The Montclair Board of School Estimate began deliberations on the 2017-18 school budget passed by the Montclair Board of Education at its first meeting on March 16 – held two days later than originally scheduled owing to the March 14 snowstorm that shut down the district for two days.
Interim Schools Superintendent Ronald Bolandi, already having presided over his last Board of Education meeting on March 13, made his last public appearance as superintendent at the BoSE meeting, reiterating for the benefit of Mayor Robert Jackson and the township councilors on the BoSE much of the ground he covered in school board budget workshops. He highlighted the district’s intention of emphasizing priorities such as a world-language supervisor, who would get $125,000 for a 10-month position, a student advocate, who would get $95,000 for the same time frame, $100,000 for special-education development, and greater support for curriculum wiring programs and support materials for said programs. But he also lamented the staff reductions and paraprofessional cuts involved.
“A lot of things caught up to the district this year,” Superintendent Bolandi said, “the fact that we have a very little surplus which we couldn’t use.” He noted the surplus had been used before for property tax relief. “We ran into a problem with that, and we didn’t have enough money to put in.” He noted that Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo had worked hard to cut costs in two areas – health insurance and transportation – to avoid deeper cuts in the classroom.
DiGeronimo said there would be greater premiums if the district tried to join any of the Horizon policies in the State Employee Health Benefit Program (SEHBP), due in part to the fact that the district plan follows a school year while the SEHBP plan follows a calendar year, so it wouldn’t make sense to switch over to SEHBP at this time. Mayor Jackson said he did not agree with the analysis that was done, and the way to do the analysis would have been to take the annual SEHBP plan expense of $17.9 million, divide it by two, and figure out the projected amount for premiums for the second half of 2017. Premiums for 2017 are projected at $16.6 million in the budget. The mayor said the assumption would give him a number one would look at to determine whether to move into the state plan or not. He did concede that analyzing the numbers this way would have possibly led to the same conclusion, and DiGeromino said there was a lot of guesswork about what the state increase would be. He said Horizon would submit a proposal for 2017-18 to the district in April. The district is currently working with a Horizon projection 10.5 percent increase based on 87 percent of claims paid.
Public comment centered not on the complicated actuarial tables of comparisons of health insurance plans administered through either calendar years or fiscal school years but on the more personal and visceral issue of student counselors. Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard revisited the $675,000 expenditure for the Effective School Solutions (ESS) contract for serving 54 middle- and high-school students with five counselors and the issue of three counselors serving far more students being let go to save a smaller sum of $210,000. She found it inequitable.
Superintendent Bolandi tried to provide some answers. He wanted to eliminate the ESS counselors, whom he said were six, not five, and develop a mental-health program to be run by the district, with $400,000 from the savings of eliminating the ESS contract to hire additional counselors in-house and start an alternative program in the high school. When that happened, he said, parents met with him and said certain objectives were not met by the program – he couldn’t provide details for legal reasons – and asked the board to spend the next two months looking at it with those parents in order to guarantee a program that is equal to or better than the ESS program, as required by law. If they can do that, the program will start in September. He noted that one of his predecessors had brought in ESS.
This explanation did little to satisfy the public. Many residents noted that the student counselors and students most likely to be adversely affected were minorities, and Desirée Hardin, a black female counselor at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, spoke passionately about the many responsibilities of her job, connecting with students and advising them on personal matters, particularly on issues of race ansd sex where students feel they can relate to her better than with another counselor. Hardin’s comment was one of the best received comments of everyone who spoke that night. Resident Regina Tuma spoke about the broader picture, citing the cuts in the paraprofessional staff as well as the counselors in pointing out that a budget is a moral statement and that the budget should reflect what the community wants to invest in and value.
Speaking about revenues, resident Sarah Blaine asked if maybe payments in lieu of taxes from development projects could be directed to the schools. Mayor Jackson explained the township was already under obligations to pay the district’s debts, noting that eight percent of the municipal budget goes toward school debt relief.
The mayor said the BoSE, which includes Councilors William Hurlock and Rich McMahon and Board of Education members Jessica de Koninck and Joseph Kavesh, had their work cut out for them and would take the public’s input seriously. The next BoSE meeting is on March 20 at 7:30 PM.