Budget cuts and tight resources plague Newark public schools, but even in these tough economic times, the Newark Public Schools District has approved tens of thousands of dollars a month in spending on takeout food and catering, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has found.
An I-Team review of district spending over a 15-month period ending in May found that Newark administrators spent more than $330,000, or an average of about $22,000 a month, on food from places like Sandwiches Unlimited, SuzyQue's BBQ and King’s Family Restaurant and Catering even as it faces a $42 million budget gap.
In the spring, hundreds of Newark high school students walked out of class to protest budget cuts. More cuts are expected.
According to budget estimates posted on the Newark Public Schools website, per pupil spending on supplies and textbooks will go down by 25 percent next school year, from $501 to $372.
There will be a 4 percent reduction in overall spending on building maintenance, from $77,168,701 to $73,737,144. Budget projections also show a 39 percent decrease in spending on guidance counselors, from $3,374,792 to $2,047,967.
“We sit in classrooms where there aren’t enough desks to fill every student,” said Khadija Bhatti, a sophomore student who participated in the protest. “We don’t have adequate supplies of paper and necessary supplies to supplement us throughout the day and then there’s money being spent on arbitrary things such as catering and food.”
Newark Public Schools have been under state control since 1995. Last month, Gov. Chris Christie re-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Anderson declined to answer questions about the restaurant bills. But school spokeswoman Vanessa Rodriguez said that the food is largely used to encourage parent involvement and to recognize students for their achievements.
“Ninety percent of what we have spent in these events happens at the school level. And it happens with teachers and it happens with students and families,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez also pointed out union rules that require food service to be available for teaching staff members who stay late to attend parent teacher conferences.
Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said schools routinely fail to provide food for teachers at after school meetings. He also pointed out that parent teacher conferences only take place twice a year. The I-Team found take-out food charged every month.
"While we in schools are living hand to mouth, the superintendent is out catering affairs," Del Grosso said.
Rodriguez said despite criticisms about stretched resources, she believes students have what they need to learn.
“Going into next year, our students will have what they need. That is our No. 1 priority.”
This story was reported by Ann Givens and Chris Glorioso and written by Magdalena Petrova.