UPDATED: More Break Downs of the Montclair Schools Budget at Last Night’s Meeting: Focus on Technology

Chief Operating Officer, Brian FleischerUpdate by Editor: Some clarification on items are found at the end of this article.

Picking up where he left off at the Board of Education’s February 24 meeting, the board’s Chief Operating Officer, Brian Fleischer, presented a proposed Montclair Schools budget for the 2014-15 school year. He zeroed in on the fund balance, which he had cited as a source of increased funding for teachers’ salaries and other recurring expenses in previous years. He advocated more spending on computers and a greater spending on capital projects to keep school facilities in good shape.

Fleischer noted that the fund balance, after reaching $13.9 million in 2012, is expected to be spent down to $9.3 million, with $2.2 million in excess  calculated by an audit at the end of June 2013 to be added into the  2014-15 as required by the state. The estimated excess at the end of this June is expected to be $265,015, further illuminating the pressure from recurring expenses.

Fleischer cited the importance of leaving enough room by maintaining the 2 percent fund balance in the budget for unforeseen expenditures, based on conservative estimates.

“Even if you somehow manage to incur expenditures beyond what you’ve budgeted in one line,” he said, “you can always transfer in more funds from another one of the lines that you’ve built with the cushion.  Budgeting aggressively, or tightly, in all your line items where costs can’t be predicted precisely, makes our lives harder.” He cited the numerous snowstorms of the winter of 2013-14 as an example, showing how the custodial budget would be broken on snow removal costs without a line item to fall back on elsewhere.

New expenses having an impact on the 2014-15 budget, including salaries, employee benefits, and special education total over $9 million, for a total of $115.7 million in expenditures; even with the $2.2 million excess fund balance, revenues total  $107.7 creating an $8 million gap. Fleischer says he has managed to narrow the gap to $3.9 million without making severe cuts, but such cuts would be necessary to avoid a deficit. That said, he proposed a 4 percent tax increase to keep standing at current levels and be able to add three new world language teachers with the recently announced state aid of $7,122,691 for Montclair.  A 6  percent tax increase was deemed to be to expensive in order to fund added programs, while the 2 percent increase would necessitate more cuts,  the same point Fleischer made a week earlier.

Fleischer also proposed a capital budget of $2.8 million, include $796,000 in state aid, to fund infrastructural improvements and as greater investment — $500,000 — in technology upgrades to the schools. The idea is to provide faster Internet service and make laptops available to students. Add to that the $500k earmarked in a bond ordinance and $200k in the operating budget for technology costs other than salaries, and there would be a $1 million upgrade to classroom technology.

Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack explained how the $2.8 million capital expenditure figure was set. She said that the district had previously put in $1.5 million, with another 1.3 million in the next year when it became apparent that the township would not be issuing any more bond ordinances. Board member David Deutsch opined that that if tax expenditures remained capped, it would be difficult to maintain an appreciable level of capital spending without having to go to the township, calling it a “balancing act.”

Board member David Cummings noted that continued spending on technology would require more costs going forward, and that technology costs for 2015-16 and beyond should be considered. Dr. MacCormack said that the proposed 4 percent tax increase would allow the flexibility for just such expenditures, but Cummings said that the district would be asking for more money going forward. Fleischer said that at new technology director, who is expected to arrive in late March, should be able to formulate a new plan to expand technological  amenities to gauge what is needed. He did concede that the district would have to discuss with the township how to fund technology in the future.

Norman Rosenblum-Penny MacCormack- Robin Kulwin 3-3-14 (1)

Board member Norman Rosenblum asked about the consultant budget, asking if the district assessed the advantage of hiring consultants over hiring permanent employees to assist the district. Dr. MacCormack said that there was a advantage to having consultants who were only needed temporarily over permanent employees.  The proposed 2014-15 consultant budget is $3.5 million.

Public Comment

Many of the residents who gave public comment expressed skepticism with the technology capital budget.

Maia Davis said that the township residents should be engaged in a conversation over whether increased use of computers would benefit the students’ education, and that a greater emphasis ought to be on preparing for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing. Regina Tuma was doubtful that computers could enable learning without a curriculum that offered any context.

