At last night’s Board of Education meeting, Montclair Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez started the discussion on the budget by recalling the BOE’s last meeting. “We talked about a near 0% tax increase. Some things have changed since then.”
One of the changes was a compressed timetable handed down from the State Department of Education. Alvarez and the BOE did not plan on discussing hard numbers for the school budget until they had heard about aid from the state, which is due to be announced by Governor Chris Christie on February 24. Due to the new timeline Alvarez said they were pressed to do so last night.
The other change came from the township. “Montclair’s net valuation has dropped significantly,” Alvarez stated, noting taxes will increase more than he initially thought if the district fails to receive state aid. “If we get state aid, we will wind up with a decrease in taxes. If we don’t get state aid, taxes will probably go up around 2%.”
“The difference is due to what we learned about tax ratables in town,” Board President Shelly Lombard added, acknowledging a decreased of $138M.
Alvarez stressed, however, that the projected budget still comes in $5.7M under the school tax levy cap.
Business Administrator Dana Sullivan then gave a detailed budget presentation identifying the sources of saving. She stated the $4.5M reduction to the budget was arrived at primarily through efficiencies, outsourcing and reduction of services.
- The biggest savings were reaped by outsourcing all of the district’s 233 aides and only hiring back aides for Kindergarten and for the Special Education Department. This yielded $1.7M in savings.
- The next largest area of saving came from the retirement of teachers, which amounted to $800,000.
- Another $400,000 came from reduced busing with an additional $200,000 in transportation savings from bringing students back into the district.
- Reducing curriculum specialists would save $399,000
- Reductions to the Central Office would produce $280,000.
- Cuts to middle school security and guidance yielded $256,000 with another $110,000 derived from cutting high school security.
- The remaining savings identified came in around $100,000 a piece from cuts in supplies and sports/activity stipends at the high school level as well as cost recovery from MFEE, MEA and Adult School.
All of these measures would bring the total operating budget for the 2010/2011 calendar year to $107,169,912 and $105,292,856 for the 2011/2012 school year.
Sullivan pointed out that historically the State funded 25% of the school budget whereas now it only provides 4.3% of funding. She also noted the grim prospect of cutting an additional $2M from the budget if the district does not receive any state aid.
With the Board scheduled to adopt the budget just days after hearing word about state aid, many members called for the superintendent to present them with a Plan B.
“We need a sense of what that additional $2M in cuts will entail,” said Board member Robert Kautz.
Board member Angelica Allen-McMillan suggested cutting busing even further or altogether although that raised the prospect of putting the integration of the schools at risk.
Leslie Larson, Vice President of the Board, emphasized other than cuts to the high school, everything else was on the table. Alvarez even suggested schools closings could once again become a possibility. In an effort to prepare for the worst case scenario, the BOE plans to present a Plan B at a public meeting on February 15. The BOE is then scheduled to adopt the budget on February 28 and finalize it on March 14.
During the public comment portion of the evening MEA President, Margaret Astorino, spoke, stating she was surprised at the Boards plan of outsourcing all the aids and announced the MEA would be holding a Crisis Meeting for teachers and teaching assistants on February 28 at the high school.
Others also spoke of the importance of the paraprofessionals and the likelihood of losing them if they were to be outsourced to Essex Commission Services.
Alvarez and the board pointed out, however, to keep the paraprofessionals without state aid would cause an increase in taxes of 4%, and they are feeling increasing pressure from residents who say they cannot continue to bear tax increases.
“We are in an impossible, impossible situation,” lamented Larson.