By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank Regional students and parents packed a board of ed meeting Wednesday night in a bid to save the ice hockey and golf programs from a budgetary axe.
With a preliminary spending plan calling for a 6.5-percent tax increase, board members defended the cuts as necessary before parents appeared to coalesce around a plan to save the sports through outside fundraisers.
With a standing-room crowd in the meeting room and an estimated 100 people spilling out the front door of the small administration building on the RBR campus, officials were forced to relocate the session to the media center in the high school.
There, parents and athletes vented they’d been “blindsided” by word-of-mouth news that hockey and coed golf would be eliminated, and said it would adversely impact their children’s lives.
Though no official announcement had been made about specific cuts, the district had informed eight assistant coaches that their positions were being eliminated, and they in turn disclosed the program cuts, said board member Frank Neary, of Shrewsbury.
Neary, who heads the finance committee, said the preliminary 2019-2020 spending plan, which he called “by far the most difficult budget I’ve ever been involved in,” was due for submission with the Monmouth County superintendent’s office by midnight. It did not include detailed line items, which were still being worked on, he said.
School officials had only received information about state funding on March 8, and it included a net drop in funding, causing the board to scramble to head off even greater adverse impact on taxpayers in Little Silver, Red Bank and Shrewsbury, he told the audience.
In addition, the school had been “hit hard” hit by unexpected expenses, with the recent failures of two roof-mounted heat exchangers, at a cost of $400,000 each, Neary said. “What keeps me up at night is that there are 27 more of them up there that haven’t been replaced,” he said.
Out-of-district placement costs and transportation expenses also had soared, with busing for some sports being made on a day-to-day, and costly basis because vendors hadn’t bid on transportation contracts, he said.
The tentative 6.5-percent increase “is an unreasonable number,” Neary said, adding that the board had done all it could to keep it in check while preserving teaching jobs. Limiting the increase to a state-mandated 2-percent would require cuts beyond those now on the table, and “they would have been so severe that frankly, you wouldn’t recognize the school,” he said.
Committee discussions over what to cut had been “heated,” he said.
“There is no way I can convey to you how hard these decisions are to make,” Neary said. “When I say blood, sweat and tears, I mean, these are difficult decisions.”
The criteria for choosing hockey and golf to eliminate were the number of students impacted and cost, he said. Hockey last year cost the district $3,300 per player, compared to an average of $700 to $800 for all other sports, he said. Golf last year cost $2,357 per player, Neary said.
Spanish teacher Lisa Boyle, the 2019 Teacher of the Year, said accelerated languages courses that are stepping stones to advanced-placement classes were also slated to be cut “because there is a summer stipend involved,” and urged the board to spare them.
But sports dominated the evening, with emotional pleas to save golf and hockey.
Patrick Murphy, a hockey player from Shrewsbury who graduated last year, said hockey had been “the only constant in my life,” and that it had given him a work ethic and “the discipline and commitment it takes to succeed.
“I hope my younger brother, who will be a freshman this year, his teammates and teammates in years to come, will have that same experience,” Murphy said.
“The decision to disallow a child from following his dreams is not a financial one,” said Peter Gannon, of Little Silver. “It’s an ethical one, right? I think that’s why we’re all here today, and why we’re all committed to working with you to working it out.”
A number of parents suggested alternatives to program eliminations, including pay-to-play, under which parents would pick up their own child’s share of the cost, and parental transportation of students to games.
Brian Benjamin, whose son Sean is a junior goalie, said he paid $3,000 to $5,000 for equipment, and pressed the board on a pay-to-play option.
“Writing a check for three grand, no, I don’t want to do it, but if he wants to keep playing — it worked for my older kid, it kept him out of trouble and got him through college in three years,” said Benjamin, a Red Bank resident. “So if that’s what it takes, I’ll write [a check]. But give us a number. Don’t tell us you’re going to eliminate it.”
As the meeting went on, a consensus appeared to emerge: parents would try to fundraise to save each of the sports in time for the May 1 budget deadline. But several insisted on a firm commitment from the board to reinstate the sports if the money is raised.
“I don’t seen any reason why not,” board President John Garofalo, of Red Bank, responded.
The board also faced criticism over a $17.3 million referendum last year, part of which would pay for an artificial sports field.
Given that other sports that don’t use the field are so being axed so soon after the December vote, one parent told the board, “I want my money back, I want my vote back.”
Another asked whether spending heavily on a yet-to-be financed or built football field was justified in light of falling participation in the sport.
“It is a major concern,” Neary acknowledged.