Montclair BOE Meeting: Student Recognition, Surplus, and Talk of Health Benefits for Aides

Last night’s standing-room only Board of Education meeting in the high school’s cafeteria began on a wholly positive note with eighteen students from Glenfield Middle School and Montclair High School receiving recognition for various achievements and honors.  However, the congratulations quickly made way for the more somber and divisive issue of the $5.7 million surplus, and what could have been avoided had the Board known about it.

Due to the over 200 member audience of residents, teachers, and paraprofessionals in the high school’s cafeteria, Board of Education President Shelley Lombard decided to re-arrange the agenda to allow presentation of the most pressing issues first.  The auditor, attorney for the Board of Education, and the Budget Working Committee all presented one after the other.

The auditor’s presentation included various numbers and scenarios regarding the 2% of the  budget surplus that can be held, and which monies must be appropriated in the 2012-13 budget.  Even Shelley Lombard acknowledged, “This is complicated.” And with the $5.7 million surplus on everyone’s minds, numbers like $887 thousand of “usable surplus” and a $4.7 million surplus that “can’t be touched” except for property tax relief gave much of the audience pause.  Responding to disgruntled murmurs from the listeners, Ms. Lombard explained that the surplus was being accumulated as the BOE worked on the 2011-12 budget, and the Board had no way of knowing how large the surplus would be. She went on to clarify that the Board of Education makes policy and relies on paid professionals [like the auditors and the business administrator] to give information to the Board so they can do their jobs.

The Board also gave the floor to their attorney early on, who stated that the only way to return benefits to the school aides and paraprofessionals would be to re-open the MEA contract, which is set to expire in June.  She explained that the Board cannot simply reinstate the benefits because it would mean a change in the current contract.  Even a one-time stipend – suggested as a way to offset health-care costs – would be compensation, making it impossible without changing the contract. The attorney continued that the MEA had been notified of the need to re-open the contract the day after the Board discovered it, and they had been told to check on the situation with their own attorney and to let the Board of Education know if they wanted to follow-up with contract negotiations.  Many members of the audience reacted with exasperation; it would mean the third time in two years that the contract has been re-opened, both times at a monetary savings to the district.

The Budget Work Group gave a detailed presentation.

Immediately following the attorney and auditor, the Board moved on with the agenda to a presentation by Bo Foley from the Budget Committee working group.  In an in-depth report, it became clear that this working committee of volunteers felt that a major improvement would be to institute “tracking documents” – or detailed spreadsheets for each project and its status – to ensure that all necessary and appropriate information is incorporated into the budget process.  The presenter’s main point was that communication is key, and major reasons for the size of the surplus – retirements and returning out-of-district-students – could have been prepared for more effectively had there been scheduled updates and reports about the accumulating surplus and budgeting developments.  The committee’s presentation also included a suggestion to “de-mystify the budget process” and to make it easier for any resident to collect budgetary information from the Board of Education website.

After the Budget Committee’s presentation, the audience and members of the BOE was given time to pose any questions about the presentation.  One resident, Harvey Araton, whose wife is a paraprofessional, took the opportunity to say he felt the Board Members were cowardly to have their attorney present the lack of options for them.  The room erupted in applause and vocal support for his statement.  He also said that not allowing for public comment following the attorney’s presentation was an insult to the aides and paraprofessionals directly affected by the policies.

Ms. Lombard responded that the Board was “Not hiding – not even close” and that the BOE meeting is a “business meeting” not a public hearing.  She also accused the MEA of not responding to an email of ten days ago addressing the surplus and the lack of options.  This also brought a wave of groans from the audience.  Mr. Araton and the audience were reminded that the time was for questions for the budget committee, not for statements.

Both Mayor Fried and 2nd Ward Councilor Cary Africk went to the podium as well.  The mayor asked about possible suggestions regarding staffing for the central office, and Mr. Africk, presumably in response to the agitation about aides losing their benefits, stated that thousands of Wall Street employees, many of whom are Montclair residents, have been laid off.

Ms. Lombard continued by acknowledging the difficult situation, and said that last year’s budget process was painful in many ways.  She also alluded to future possibilities regarding restructuring the district for savings, although she quickly added, “Not necessarily closing a school.”

