In a second budget workshop meeting that was even longer than the first, the Montclair Board of Education adopted on March 6 tentative budget that modified the 4 percent tax increase advocated by Chief Operations Officer Brian Fleischer. The board tentatively approved a budget that would raise taxes by 4.41 percent to pay for three extra kindergarten teachers and three kindergarten aides, and also to reduce kindergarten class sizes from 24 students to 21.
Fleischer explained the concept of “banked” money that could have been but was not raised through increased tax levies. He said that when Montclair decreased its tax levy by 3.6 percent for the 2012-13 school year, it banked the full difference between what it could have taxed and what it did tax – more than $5.6 million, which was larger than two percent of that year’s budget. The banked cap represented 5.76 percent of Montclair’s current tax levy. The district must use that $5.6 million in the 2014-15 budget or it will expire. Using all of it would actually increase the available cap for 2015-16 and beyond by increasing the tax levy base when an additional 2 percent is calculated. An additional $5.4 million for the two school years (2012-13) and 2013-14) in which taxes were not increased was also generated, giving the district the opportunity to use that additional banked money in future years.
Fleischer espoused the proposed $500,000 capital expenditure to upgrade technology amenities, specifically to improve high-speed Internet and broaden bandwidth through improvements such as switches and cabling.
“The goal for that network work would be for us to give it all out so that we can be able to execute it over the summer when students are not in the buildings,” he said.
The technology spending would also enable the administering of the Partnership for Assessment or Readiness in College and Careers (PARCC) tests.
Board member Anne Mernin asked if administering a paper version of the PARCC test would be preferable to give Montclair “breathing room” and hold off the technological investments for the time being. Fleischer replied that details of the paper test have actually been held back, and that it hasn’t been shared with local school districts yet.
“I’m waiting for guidance to understand what the paper option is, but I don’t know, and I don’t think any school district knows, the extent of what the paper option is. His affirmative answer to Mernin’s question if it could be considered drew applause from the audience.
The board also considered the possibility of returning pre-kindergarten education to the district. A 6 percent tax increase would have allowed Montclair to offer half-day pre-K classes to Title I students, and board members were open to the idea, but they ultimately settled on kindergarten expansion as a compromise. Board member Norman Rosenblum echoed the sentiments of his peers when he said that the board needed to open a dialogue on reinstating pre-K with Mayor Robert Jackson and the council and get the community involved to find a solution. Implementing it now, Rosenblum said, would incur unsustainable costs later.
“We are going to have huge shocks, shocks to our system, that we’re not going to pay for what we have,” he said. “There’s no way that we can sustain that for more than a year og two, a couple of years . . . it’s going to grow, it’s going to be more expensive.”
Board member David Cummings was skeptical that the budget as presented would produce desired results, and he doubted that any of the district’s spending plans would alleviate the achievement gap between more affluent students and poorer ones. He cast the sole vote against the tentative budget when it passed. For her part, Board President Robin Kulwin was happy with the budget restoring resources for elementary school (K-5) world language instruction, and praised Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack for putting together a stellar staff at BoE headquarters.
Among members of the public who weighed in, resident James Harris was pleased that the board was talking about Pre-K again but admitted that a 6 percent tax levy would be a burden to people with fixed incomes like himself.
Resident Arsenio Changsut said that many of the planned improvements to the schools’ infrastructure were long overdue.
Michelle Fine was pleased that pre-K and paper PARCC tests were on the table.
A few residents doubted that technological improvements would be sufficient, and resident Eloiza Jorge said that technology was no substitute for the human touch that teachers bring to instruction to excite and inspire the students. This prompted board member Shelly Lombard to remind Montclair residents that spending on teachers and spending on technology came from two different budgets, the capital and operating budgets, respectively, and that one had no impact on the other.
The 2014-15 Montclair school budget will be submitted to the Essex County Superintendent of Schools on March 10, with adopting by the Montclair Board of Education slated for the Monday, after, March 17.