Andrew Gideon, meanwhile, pondered the dilemma of a possible 6 percent tax increase designed to help students while pricing their parents out of the township. “That’s a conundrum that really bothers me, but the 6 percent option is an incredible temptation,” he said.  He noted that there are six full-time staffers that could be brought in with that option , as well as additional pre-K funding, but said he was curious as to what happen next year to what Montclair would pay for with an additional 2 percent this year.

“Is that going to cost us more than 2 percent next year?” he asked, noting the 2 percent cap that Montclair would have to meet after the coming year.

Fleischer said that there would certainly be uncertainty going forward, brought about not only by caps but by negotiations with the Montclair Education Association over its contract renewal.

Residents Marcella Simadiris and Michelle Fine, both critics of Dr. MacCormack’s administration, asked pointed questions about business as usual. Simadiris demanded to know if Dr, MacCormack, Fleischer, and Chief Talent Officer were properly credited. Board president Robin Kulwin vouched for the superintendent, and Dr. MacCormack  said that a nationwide search for district officers meant that that many of the hirees had not been accredited in New Jersey before coming to Montclair but applied for and received the proper accreditation.

Fine, meanwhile, continued to demand more information on the tests being administered, lamented that the local private schools were attracting prospective students who otherwise would be in the Montclair school district, and suggested a participatory budget process involving both community members and school board members rather than a budget handed down from the district office.

The budget is to be tentatively adopted at another meeting on Thursday, March 6.


UPDATE: An issue of concern was brought up at the meeting with regard to a line item titled “Salaries – Instructional Aides,” which shows a 63 percent decrease in funds for the 2014 – 2015 budget, making some believe that 63% of academic support paraprofessionals would be cut.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. MacCormack tells Barista Kids, “We’re not cutting or reducing our contracted paraprofessionals. We are not firing anybody.”

However, she added, “At the same time all of the paraprofessionals we’ve hired this year, we’ve hired as long term substitutes. So they have a contract that they expect to end at the end of this year.” Those long term substitutes are not guaranteed positions available to them next year. 

“Our 221 paraprofessionals contracted with us are not in jeopardy,” she said.

In addition she explained that the line showing the 63 percent decrease had been over budgeted the previous year, because they hadn’t finalized the contract yet so they were estimating how much money to put in there depending on the contract increase. Also the reinstated health benefits for aides made slight salary adjustments, adding to the decrease.

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  1. What this article fails to mention is that as evidenced last night, the BOE’s comprehension of basic finance never mind their own budget, is appalling. So long as their grasp of the budgetary levers at their disposal to affect change is dependent upon Mr. Fleischer’s protracted lectures we can assume that nothing will change. This is especially surprising when you consider that more than half the board is either directly accountable for the budget or assigned to the finance committee.

  2. “Fleischer noted that the fund balance, after reaching $13.9 million in 2012, is expected to be spent down to $9.3 million,”

    Can you help me understand what this $9.3 surplus, expected this June, is comprised of?
    I have $2.4MM from the 2% fund, $2.3MM from Maint & CapEx funds, and $2.5MM as future year revenues. As you can see, I can’t account for over $2.0MM.

  3. The breakdown of the 9.278 million is as follows:

    – 2.803 million is Restricted in a “Capital Reserve”.

    This is actually the 2.803 million that MacCormack explained during the meeting, as referenced in the article. The article mistakenly applies MacCormack’s explanation to the Capital Expenditures.

    (Total Capital Expenditures are proposed at 2.868 million, which breaks down into 796K from the state, and 2.071 million from the 2.803 million set aside in the Capital Reserve.)

    – 250 K is Restricted in a “Maintenance Reserve”
    – 2.26 million must be spent in the 14/15 operating, budget, as required by the state.
    – 265K must be spent in the 15/16 operating, budget, as required by the state.
    – 1.5 million; The BOE is electing to draw down an additional 1.5 million into the 14/15 operating budget (not mentioned in the article)

    So 9.278 minus 2.803 minus 0.250 minus 2.26 minus 0.265 minus 1.5 =

    2.2 million in unassigned Fund Balance estimated for 6/30/2014 (this number is mentioned in both the second and fifth paragraphs).

