lower personnel costs and an increase just under 5%. Tensions between the CBAC and the BOE, and the CBAC and the teachers union were high. Over 100 citizens attended the BSE meeting, most in support of the budget, “but both sides were represented.” Many worried that deeper cuts (and larger class sizes) would weaken students’ education, and explicitly cited much smaller classes in Millburn and Livingston. The BSE was split, with South Orange members calling for additional trimming, but largely supportive, and Maplewood representatives holding fast to the CBAC recommendations. Several weeks of discussion and two votes later, the impasse remained and the budget was sent to the state education commissioner in Trenton for a final decision.
The wait was stressful. The superintendent prepared for layoffs and in June, 500 CHS students staged a walkout protesting budget cuts and the feared loss of electives “despite assurances from school officials to the contrary.” Students “said they were told by board members, teachers, and read in newsletters within the school that the elimination of the electives was imminent.” While the principal “admired their idealism” he also noted: “their protest was based on rumors. They did not do their homework,” and he gave the protestors detention.
Later that same day, the Commissioner’s decision came down, and the BOE budget was approved. Maplewood officials expressed shock and talked of an appeal, but it does not appear that further action was pursued.
Tensions between Maplewood leaders and the schools did emerge again over the summer, in a different way. In “unannounced business,” at a summer board meeting, a letter from the mayor was read, challenging the construction of a playground at Jefferson School. The Jefferson PTA had raised funds and the playground was in the planning stages. Even as the board asked the PTA not to proceed without community input, one board member wondered if the letter contained “a veiled threat of legal action.” Another suggested it was more of a “public relations” problem. At issue was the design of the playground, which was to be made of recycled tires. Although similar playgrounds were in place at other district schools, neighbors were upset about the impact on the neighborhood, with some claiming the school grounds would look like a “junk yard.”
The conflict grew, and dominated the back-to-school season, with town council and zoning board hearings and eventually a gambit with the state, challenging the zoning board’s jurisdiction. That led to renewed negotiations and a compromise was finally achieved at the end of October, with the addition of wooden structures to the playground design.
Another issue arose over the spring and summer that heralded changes and issues that shape the school district as we know it today. In the spring there had been several letters to the editor in the local paper questioning the need for, and validity of, affirmative action policies. At a summer BOE meeting, a concerned parent cited those letters and questioned the district’s progress in affirmative action hiring: “ I am calling for more black teachers to neutralize some of these attitudes I have seen and heard about in this district.” The issue was formally addressed at a fall BOE meeting where the district acknowledged that: “measured against the goals set by the board in 1985, progress has been very limited,” and reaffirmed commitment to the goals.
Next—Part III: Into the 21st Century and Where We Are Now
The News-Record, 1987