By Ani McHugh, NJEA Communications Consultant
Robbinsville Education Association President Jennie Paulino has an established track record of joining forces with the Robbinsville community to advocate for students.
In 2022, when the district sought to privatize its instructional aides—a move Paulino describes as a “powder-keg event” that mobilized community stakeholders—REA members stood with parents and residents to oppose the plan, which would have directly and negatively impacted Robbinsville’s students. They attended board of education meetings, spoke on behalf of the district’s instructional aides and the services they provide, and listed the ways in which privatization hurts districts and the children they serve. Under pressure, the board and superintendent abandoned their attempt to outsource.
When the board of education repeatedly failed to spend to cap, and instead cut dozens of teaching, secretarial and support positions, REA leadership voiced their opposition to the district’s fiscal mismanagement and worked with grassroots community organizers to do the same.
And when association members worked under an expired contract for over a year and scores of staff members resigned to take positions in other districts, REA held community meetings to make sure the community was aware of the staffing crisis and the need for a fair contract. Paulino and her members stood outside of school buildings every other Friday with signs—a routine that eventually came to be known as “Beep Beep Fridays,” where parents would beep at their favorite teachers.
Members distributed pom-poms funded by the NJEA Pride in Public Education program at football games in order to further engage with the community. And they made certain that all community stakeholders understood that staff working conditions were student learning conditions—and that a fair contract was necessary in order for educators to properly serve Robbinsville’s children.
Under the direction of co-negotiations chairs Fran Mazzone and Debi Bella, a bargaining agreement that recognized REA members’ hard work and efforts in and out of the classroom was reached.
So in the spring of 2023, when the Robbinsville community learned that the state’s proposed funding levels for the district would remain flat in 2024, REA members knew they needed to advocate for their students yet again—and that they’d need to enlist the help of state legislators in order to have funding levels increased.
The push for additional state funding
With the support of parent-led grassroots groups in the community, Paulino reached out to state Sen. Linda Greenstein, Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, and Assemblyman Dan Benson to request a meeting. At the meeting, they discussed issues that were directly affecting students and staff in the district with an eye toward developing a plan to improve the educational experience for all of the children in the district.
It was at this meeting that the idea for a letter-writing initiative was born, along with the idea that additional funding for the Robbinsville Public School District might be able to be secured through a budget resolution.
REA members—and the community—got to work
REA members and Robbinsville residents wrote letters to Gov. Phil Murphy describing the impact that staffing shortages and financial deficits had on students, staff and programming, and they expressed the need for increased funding to improve students’ academic, social and athletic experiences in the district. They also asked the governor to allow the district to access additional funding from its expired banked cap, noting that without access to these funds, the district would face even more cuts to staffing and programs.
In all, nearly 2,300 letters were delivered to the governor’s office in May. On July 1, Sen. Greenstein called REA leadership with good news that both the Assembly and Senate had approved the budget resolution and that Robbinsville Public Schools would receive an additional $1 million in funding that would be used for restoration of staff, instructional resources, and computer infrastructure.
Securing school district funding through a budget resolution is unconventional and unprecedented. Paulino recognizes that this victory would not have been possible if not for the established pattern of collaboration between REA members and grassroots community organizations. However, she also acknowledges that there is still more work to do.
While the budget resolution delivers immediate help to the struggling district, the one-time payment does not ensure adequate funding in the future, nor does it guarantee that any staffing positions added with this money will be able to be funded in the future. As such, and in an attempt to put the district on a path of fiscal sustainability, officials have proposed a referendum question on November’s ballot.
The lasting benefits of community partnerships
Asked what she has learned from working with the Robbinsville community over the past few years, Paulino noted her gratitude for the partnership she and her members have formed with Robbinsville’s stakeholders and the unwavering commitment her colleagues have made to the students and families in the district.
Paulino also noted the importance of building and establishing a strong local association before adversity occurs. Under the direction of then-president Debi Bella, the association held one-on-one conversations with members in order to understand their needs and concerns and to convey the importance of unity within the association. Paulino believes that local leaders must engage with their members before they can successfully engage with the community, REA’s victories in advocating for their students over the past few years are evidence of as much.
Ultimately, Robbinsville Education Association members—under Jennie Paulino’s leadership—remain pillars of the community and will continue to be staunch advocates for the children they serve in the Robbinsville Schools. REA is proof that when educators join together with parents and other district stakeholders, they can bring about positive changes that benefit their students and the community as a whole.