  4. Thank you concernedmontclairparent.

    If I follow correctly, the 2014/15 proposed budget will spend $6MM ($5.956 MM) of the $9.278 MM Fund Balance.

    If I assume we spend half ($125K) of our maintenance fund this coming year, this will result in the Fund Balance next year, 6/30/15, of $3.322 MM plus any savings (efficiencies or unspent cushion) MPS might realize.

    Breakdown would be $2.2 MM in our 2% emergency fund, $732K in capital reserve, $125K in maintenance fund, $265K in excess for 2015/16. $0 excess for 2016/17.

    Does this look right?

  5. Can someone tell me how the BOE was able to sneak in that 63% of academic support paraprofessionals would be cut? I do know that the BOE was convoluting this mess by saying some of them are long-term subs, but the numbers don’t add. These seems like cuts in jobs at a time when special needs students are going to need to meet the developmentally preposterous Common Core standards.

  6. I agree with whatever speaker said that “technology isn’t curriculum”, but I didn’t understand why that statement was necessary. Who said otherwise?

    I was surprised at the “we don’t need technology” comments given that, only one week ago, Watchung teachers were complaining – justifiably, from what I’ve heard – about the technology in their school. I expect that any school in the district could make similar complaints, though I imagine it earns special notice when it comes from the Technology Magnet.

    I suppose listening to teachers is like “small government” or “states’ rights” for some people; it’s a principle honored only when it serves an agenda.

    I do agree that we may not want to aim at “1 to 1”. There may be a better approach. Still, I believe it ridiculous to think that we shouldn’t be preparing our kids for the 21st century (or even the latter part of the 20th).

    Imagine, decades past, parents arguing that pencils weren’t really necessary for school. Etching on a wax-board is a time-honored tradition, after all.


  7. Do you guys who clearly are following this much more closely, have a link to the full budget? All I saw on BOE site was the ppt slides, not the actual budget. Heard something about Dean of Students–not sure how that squares with no staff cuts line? Weren’t those positions just created last year? Anyone have info on that?

  8. Andrew,

    I think teachers would be the first to admit that the technology in all of the schools, especially the high school, is far below adequate. Additionally, I think teachers would be the first to admit that this needs to change.

    However, improving technology should not come at the cost of paraprofessionals, or any loss of in-class student support. There is no substitute for having aides in the classroom. If I heard the BOE correctly last night, cuts to 63% of academic support of paraprofessionals would be a ridiculously high number, especially after what this town just went through trying to get these professionals back into the fold.

    Additionally, if this additional technology and software is for the purposes of simply being able to take the PARCC assessments, then I think we need to look extremely close at who is getting this money. I don’t know if I heard that money shouldn’t be spent on technology. However, it should be spent on helping improve teacher practice, not for test-taking and to fill someone’s pockets that would benefit from more technology in our classrooms (i.e. The esteemed Mr. Cerf at Amplify).

  9. Frank

    I agree with you, and your calculations and breakdown of the 3.322mm.

    However, I looked at the prior year fund balance information provided last night, and applying your calculations, I would’ve expected a 773,281 lower projected fund balance for 6/30/2014. (I’ll refrain from posting the details for now.) I suspect the difference may be related to some nuance of Fund Balance calculation that I am unaware of, as my numbers are off for other years as well.

  10. Thinking

    I assume you found these slides that were presented last night.


    A full “budget book” distributed was last night, but I do not see it linked on the site (yet).

    The four line items for “Dean of Students” are each indicated as a 100% drop ($100,000 each). Mr. Fleischer indicated that some line items (such as Dean of Students salaries) have “moved around” into other line items, but are still in the budget.

    This obviously compounds the effort for a year over year comparison. Multiple public speakers last night requested a full list of all items that were moved. Without this list, it’s impossible to know if the budget book is hiding anything.

