Facebook Used to Organize N.J. High School Student Protests Over Budget Cuts

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J.-- High school students across New Jersey walked out of class Tuesday to protest proposed budget cuts.

Walkouts, organized on Facebook, were reported from Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly to West Orange High School, with more planned throughout the day. Students in Newark were planning to leave class and march to the district offices.

It wasn't clear how many of the state's roughly 400,000 public high school students would join the walkout, but a Facebook page used to organize the protest had some 17,000 fans by Tuesday.

Organizer Michelle Lauto, who graduated last year from Old Tappan High School in Bergen County and is now a student at Pace University in New York, said she wanted to join the cause because her mother is a teacher and her sister is a school secretary.

"What we want to do is get attention to the issue and show primarily that the youth is not apathetic to the issue," said Lauto, 18, an actress who's especially concerned that arts programs could be eliminated.

The protest comes one week after voters in 59 percent of the state's school districts rejected property tax levies to pay for schools, leaving municipal governing bodies to make cuts.

It was the first time in 34 years that the majority of budgets were defeated.

The battle over school funding has been especially acrimonious this year since Gov. Chris Christie's budget proposal last month called for schools to see their combined direct state and federal aid decreased by about 11 percent on average -- with many districts getting bigger reductions that that.

Most of the state's school districts planned teacher layoffs and tax increases to make up for the lost aid.

Christie says layoffs can be avoided, though, if school employees agree to one-year salary freezes and to start paying 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health insurance premiums.

Most of the state's teachers unions have balked at the notion, though, saying Christie is unfairly trying to balance the state's budget at their expense. Christie has been unapologetic, consistently criticizing the leaders of the New Jersey Education Association for being selfish.

The NJEA says students are "engaging in civil disobedience" but shouldn't walk out of classes.