Administration responded to the situation by asking students to file through the front doors of the building when they began to walk out 15 minutes into first period. While students stood at bus port, school security as well as Vice Principle Gilson surrounded them and asked that they keep the protest to a reasonable volume since Lawrence Middle School, adjacent to the high school, was taking their NJASK standardized tests that day. After the event, Superintendent Philip Meara said he felt the “administration handled [the situation] well.”
When first period ended, students were asked by security to return to the building. Students who did not return were told that their absence from second period would be considered a cut and that they might get a call home to their parents. Students disregarded this request and remained outside until the media arrived and interviewed them. Students said, “We wanted to wait for the media because we wanted our message to be heard.” Friedeborn said, “It was a peaceful protest. They should have let us protest,” regarding the request by the administration to return to the building and to keep quieter.
Christie stated that budget cuts could be avoided if teachers would agree to a one year salary freeze and to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries for their medical benefits. He said, “The teachers union has a choice to make here – they wanna loose members or they wanna reopen contracts?” When questioned about the effect the budget cuts will have on schools, Christie responded, “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to find the money to pay for this [debt]?” Christie also stated the the teachers union are “the bullies of state street; they’ve bullied every administration… and they’re not going to bully me.”
It has been estimated by the state Department of Education that even if all school districts agreed to a one year salary freeze along with paying 1.5 of such salaries into the cost of health insurance, there would still be a budget shortfall of at least $849.3 million dollars.
In addition to state aid to local school districts, Christie is cutting state expenditures in higher education. One program cut that is affecting Mercer students as well as future Mercer students is the NJ STARS program. NJ STARS is a program that allows high school students who graduate in the top 15% percent of their graduating class to attend their local community college tuition-free for five semesters. NJ STARS II is the continuation of this program that allows students to continue from community college to state colleges such as Monclair, The College of New Jersey, Rutgers, and Rowan with a some of their tuition paid depending on their GPA, from 3.0 and up.
Mercer’s NJ STARS Advisor Diane Rizzo said, “The whole atmosphere of education is really changing at the elementary school level right through the colleges; all public instituations are facing serious cut-backs.” She went on to say, “The only silver lining is that students who are already STARS continuing to the STARS II program will be funded through the completion of their studies.”
In response to the NJ STARS program itself Rizzo had this to say, ” I think what STARS does is it honors the achievement of students by providing them with tution at a public instatution. I feel that it’s a great way for a state, any state really, to express its commitment to its education and to honor its highest achieving students and it gives students something to aspire to.” She continued by saying “I feel like the cuts to the STARS program are very painful to us as an institution because STARS students have already demonstrated academic success, and having a population of students that are really committed to academics is healthy for any institution.”
Rizzo estimated that there are about 175 STARS students currently attending Mercer. The number of STARS students that had been accepted for the Fall semester from public high schools (before cuts to the program) ranged from 75-90 students.
NJ STARS Mercer President Jamie Dow said, “STARS really got the bad end of the stick. Especially prospective students who had their hearts set on community colleges and most likely already declined other schools they had their hearts set on out of state.” She went on to say, “I based my entire future education on the STARS program. I decided to stay in-state so a portion of my schooling would be covered by the program, but now, by the looks of it, Christie has the decision to completely get rid of STARS II which will directly impact me. I applied to Cornell as well, and since the change in STARS, decided to go to Rutgers just to feel safe financially. Now that I know it’s not a definite I’m more nervous than ever.”
Dow, along with all the current STARS students, faces this type of dilemma with the unsure outcome of STARS II.
Mercer is also feeling the budget cuts and full-time faculty who have left or retired are not being replaced. The board of trustees is considering freezing faculty pay raises even though the faculty contract for the next four years was signed only four months ago.
Mercer students are feeling the cuts in the form of tuition increases. Mercer President Dr. Patricia Donohue said, “We anticipated the cuts and that is why we raised tuition, so our budget would be fine.”
Back at the Lawrence High School walkout, freshman Alec Pomeroy said, “Chris Christie cares more about his cheese steak than our education.”