    For the “Dean of Student” positions, presumably there is a corresponding $400,000 total increase across one or more line items. I have looked for it, but no one can tell. For example, its possible that increases in line items for “Salaries Grds 1-5 Teachers (School)” of 84K, 100K, 42K and 119K reflect the new line item for Dean of Students, but maybe those increases reflect regular salary increases.

    Until the BOE provides a full list of the accounting reclassifications for 14-15, the public won’t even know what questions to ask.

    Mr Fleischer did indicate this information would be forthcoming by Thursday.

  11. 63% of paraprofessionals to be cut? Am I hearing this correctly? From a town that is trying to get the Special Needs students back IN to our system? How is this possible? I think every school that has stood up to speak at BOE meeting thus far has expressed the needs of bringing back the paraprofessionals! I am appalled. How does a school actually function folks? With Teachers and Paraprofessionals at the forefront. Why are Paraprofessionals constantly the first ones being targeted to be axed? Are all the new hires in the district going to take over their responsibilities? I’d like to see that!

  12. concernedmontclairparent,
    Yes, I also noted & briefly wondered about the Fund Surplus differences between the 20114/15 PP slide and page 121 of the 6/30/13 Comprehensive Annual Report (unaudited).
    But, a certain marsupial started posting about drinks & bars and I changed my focus to how best to allocate my last remaining lime.

  13. Yes, it seems inconsistent with the values of our town to hire more aides with poor pay, no benefits, and an uncertain length of employment.

  14. Yes, it seems inconsistent with the values of our town to hire more aides with poor pay, no benefits, and an uncertain length of employment.

    And yet it seems entirely consistent with the Zeitgeist.

  15. For people with concerns, I urge you to attend tomorrow’s budget workshop and/or to write to the Board and Superintende, as well as the Mayor and town council. . It is all well and good to post on Baristakids, etc. but for action voices must be heard by the people who institute the policies.

  16. I donno, nycmontclair, you’re making a lot of assumptions. For instance, how do you know I’m not on the town council, or the mayor, or Penny MacCormack for that matter?


  17. Walleroo, once the results of the latest BOE subpoenas are in, we’ll know if nycmontclair’s assumptions are valid or not, and who you really are (insert dramatic music here; cut to commercial).

    On a more (or maybe less?) serious note, I am noting my concerns in a direct communication to the BOE. I will share any response here.

    Either I’ve uncovered some underhanded BOE attempt to hide or misstate funds in the budget, or the five posters reading these comments will all learn a little something about the budget process.

  18. Ooops, that last comment about my concerns was directed at Frank. Sorry for the confusion.

  19. “However, improving technology should not come at the cost”

    Unfortunately, budgeting means facing choices. These are important to discuss. However, to simply stand up on Monday and say “nobody cares about technology” a week after some of our teachers expressed that they do in fact care about it is telling.

    It’s more of the same unfortunate pattern we’ve been seeing in town lately. Rather than discussing the choices we face, some people seem free to make up their own facts. “Nobody cares about technology” is right up there with “$40 million dollar surplus” and “$500,000 tests” (or even “aides get no benefits”, which is new to me above). It’s bad enough to frighten parents and prospective parents. Worse, these false facts make it impossible to have a real conversation about the choices we face as a town.

    As for the 63% and SpecEd: I don’t grasp all the details, but the Superintendent did say something like: no aides required for IEPs would be cut.

    From a financial perspective, for every student brought in-district, a line item for out-of-district tuition (and probably transportation as well) is reduced. Presumably, this balances what increases are necessary in other line items (eg. another aide for this student).


  20. “As for the 63% and SpecEd: I don’t grasp all the details, but the Superintendent did say something like: no aides required for IEPs would be cut.”

    The Superintendent was also very careful to use terms like “No aide under contract is being cut”, and Mr. Fleischer tended to revert to a statement that “No kindergarten or special ed aides were being cut”. It was not clear, nor directly addressed if there are aides in classrooms today who would not be there in the fall as a result of the 63% cut.

  21. Do long-term substitutes get benefits? I would highly doubt it. I assume that hiring them would be a way to avoid this.

  22. latebloomer,

    Long term subs do not get benefits. Only full time contracted employees do.

