MULLICA HILL More than a dozen school workers here are unsure whether they will retain their in the next school year as the Clearview Regional High School District works to finalize its budget before the adoption hearing next week.

The district is considering cutting its 13 full-time custodial workers and a part-time worker at its two schools and privatizing the services. The idea has generated much opposition, largely among the local union, as well as among teachers and students.

But officials are faced with a shortfall that business administrator Esther Pennell described as being "more than a couple hundred thousand dollars," but that officials have declined to fully identify, citing fluid numbers and an effort to cut costs elsewhere.

A proposed $37.8 million budget introduced in March includes projected decreases totaling nearly $500,000 in employee benefits and in operations and maintenance relating to the proposed privatization.

"In order to balance our budget, we had to make reductions," Pennell said.

Though Superintendent John Horchak would not provide the current cost to keep the employees, citing the competitive bidding process, Pennell said the lowest bid received for the custodial work - about $1.5 million for two years - would yield a saving.

The district has cited a number of financial challenges, such as increasing special-education costs that include an uptick in the number of students being sent out of district from 43 to 51. Officials also point to decreased state debt-service aid and the need to buy more than 150 computers in order to allow students to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam in a 20-day window.

Attempts to cut costs include switching to a health plan that Pennell estimated would save $350,000 between employee costs and district contributions.

The nearly 2,500-student district, which serves Mantua and Harrison Townships, is also increasing taxes to the 2 percent cap.

In Mantua, the owner of property assessed at the district average of $204,135 would pay $64 more a year. In Harrison, the owner of property assessed at $313,567 would pay $36 more.

Initial discussions included outsourcing instructional aide positions, but the district never requested those proposals and has since said those jobs are secure. The district maintains it is exhausting all options.

"It's been a very nerve-wracking process," Pennell said. Officials pushed back the budget-adoption hearing from last week to May 7.

Still, the budget was the topic of conversation for three hours at the Board of Education meeting Thursday. The large crowd of union members and supporters carried signs reading: "No strangers in our Clearview schools!"

Scott Wagner, president of the Clearview Education Association, estimated current custodial staff cost about $703,000 for salaries and benefits, but officials said that did not include other costs, such as worker's compensation and insurance contributions.

"These bids would never be acted upon if they were more expensive," Horchak said.

Opponents also argued that private contractors' employees are transient and lack accountability.

Horchak said the district was looking at other schools that had outsourced such positions. Pennell provided a survey that listed some of those measures in the county, such as cafeteria workers and substitutes in Woodbury, and custodial and transportation workers in South Harrison.

Members of the New Jersey Education Association called the positions vulnerable because of a perception that the members weren't a vital role in the academic setting. The crowd at Clearview rejected that idea.

"We know our buildings, we know our students, and we know our staffs," said Lina Scarpaci, 50, who has been a custodian in the district for half her life.

A single mother, Scarpaci said one of her three children, all of whom graduated from the high school, was recently diagnosed with brain cancer.

"I feel I'm being tossed aside," she said. "I am left wondering, 'What am I going to do?' "