Following a brief moment in which Mount Hebron’s PTA received approval to serve alcohol at their upcoming comedy night, the PTA Council co-president and MEA President Gayl Shepard got up to speak.  Ms. Shepard began by addressing the Board of Education members with, “You don’t play nice in the sand.”  Ms. Lombard took this time to leave the room for a short time, and Ms. Shepard held her remarks until she returned.  The MEA president first stated that “The MEA did not sit around for ten days doing nothing” as Shelley Lombard had said earlier.  She went on to say that the NJEA attorneys are deliberating whether the “sidebar” involving the benefits for the aides could be opened without opening the entire contract.

Reading from a prepared statement, Ms. Shepard said that the MEA was not surprised by the $5.7 million surplus because of past savings taken on by the membership including pay freezes, layoffs, and loss of benefits.  She pointed out that while the schools are “doing more with less,” the losses are felt deeply in a lack of one-on-one time for students in special education, part-time student assistance (SACs) counselors and school nurses cannot be as available to students, and the loss of subject matter leaders has impacted classroom instruction.  She said that while the MEA is not saying “No” to re-opening the contract, she hopes the Board members will ask for additional appropriation of the surplus from the county.  She also mentioned that her email to the Board and Superintendent, asking that the MEA be included in discussions about how the surplus will be used, had not been answered. And Ms. Shepard assured the Board that the NJEA attorneys would be in contact with them soon.

Ms. Lombard countered with, “If the MEA knew there would be a surplus, I wish they would have let us know.” She reiterated that the Board sent the information about the surplus to the MEA the morning after they found out about it.  And she acknowledged not responding to the MEA’s email about being included in talks “because we didn’t know how the money can be used.”

The audience seemed more receptive to Mr. Rosenblum, a newer Board of Education member, when he said that he wants aides to get benefits, but that the only method seems to be that the larger teacher membership will have to sacrifice for the smaller number of aides and paraprofessionals.  Opening the contract will be “a big problem” since it means paying more for healthcare now and then again in June when the contract is re-negotiated.

When comments were opened, the first speaker, Montclair resident and school aide Jim Zarrilli called the loss of benefits a “life-threatening situation” and asked the Board to “think creatively, try your hardest.”  Shana Stein, a Montclair resident and MHS teacher, pointed out that benefits are just one area to receive cuts – and award winning programs like the Writer’s Room were now gone.  Karyn Senatore, also of Montclair and a school paraprofessional, pointed out that while the Board is made up of volunteers, almost all of her 22 thousand dollar salary as a paraprofessional is taken up with COBRA payments.  Other speakers repeated the request that the Board apply for a waiver to use more of the surplus and to overturn the sidebar to the MEA contract so that benefits could be reinstated.

Running through to midnight, this Board of Education meeting did not provide answers regarding the $5.7 million surplus, but it allowed both the MEA and the Board of Education to publicly state that they want to collaborate.  As of now, both the Board and the MEA await word from the NJEA attorneys as to whether contracts must be re-opened or if another “sidebar” agreement can be reached to reinstate aides’ benefits.

For more details about the meeting see The Montclair Times and Patch.

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  1. I don’t think they will re-instate benefits for the aides even though they pay union dues. The teachers will always have priority.
    The union should just refund the aides’ dues. It’ll give them a little more grocery money since they never had any representation.

  2. Thanks PAZ for your degrading comments. As an Aide, I find it unbelievable that they would ever consider taking away benefits from full time, hard working people. I am new to the schools and I see everyday how hardworking these Aides are. They are left IN CHARGE of students, some with complex disabilities. The teachers get breaks, prep times and these Aides who have been stripped of health benefits are in full charge of the students. How do you all agree with this? We work around sick children, some lift on children who can’t do for themselves and we work hard. I am embarassed for the BOE who made a decision to take away from the lowest paid employess who have direct contact with the children. Isn’t that what the school is all about, the children? If you don’t need the Aides, then for God’s sake FIRE them! If you do need them, then treat them like the hard-working human beings that the are! AND, as for Africk…Aren’t the Wall Street people you speak of the reason this country is in the mess we are in right now? I am a montclair resident too, as are many of thee paraprofessional. We are also having a hard time this year and I find your comments offensive as well.

  3. My comments were strictly about the economic depression that affects all of us. I was speaking to Ms. Lombard and supporting her, and the efforts of the entire BOE and administration to control costs and not let up on those efforts.

