The most notable topic of discussion at last night’s Montclair Board of Education meeting was the proposed 2014-15 school budget and a proposed 2 – 6 percent increase in the tax levy.
Chief Operating Officer Brian Fleischer demonstrated that the fund balance had enabled the district to expand education programs and increase teachers’ salaries by 2.85 percent through retroactive pay and provide tax relief to Montclair homeowners in the two most recent school years, with more money remaining on reserve than spent. But, he said, with recurring expenses and rising health costs expected for 2014-15, the district faces a $6.5 million budget shortfall this fiscal year.
Stricter health benefit cost controls and cutting back on expenditures like custodial and clerical overtime, summer scheduling costs, consultant costs and the reduction of a supervisor position at the district level would only close the gap by 3.8 million.
“We do not believe we can cut more from this budget without staffing and program cuts that would materially impact instruction and other vital services to the detriment of children,” the report stated. “So our choices to balance the budget are to either increase the school tax levy or to make painful cuts.”
Fleischer sought to emphasize that the fund balance is ideally used for one-time expenditures, though sometimes it’s necessary to use it to cover recurring expenditures. He also stressed that teachers’ salary increases were not the primary reason for the deficit.
“We want to pay our teachers well, we value our teachers and they deserve to be paid well,” he said.
Fleischer explained three budget scenarios, each of which carries a tax increase: a 2 percent tax increase that would cut staffing by fifteen employees, some of whom would be teachers; a 4 percent tax increase that would keep current staffing at current levels and reduce non-salary accounts, and; a 6 percent tax hike to expand services. All options are based on the premise that state aid – the level of which is contingent on Governor Chris Christie’s budget message to be issued today (February 25). The monthly tax increase per homeowner, on a home assessed at $505,495 (a 2013 average residential assessment), would average out to $7.12, $14.28, and $21.40 per month, respectively, for each option.
This would be Montclair’s first tax increase in four years.
Superintendent MacCormack is proposing a 4% increase in the tax levy, at approximately $171 a year per household, to ensure what she beleives are “vital enrichment and athletic programs as well as current staffing levels remain intact.” This would be Montclair’s first tax increase in four years.
“For the past several years, the district has leveraged a budget surplus to support lasting improvements including Elementary World Language teachers and Student
Assistance Counselors, Middle School curriculum support teachers, High School Small Learning Community teachers and nursing staff, key community partnerships as well as a contract that recognizes the contributions our teachers make every day,” Dr. Penny MacCormack said.
“While tax increases are never popular, I am recommending this modest raise only after cutting as much as I can from the district operations without impacting the work in the classroom, our talented staff or the unique programs that make our community’s public schools among the best in the State.”
Board member Norman Rosenblum acknowledged that it would be difficult to figure out a solution that would allow Montclair residents to remain in town with the threat of increased taxes. The budget, after receipt of state aid information on February 28, is to be worked on and tentatively adopted at a March 3 workshop, with a public presentation for the board’s March 17 meeting.
Board member David Deutsch, who serves on the board’s finance committee, says he is very happy with he presentation that Fleischer gave as it is “far more clear and lays out in greater detail than what we had in past years.” He said he is also pleased that Dr. MacCormack laid out three options.
See the full Budget Presentation with all the details here. Over the next several weeks members of the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the budget at Board of Education meetings: