Montclair Board of Education adopted its version of the 2017-18 school budget at its March 13 meeting, with board member Joseph Kavesh casting the only dissenting vote. The Montclair Board of School Estimate (BoSE), chaired by Mayor Robert Jackson, will take it up at its first meeting on Thursday, March 16, after the impending blizzard caused the March 14 BoSE meeting to be postponed. The second BoSE meeting, which was to have taken place on March 16, has not yet been rescheduled.
Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi, presiding over his last school board meeting in Montclair, and Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo went over the finer points of the budget for a public audience much larger than the audience that greeted the board on March 6. Superintendent Bolandi reiterated the need for the district to develop more programs to direct teaching to the students as an alternative to greater spending. He said the district needed to throw programs, not money, at problems.
To that effect, Superintendent Bolandi referred to the cut in paraprofessionals down to 2014-15 levels, saving $2 million in the $120.2 million, with the goal of scheduling them more efficiently, eliminating deans at Bradford, Bullock, and Northeast Elementary Schools with a $210,000, and also sharing Nishuane Assistant Principal Evan Kozak divide his time with other elementary schools. The superintendent said that he hoped the staffing cuts across the board would bring more equity and balance to the schools, noting that the budget does not disrupt instruction or the magnet system. He also suggested when a veteran employee working for the district and making a $100,000 annual salary retires, someone can be brought in as replacement for a lower salary – a way of changing the budget when anticipating change.
DiGeronimo tackled more nuanced spending plans, such as health insurance for the staffers. He said the rate of increased projected by the insurance broker had been 12 percent, but that had since changed to 10.5 percent due to a change in the ratio of the claims paid to premiums paid and with a decrease of people in the plan – 824 from 862, helping to save the district $1.9 million.
Superintendent Bolandi also said the district was talking about the possibility of changing its high-school counseling program, but he recommended that the program be placed on hold and the board to hold meetings with parents of the 56 students affected to meet and provide the parents with more information. He recommended the board continue to hold meetings to discuss the matter, and not do anything with the program yet.
Overall, Superintendent Bolandi said streamlining staff can be done, and he said that it would provide better service. He regretted that he couldn’t increase the budget by 10 percent and hire more people.
Reaction from the public was mostly of concern. Some Nishuane parents citing electives that aim to include special-needs students with regular students, were wary not just about the staff reductions there but also the suggestion that Assistant Principal Kozak offer his services to other elementary schools in the district. Erin Walter said that Kozak knows everyone and everything at Nishuane, and that taking him away from his primary Nishaune duties would hurt the school’s magnet program. But the greatest concerns came over paraprofessional layoffs, with paraprofessional Jim Zarilli, who had complained about such reductions before, saying it would have a devastating effect on those affected. Alma Schneider said she saw a potential problem in the paraprofessional cuts, referring to Superintendent Bolandi’s explanation that the district had extra paraprofessionals because special-needs children were scheduled last and that enough paraprofessionals had to be hired to accommodate them. Superintendent Bolandi has suggested scheduling the children first.
Schneider was afraid that the limited number of paraprofessionals would be limited to certain classrooms under that scenario, diminishing special-needs students’ choice of classes and electives. Superintendent Bolandi said they would get the classes they pick, but Schneider was still concerned that there wouldn’t be enough paraprofessionals with the cuts proposed. James Harris of the NAACP was also concerned about the cuts, noting that many special-education children were black, and that reducing support for them made him “nervous.” He also said a cut in paraprofessionals affected those who made less money than other district employees. Superintendent Bolandi said paraprofessionals with special skills would remain.
Montclair Education Association president Gayl Shepard said she wanted to know more about Extended School Services, a $650,000 program in which she assumed that each social worker was earning at least $135,000 a year. “We have three social workers,” she said, “who will no longer be working in the district, totaling $210,000, which means that each one of them earned about $70,000. She wanted more information on way the district was paying more for contracted social workers as opposed to less expensive ones employed directly by the board, and she wanted to know the differences between the two. Keeping the staff social workers, she said, would be more efficient.
The budget is now headed to the BoSE, and Superintendent Bolandi, in his last week on the job, will no longer have a say in the matter. But he was lauded and praised by the board and bestowed with an honorary resolution for his service with Montclair. School Board Jessica de Koninck presented him with a plaque from the county honoring him, and Kavesh called him “a rock star… 95 percent rock star, 5 percent diva.”
The meeting began with a robot demonstration from the Montclair Robotics Club, which three alliance partner medals and came in fourth out of 37 teams in a district tournament. The students allowed two of their robot machines to glide across the floor.