N.J. Students Ditch Class to Protest Budget Cuts
Thousands of high school students walked out of class Tuesday to protest budget cuts, a statewide event organized through text messages and social networking websites.
More than 2,000 students in Newark left their schools, stopped traffic on downtown streets and rallied at City Hall, chanting "Save our schools." Downtown shops, office and restaurants had their doors locked as the crowd moved up and down Broad Street. Police said there were three arrests during the protest, two for an assault and robbery and one for theft.
"I want to have a better future," said Sharmaine Jones, a junior at Newark Central High who joined Newark's protest. She said the robotics club that she participates in is expected to be eliminated next year and worries that not having it will hurt her chances at a college scholarship.
Student speakers derided the governor and questioned why Mayor Cory Booker hadn't intervened, saying students should support another mayoral candidate, Clifford Minor.
It wasn't clear how many of the state's 406,000 public high school students participated, but a Facebook page used to organize the protests had some 17,000 fans by Tuesday. Walkouts also were reported at Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly, Montclair High School and Ocean Township High School.
On the social networking site, some students reported successful protests including hundreds of students; others crticized classmates for wimping out. Some said school officials didn't try to stop them, while others reported getting detention for participating.
Organizer Michelle Lauto, who graduated last year from Old Tappan High School in Bergen County and is now a student at Pace University in New York, said she wanted to join the cause because her mother is a teacher and her sister is a school secretary who hopes to become a teacher eventually.
"What we want to do is get attention to the issue and show primarily that the youth is not apathetic to the issue," said Lauto, an actress who's especially concerned that arts programs could be eliminated.
She said she created the Facebook page about a month ago and invited her 600 or so online friends — few of them high school students — to participate. It caught on quickly.
The protest comes one week after voters in 59 percent of the state's school districts rejected higher property tax levies to pay for schools, leaving municipal governing bodies to make cuts. It was the first time in 34 years that the majority of budgets were defeated.
The battle over school funding has been especially acrimonious this year since Gov. Chris Christie's budget proposal last month called for schools to see their combined direct state and federal aid decreased by about 11 percent on average — with many districts getting bigger reductions that that.
Most of the state's school districts planned teacher layoffs and tax increases to make up for the lost aid. The high number of rejections indicate voters weren't happy with that approach.
Christie says layoffs can be avoided if school employees agree to one-year salary freezes and to start paying 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health insurance premiums.
Most of the state's teachers unions have balked at the idea, saying Christie is unfairly trying to balance the state's budget at their expense. Christie has been unapologetic, consistently criticizing the leaders of the New Jersey Education Association for being selfish.
On Tuesday, his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said he hoped schools were doing what they could to keep students in the classrooms — and that he believed the protesters may have been misguided.
"It is also our firm hope that the students were motivated by youthful rebellion or spring fever," Drewniak said.
The NJEA said students were "engaging in civil disobedience" but shouldn't walk out of classes.
In Montclair, one student carried a sign that read, jokingly, "Thiss is wat happen when yu fire teechers — students get dum."
A 17-year-old senior, Donovan Gaines, lamented that the school's internship program for seniors was eliminated because of budget cuts.
"I feel like it's not our fault — the debt that New Jersey has — we shouldn't have to pay for it," he said.
Associated Press writer Samantha Henry in Montclair contributed to this article.