    I made no comment regarding health benefits for aides.

  4. Control costs, yes. But having a surplus in that amount is absurd. Why aren’t the people who dropped the ball on this losing their jobs???

  5. QBY33….Sorry you misunderstood my comment. I am for the aides, but the union you pay dues into doesn’t appreciate your service only your monthly dues, otherwise they would have put up a fight to save your situations. Why pay dues? Let them at least let you keep that money in your pocket UNLESS they are going to fight for you.
    1) Does the NJEA have your back?
    2) Do the teachers support the aides?
    I am not sure there is a yes to either of these questions.

  6. PAZ, I am hoping with all hopes that our new MEA Pres is true to her word. So far I believe her and I think she does have our backs…as for the teachers….I sadly do not see much (if any) support. Sad isn’t it? Since we support them all day long!

  7. Cary Africk, considering that another speaker was chided for making a statement instead of asking a question during that time – your STATEMENT about Wall Street financial industry people losing their jobs was a two-time slap in the face. First because not five minutes after we’d all been warned only to ask questions about the budget presentation during that time, and then you made a seemingly unrelated statement. And second because you attempted to make aides, most of whom make in a year what some Montclair residents make in a month, feel guilty for asking for health benefits because other people have been laid-off. Out of touch, Mr. Africk.

  8. The reality is most of Montclair is out of touch. I would love for one of these people who decided the Aides jobs aren’t worthy of health benefits to come do my job for a day. Chances are they would want to leave after an hour! Especially on a holiday week when it takes every ounce of energy to settle the students.

  9. shellyb,

    I most certainly did ask a question. I asked why wasn’t Ms. Sullivan asked for her “take” on the issue? Why wasn’t Ms. Sullivan asked if she agreed to the analysis, or if she had anything to add?

  10. I find it unbelievable that they would ever consider taking away benefits from full time, hard working people.

    Is having benefits taken away worse than being sacked outright? That is a fate many people have endured, and with far less whining.

  11. “PAZ, I am hoping with all hopes that our new MEA Pres is true to her word.”

    I’m a bit uncomfortable about saying this w/o checking the video (which isn’t yet available), but I would worry about this in your position if I heard something correctly. What I think I heard, amongst a list of “union give-backs”, was mention of the 40 retirements. While this is significant for the district in terms of budgeting, this is not a “give back”. It would be disingenuous to claim otherwise.

    The MEA President also refused to look at “best practices” elsewhere. I’ve no problem with the idea that we do a lot well here (having seen some of it myself), but the “exceptionalism” behind the idea that we have nothing to learn from communities outside of Montclair is better left to GOP debates. It has no place in education.

    Frankly, the MEA members are lucky that the BOE President took the approach that she did, telling the MEA to check with its lawyers. Were she as deceptive as some of the comments I heard claimed, she’d have simply opened discussion on the the aides benefits and then let the state come in and claim that 1.5% from the MEA. Right now, the MEA is being better served by the BOE President than the MEA President.


  12. The Montclair Times I received yesterday said there was an $11 million dollar surplus.
    What to do with the surplus is easy – apply it to the following years budget, and reduce the burden to the taxpayer.

  13. “The Montclair Times I received yesterday said there was an $11 million dollar surplus”

    That is the amount that was on the balance sheet, as “fund balance”, just before July 1 2011. On July 1, at the start of the current school year, some of that was taken out to be used as revenue feeding the 2011-2012 school year as per that year’s budget.

    This number of M$11 is different from the M$5.7 that was added to surplus during the 2010-2011 school year, though of course that M$5.7 became part of the M$11. The M$5.7 is the difference between how much the district took in from various revenue sources (including, of course, taxes) and how much it spent over the 2010-2011 school year.

    It helps avoid confusion to keep clear the distinction between these two numbers.


  14. I’m perplexed. The students are rumored to be using15 year old books. The town has too many schools given the number of registered students. The schools rankings are going down over the past few years. We are sitting with an $11 million surplus, $5-$6 million was created this past year. The police and firemen say they need more money in another news article and the unions wont let the hired policemen we have patrol the streets because they are in contract to do other police work for the town. What is going on with this town? It sounds like complete and sad mismanagement.

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