With the Montclair Board of Education having approved a budget for the 2014-15 school year, the Board of School Estimate meeting was held on March 27, the first of two hearings to review the proposed spending for final approval.
The Board of School Estimate (BoSE) is comprised of Mayor Robert Jackson (who is the BoSE’s chairman) and Councilors William Hurlock (Ward 1) and Sean Spiller (Ward 3), along with Board of Education President Robin Kulwin and board member David Deutsch. Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack was also in attendance.
Chief Operations Officer Brian Fleischer recapitulated how the budget was finalized for the benefit of the mayor and two councilors and gave a presentation detailing how it would provide operating funds for the district’s 11 public schools.
“Throughout this process,” Fleischer said, “it’s been my goal, and Dr. MacCormack’s, to be as transparent as possible about the budget development process and to answer many of the questions we’ve received from the Board of Education and the public.”
Fleischer explained how the district’s fund balance spiked to a record amount of $13.9 million in June 2012 due to budget surpluses resulting from underestimated revenue intake and unspent funds, and how it was used to provide tax relief for Montclair residents and recurring expenses in the 2012-13 school year, but that the fund balance could no longer be relied on to cover fund expenses. Fleischer re-iterated that, after halving the initial $8 million budget gap to $4 million through cuts that had no impact on students and classrooms, a tax increase was necessary, with a 4 percent increase, the first increase in four years, made possible by “cap banking.”
“Although school districts are generally restricted to two percent in the amount that they may increase the school tax levy each year,” Fleischer said, “school districts may bank additional cap in years when they increase the tax levy by less than two percent. That banked cap may be used for up to three years.” With $5.6 million in the cap bank representing unrequested tax increases set to expire after having been generated in the 2011-12 school year, Fleischer again sought to use it toward the increase, which would work out to an extra $379.12 per year, or an extra $31.59 extra per month, in the average resident’s share of the school tax levy. He cited regular increases in average residential tax bills from 2010 to 2012 for Millburn, South Orange, Maplewood and Glen Ridge ranging from $411 (Maplewood) to $989 (Millburn), while Montclair saw only a $71 increase in that period.
A 4 percent increase was recommended this time to preserve current programs with no staff reductions. The school board approved a 4.41 percent increase to pay for additional kindergarten teachers and paraprofessionals (reducing kindergarten class size) and to hire 4.5 world language teachers, although four building resource aid positions — three half-time, one full-time — were eliminated at two elementary schools, to be implemented through retirement or through non-renewal of some of the 25 aides hired this year as long-term substitutes with the understanding that their positions end this June 30.
Teaching assistant Jim Zarrilli later took issue with this in public comment. He said he was greatly concerned how special-needs students, who had been kept in district to keep costs down, were being shortchanged, first by an interruption of benefits to paraprofessionals, then by existing teaching assistants being replaced with low-wage substitutes since September 2013.
“What I’m trying to get at,” Zarrilli is that eventually, if this trend continues, there will be no contracted paras in district, because as we leave, we’re not being replaced.” He lamented that substitutes would handle special-needs students, denying the students stability and continuity by having a “revolving door” of subs taking care of them.
Dr. MacCormack said that the need for teaching assistants was one that varied, and she added that substitutes hired for the year were aware that their positions were temporary, and that the district hoped to look at scheduling to make sure that the base number of paraprofessionals needed was met and to use a small number of subs to supplement them.
Councilor Hurlock asked about Fleischer’s $500,000 spending plan on technology upgrades which include improved Internet connectivity, recabling, and wired upgrades, and if it included device upgrades for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments. Fleischer said that the board still wanted to engage in a discussion with the public as to what devices would best be suited for year-round learning before they were purchased. A new technology director joins the district next week.
“We never want PARCC to be the driver of technology purchases in that area,” he said.
Councilor Hurlock also asked about whether current devices met minimum PARCC standards. Fleischer said most of them did but he hoped to get devices that would surpass minimum standards to ensure equity and among the students.
Among the questions Councilor Spiller, who also serves as the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), asked involved about textbooks, and whether there was a deficiency to be addressed. Fleischer said there was no deficiency in resources to purchase textbooks, and when Councilor Hurlock asked for an elaboration on the issue, Fleischer said that it was a question of making sure that requests for textbooks were fulfilled, that it should have part of been a discussion with Central Services, and that there was a need for greater communication wit regards to whether new textbooks should be adopted or how many damaged and lost textbooks should be replaced. The district hoped to be more pro-active on the issue going forward, he said.
Spiller also asked about attorney costs. Fleischer explained that 2012-13 and 2013-14 had been heavy years for attorney costs.
“It’s something that we’re looking at closely, and hoping at getting them along, but one of the things to note was that 2012-13 was the first year, I believe, that the Montclair school district used its law firm to basically take the lead and handle our contract negotiations with the MEA, and they’ve been doing that this year with the Montclair Head Custodians Association, and [beginning talks with] the Montclair Principals association. ” He added, ” Obviously, people have heard about the investigation, that’s one component of our costs this year.”
Mayor Jackson asked, “I know some school systems have in-house attorneys. Is that one of the options you’re going to look at?”
“It’s something we’ve talked about, “said Fleisher. “I think, given the high percentage of our total legal costs that relate to special education, placement matters, and settlements, if we were to get an in-house attorney, I think we’d want a special education specialist to really kind of strategically make determinations about when we settle, what we can offer, to work with our pupil services department, to look at services we can bring in district to avoid more out-of-district placements.” But he added that it is something they’ve spoken about.
Mayor Jackson commended Fleischer for his work saying it “is probably the best presentation of a budget that I’ve seen.
Board member David Deutsch spoke to Barista Kids after the meeting on, what he feels is a “highly transparent” budget presentation.
“Dr. MacCormack, Brian Fleischer and Melissa Beattie [our supervisor of accounting] have done a remarkable job creating a highly transparent, detailed and well-organized school budget, which I hope our residents will take the time to review. Because the majority of Montclair’s property taxes go to the public schools, it’s important that our taxpayers understand both how the district spends their tax dollars and the significant financial constraints the district faces going forward.”
The meeting ended less than ninety minutes after it began, with a second BoSE meeting scheduled for Monday, March 31 at 8 pm in the George Inness Annex, 141 Park Street. for the second of its two public hearings.