MONTCLAIR – Member of Paterson’s parent teacher organization and parents of the city’s public school children turned out in high numbers at the first Assembly Budget Committee hearing at Montclair State University on Wednesday. Their goal was to encourage the assemblypeople presiding over the hearing to keep Paterson schools in mind during budget negotiations. According to the Paterson community members who provided testimony, the city’s children have been left behind and money has been unfairly allocated in the municipality.
“Look at Paterson as if you live in Paterson,” said one Patersonian to the committee during her testimony. “We have been underfunded for several years now and we are asking—well we are demanding—that we be fully funded.”
PTO members said that people are moving out of the city because residents are “taxed out” and leaving Paterson to look for better life elsewhere. She also said that many of her fellow residents feel that the city is becoming more and more difficult to raise children and keep homes in.
Paterson’s own Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35) is a member of the budget committee who was present at Montclair for the hearing. After hearing the testimony, Wimberly commented that he was excited to see so many people from his district present to speak out for schools.
“I don’t think people will believe what is going on in Paterson… this is really out of control,” Wimberly said. “We pay our fair share of taxes. This is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is a people issue.”
According to Wimberly, much of the city’s school funding issue comes from the state control of the school board that has been in place for over 25 years.
“The city of Paterson has been under state control for 25 years… there has been major mismanagement of funds,” said Wimberly. “In those 25 years you see the decline of our property, you see the increase in abandoned property. I am adamantly against any more taxes. In 2011 we had a 29% property tax increase.”
Wimberly continued: “We continue to go backwards. We still have classrooms and classes that they have substitute teachers throughout the year. Out students are being evaluated and taking PARCC tests when they never have been properly taught. This is something that needs to be heard loud and clear, not just to the governor but to [New Jersey Department of Education] Commissioner David Hespe and throughout the state.”
Another topic that raised dialogue from committee members was the testimony of William Weiss of the North Jersey Elks Developmental Disabilities Agency. Weiss and the students with developmental disabilities that spoke discussed the need for continued funding for programs to help those with disabilities after high school graduation. While that testimony drew little comment, it was a note in the written testimony that drew the attention of budget committee members.
Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R-8) asked Weiss about a portion of his written testimony that discussed the proposed minimum wage bump to $15 per hour. According to Weiss, that bump could have a dangerous “ripple effect” for organizations like his where funding is already limited.
A number of other groups advocating for disabled persons and the programs they need also spoke at the hearing. Some spoke in favor of the minimum wage jump, citing more resources for staff.
Other members of the Assembly who presided over the hearing included Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25), Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-13) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27). In addition to those topics detailed above, speakers testified on topics as varied as the transportation trust fund, mental illness, substance recovery services, hospital funding in the face of OMNIA and charter schools, among other topics.
Governor Christie’s proposed fiscal year 2017 state budget is $34 billion. More hearings will be held before the final budget is approved.