The 45-minute protest by hundreds of students included some stinging criticism of Governor Christie’s plan to slash state education aid as part of his attempt to balance the upcoming state budget.
“Right now, he’s creating a fence around our future,” said 17-year-old senior Barbara Hernandez of Fairview, who called the aid cuts misguided.
The governor said later Friday that he believed the teacher’s union had orchestrated the walkout.
“They’re being used,” Christie said, when asked if students should face consequences for the protest. “I don’t blame the kids at all. Those kids are victims. They’re pawns, unfortunately for them.”
Student organizers and a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said teachers pleaded with the students over the school's loudspeaker not to walk out.
“Our members didn't encourage this, they didn't plan this, they had nothing to do with it," said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker. "This is just another example of the governor tying to play politics with education.
Cliffside Park school officials are considering layoffs of 45 staff, including about 20 support staff and custodians, to close a $1.8 million budget gap.
The student protesters organized on Facebook and through text messages after news of the layoffs started trickling out in recent days.
The first protesters, some in T-shirts despite temperatures in the mid 30s, left class just after 9 a.m. and successive waves followed until 400-500 students mingled on the field and marched around the track.
They assembled on the sports field behind the school brandishing signs and chanting “save our teachers.”
The protesters were corralled onto the field and told by administrators they could not walk on the sidewalks surrounding the school.
They held aloft signs reading “Larger classrooms = no education” and chanted the name of one teacher, a coach of freshman sports, who is rumored to have received a layoff notice.
“Grades are going to start dropping,” student Joe Koonce said of the layoffs.
The students went back into class at about 9:45 a.m.
Superintendent Michael J. Romagnino said he wasn’t happy that the students left the building, though he was aware they were going to march. He didn’t see the protest as being against the administration.
“I think it was against the cuts,” Romagnino said. “Most people, including students, understand that if you have to cut $1.8 million out of the budget, the only way you can make that up is by cutting programs and staff.”
Romagnino said the district, which has about 2,700 students, is also considering cutting pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to a half-day and ninth-grade sports, among other measures.
The district will hold a budget meeting on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and a group has handed out fliers urging parents to show up in support of the teachers.
Parents Rafael Concepcion and Lilly Cancar, who is a 1985 graduate of the high school, watched the protest from just off school property. The couple’s two children attend elementary school in Fairview but will go to the high school in a few years.