  23. Frank,

    In regard to your question about the numbers on page 121, you’re looking at the wrong page. Page 121 is after the reconciliation of government fund statements to GAP. Look to page 71 in the same report for the right bits. This shows the proper numbers and the reconciliation. Jon

  24. No comparison, prof. With Obamacare one must spend at least $2000 per person on an in-network deductible before the insurance company pays out a dime. Yearly checkups are excluded.

  25. “Fine, meanwhile… lamented that the local private schools were attracting prospective students who otherwise would be in the Montclair school district…”

    Can someone explain this? It seems out of context, and there’s no explanation in the article. Or maybe I missed it?

  26. Ihateplaydates, at least three local private schools are reporting a huge surge in applications by Montclair families.

  27. With Obamacare one must spend at least $2000 per person on an in-network deductible before the insurance company pays out a dime.

    There’s a plan for a family of four for $157 a month with a $300 individual / $600 family deduction.

  28. Long term subs DO NOT get healthcare benefits! Neither do Paras that were hired after a certain date. Some Paraprofessionals in this district are working side by side with others, that do the same exact job, yet they DO NOT get health benefits. These are contracted Paras. Explain the fairness in that!

  29. Plus that premium probably means that the parents are both 22, because the premiums get much larger with age.

  30. Frank, if I remember correctly, the aides were all stripped of their benefits, and it was negotiated that those hired before 2011 would regain them, but not the newer workers.

  31. Andrew, I’m not sure why you don’t have the correct information about Teaching Aides and health care benefits. I’ll lay it out for you. There are about 220 aides currently working for the district as full time employees. Of that number, less than half are eligible to receive health care benefits through the district. These aides were working for the district as of June 2011. The other aides are not eligible for the district health care plan.

    Separately, it turns out that the district has recently begun hiring all new aides as ‘long-term subs’. These aides are not eligible for benefits, and are not members of the teachers union.

    This fact was only made public at the most recent board meeting when it was revealed that $285,000 being cut from the budget was for classroom aides. Dr. MacCormack was careful to explain that no Kindergarten or Special Education aides who were members of the MEA were being cut. The aides that are being cut are long term subs. While we don’t yet know exactly how many aides will be cut from the classrooms, it is certain that aides ARE being cut from classrooms.

    One final thought. I did not hear any discussion about reducing class sizes. And now there will be fewer aides in the classrooms. No amount of technology can make up for what seems to be a certain increase in teacher/student ratios district-wide.

  32. Thank you Mara for clearing that up. You are exactly right on all points. Let me add….how do you think those aides working without benefits feel? How do you think those with long term sub status feel? How would anyone feel doing the same job as someone else, yet they don’t get the same benefits? It’s shameful.

  33. Thanks mara & latebloomer.

    Is this a certification difference or employment requirement difference between long-term subs and classroom teaching aides?

  34. Where did you find that, walleroo? Obamacare policies are known to have large deductibles.

    On the Obamacare website, courtesy of prof, who supplied the link. It took me about 60 seconds.

    Plus that premium probably means that the parents are both 22, because the premiums get much larger with age.

    It assumed two parents, age 40, with two kids in single digits and $40k income.

  35. “I’m not sure why you don’t have the correct information about Teaching Aides and health care benefits.”

    I can certainly be wrong. So aides hired after a certain date don’t receive benefits?

    Doesn’t that mean that normal churn – people leaving and the position being filled by a new hire – would reduce these line numbers? How much of the change is this vs. actual headcount reduction?

    As for the “long term substitutes”: I admit that the idea of a “long term substitute”, as described above, puzzles me. I had assumed that these were people covering for teachers on leave for some reason. That’s not the case? We’ve people acting as “long term substitutes” in buildings not substituting for other people?


  36. “We’ve people acting as “long term substitutes” in buildings not substituting for other people?”

    The simple answer to that is YES!

  37. walleroo, a friend of mine is paying almost $1000 a month for his family of four, with the Obamacare subsidy. They are older than your hypothetical family and have a higher income. However, in all cases, the Obamacare plans involve large in-network deductibles, no out-of-network benefits, and are altogether very inferior to a plan such as our teachers have.

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