At last night’s special Board of Education (BOE) budget meeting, Montclair Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez proposed an additional $2.9M in budget savings but the possibilities included closing Renaissance and Edgemont Schools.
At its last meeting, the Board called for Alvarez to present a Plan B in an effort to prepare for the possibility the state might cut all aid to the district. Alvarez projected $850,000 in saving by closing Renaissance School and transferring 105 of the students to Glenfield (for a total of 808 students in that school) and moving the remaining 141 students to Mt. Hebron (for a total of 749 students in that school). The savings would result from eliminating an administrative position, the nursing staff, the custodial staff and up to 13 teachers from the school. The Rand building would then be used by the high school.
Alvarez estimated closing Edgemont could save $550,000 by eliminating the salaries of the principle, nurse, custodian and five teachers from the school. Edgemont students would be split between Nishuane and Hillside Schools with 144 going to Nishuane for a new student body of 609 and 144 going to Hillside for a total student population of 741.
Alvarez noted, however, the number of students in each school would be at record highs according to this plan, and by closing schools the district would no longer have space to bring out-of-district special education students back into the district, thereby losing revenue as well as possibly incurring additional costs for out-of-district placements.
Other cost saving measures identified by Alvarez:
- Eliminate courtesy busing, meeting the state mandate of busing from 2 miles out for a total savings of $900,000 (save $400,000 when reduce busing to 1.5 miles out and save an additional $500,000 when bus from 2 miles out)
- Restructure Special Education services for a savings of $500,000
- Restructure Glenfield and Mt. Hebron Schools, increasing class and house sizes for a savings of $250,000
- Eliminate bus aides for $200,000 in savings
- Increase rental fees for organizations like the Adult School, the Y, the MFEE and the MEA for a savings of $100,000
Both Board President Shelly Lombard and Vice President Leslie Larson expressed concern about reducing busing. “Busing is the heart of our magnet system,” Lombard said. “I’m concerned about gutting it.”
“What makes Montclair special is the integration of our schools,” Larson added. “We are under mandate to have an integrated system. If we take away courtesy busing, it completely spells disaster in terms of integration.”
Lombard called to bus from 1.25 miles out from schools, yielding a saving of $250,000 rather than the $400,000 discussed at the last BOE meeting. Board member Shirley Grill found fault with that. “We just lost $150,000 in savings. Where are we going to find that?”
Other board members felt more strongly about not closing schools. “I would rather go to 2 miles than close a school,” said Board member Angelica Allen-McMillan.
Grill didn’t completely agree with Allen-McMillan, but she did stress she didn’t want to see Renaissance close. She did not feel that same about Edgemont Elementary School. Grill asked Dr. Alvarez if Edgemont, a Montessori school, could work as a “School-Within-a-School” at Nishuane and Hillside. Alvarez explained that it might be possible, especially since Nishuane’s and Hillside’s magnet programs are split into “houses.”
Regardless of individual BOE or parent preferences, Lombard pointed out the missed opportunity to tackle the overriding issue. “What I really felt we needed was a plan to restructure the district.” She added, “What this turned into was individual lobbying on behalf of their school instead of stepping back and looking at the whole situation. It’s a mistake for us not to look at financial sustainability and viability. I am very, very concerned that we have not addressed that, and it’s the elephant in the room that we will have to face next year.”
For now if the district received no state aid and the cuts suggested last night were implemented, the school tax levy would decrease .13% from the 2010-2011 to the 2011-2012 school year. Without the cuts and state aid the tax levy would increase by 2.1% according to Business Administrator Dana Sullivan.
The meeting ended with Larson reading a prepared speech about her interactions with the Montclair Education Association (MEA) and the numerous passionate letters she received from teaching assistants. Although Larson regrets having to make cuts, she noted the difficult financial situation the Board is in with 80% of the school budget devoted to salaries, benefits and pensions; with the 2% raise the MEA is contractually obligated to receive in 2012; and with the attempts to modify the 2011-2012 budget unanimously rejected by the MEA.