Alvarez Presents Preliminary School Budget

Dana Sullivan - Business Administrator

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.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds pretty reasonable. Thank you for putting the article out so fast. I was hoping to find out what had happened.

  2. I hope that I’ll have the time to make several points regarding last night’s meeting. But, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll try to keep it to one point per post.

    The issue that immediately stood out most glaringly to me was the fact that the school administration (Dr. Alvarez and Mrs. Sullivan) used as a primary case assumption that we’d get the same state aid as this year. The BOE and its committees over the summer and fall were consistent in using a zero-aid assumption. Why diverge from that now?

    Mention was made of the case where aid would be zeroed out (excluding a few hundred thousand of “special case” aid). But the BOE had been aiming for no increase in the tax rate given this assumption. The administration achieved a flat tax (in fact, a slight decrease) only by assuming the same aid as this year. If there is no state aid, then the proposed budget gives us a 2.something percent increase in taxes.

    This makes Dr. Alvarez’s announcement that no school would be closed more than a little dishonest. Of course he could make such a statement; he was working from a very different set of numbers than the BOE had been using. And last night, even he admitted that to achieve zero tax increase with no state aid might very well require a school closing (or two).

    I would very much like to understand why the administration has chosen to diverge from the assumptions set up by the BOE. If nothing else, it has wasted time that we don’t have now that the BOE has directed them to create a “plan B” with zero state aid and zero tax increase.

    I suppose one attractive possibility is that they’ve “inside information” regarding the aid we’ll be getting, but certainly no mention of this was made last night. Failing that, and esp. with Dr. Alvarez’s prior announcement that school closings were off the table, the actions of the administration seem strangely undermining of the BOE.

    …Andrew

  3. One of the savings in the proposed budget is about K$400 from increasing the busing radius from 1.0 miles to 1.5 (as opposed to the legally required radius of 2.0 miles). I believe that the number of students effected by this was supposed to be about 900.

    More, one of the savings we’re likely to see in the “plan B budget” (no tax increase, no state aid) is this going up to the maximum 2.0 miles.

    No mention was made of how this might impact school choice. I think this an unfortunate oversight, as there are two possible consequences.

    One possibility is that families will deliberately choose schools that are farther away from their homes so as to receive busing. If enough families do this, then the savings will be lower – perhaps a lot lower – than we expect. Worse case, we’ll be busing the same number of students over greater distances. That would end up costing us money!

    The other possibility is that families will forgo the idea of remote schools, and simply opt for the closest and most easily reached school. While this would yield us our cost savings, it would also have a potentially dramatic effect upon the magnet system.

    This possibility causes me to wonder whether we’re putting our entire school system at risk for the apparent benefit of a couple of schools. To paraphrase someone that spoke at the meeting: buildings don’t educate; teachers [and aides] educate. Counting Nishuane and Hillside together, we’ve six elementary schools. Would our magnet system really be put at more risk to reduce this to five? That’s a change of about 17%. Assuming a constant density of students, a change in busing from 1.0 miles to 2.0 miles is a 75% change (12.5 square miles around a school to 3.14 miles around each school). 1.0 miles to 1.5 files is “merely” about 56%.

    Clearly, a purely numeric comparison isn’t valid. But those are rather divergent numbers.

    I worry that, in our haste to appease a loud subset of families in our schools, we’ve put the system at risk for all the families. Unfortunately, I don’t see this issue being given any consideration.

    …Andrew

  4. One important point that was mentioned at the meeting last night that didn’t get any mention in the above article is the treatment of our surplus fund. This is just some extra cash that has accumulated over the years of conservative budgeting.

    Regardless of the source, this can and should be viewed today as an asset. And the school administration appears to attempt to treat it as such, using it not to fund operations but merely to even out cash flow. In a world of perfect planning, the surplus remains unchanged from year to year.

    Last year and this, the state forced us to use a portion of this to fund operations. If I followed the numbers correctly – which are, unfortunately, not yet on the school district web site – then we’re supposed to consume about 50% of the surplus this year.

    Now, there is the chance that we’ll recover some of that. But there is also a chance that we’ll not. For example, one mechanism by which this fund has accumulated has been through unplanned retirements. However, Mrs. Sullivan or Dr. Alvarez pointed out last night that the current contract with the MEA gives us better data regarding retirements. This means that we’re not likely to have many *unexpected* retirements, which in turn means less opportunity for that surplus to recover.

    As I mentioned, this fund should be treated as an asset, but the state is forcing us to use a portion of it to fund operations. The problem doesn’t arise this year, but next year or perhaps the year following we’ll not have this asset. The operating costs being funded via this fund today will need to be covered by our taxes at that time.

    As bad as the budget is this year, costs to the taxpayer are being held down by the state’s mandate to use this surplus. In other words, we can expect either a significant tax increase or another year of slashing costs within the next year or two.

    …Andrew

  5. Thanks, Andrew – you make some excellent points, as usual.

    In the event the busing is increased to two miles, one thing to consider is this: while families might wish to choose their neighborhood school, they may very likely not receive that first choice.

    Let’s say I live around the corner from Nishuane. I don’t own a car, and take public transportation to get to work. I might want my kindergartner to go to Bradford or Northeast because right after I put him on the bus, then I can hop on mine! If busing was eliminated to Northeast and if Bradford was full, then I’d pick Nishuane for obvious reasons. If I didn’t get Nishuane because there are already too many X-Y chromosome purple Martians in my kid’s kindergarten class, now what? Cab fare every day to send my kid to Watchung or Edgemont? Or have my 5 year old walk to Bullock, the next nearest elementary school?

    I think increasing the busing distance too far could destroy the magnet system. Not everyone in town has the luxury of driving junior to school and picking him up in the afternoon. How can we address that in the busing conversation?

  6. Kay:

    You’re raising an issue that falls beyond the edge of my understanding of the magnet system. I confess I’ve been following the logic of others in this, but I don’t fully understand it.

    As I understand the situation, you’re right: we don’t necessarily get our first choice (or even 2nd, 3rd, etc.). The consequence of this, I would think, is that “school choice” is ultimately a matter for the district. If the district decides that your children will be attending Edgemont, that’s where they’ll be going. A family’s “choice” is a “request” at best.

    Given that the ultimate control resides with the school system, how can this really threaten the magnet system? Students go where the schools tell them to go.

    Of course, in the scenario you describe you are left in a Bad Situation. But doesn’t this occur, at least some of the time, already?

    As I wrote above, I just don’t know the answer to this. I *guess* that perhaps enough people unhappy with problematic placements would eventually translate to an anti-magnet Mayor. Assuming that he or she can convince the court, this could lead to the end of the magnet system in Montclair. But even though I see an anti-magnet Mayor as quite achievable, I would expect the court to prevent the magnets from being dismantled.

    …Andrew

  7. For all the complaints expressed about aides hired via Essex County last night, it should be pointed out that one of the BOE members is “in real life” a principal at a school with aides hired via Essex County. She spoke highly of those aides.

    I don’t know the truth myself, of course, but I’d count her as more disinterested – and therefore more trustworthy – than the head of the teachers’ union on this issue.

    …Andrew

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