The Montclair Board of School Estimate (BoSE) ended a long drawn-out process, approving the 2017-18 school year budget at its March 30 meeting at the municipal building with a slight upward tick in the amount of money approved at the suggestion of the board’s chairman, Mayor Robert Jackson. The mayor proposed that the tax increase be 2.45 percent instead of 2.3 percent top provide some additional funding, and he suggested that “breakage” – additional funds from potential retirements be anticipated at $410,000. He also said he verified with the district’s auditor that a salary and benefits in a capital position could be capitalized, yielding an extra $700,000.
The change was a response to pleas from the community not to cut vital positions such as student assistance counselors (SACs) and paraprofessionals. Mayor Jackson knew it wouldn’t be enough to prevent all of the proposed cuts, and that the BoSE cannot tell the school board what to do with the extra money, but he thought it would help. With that, the meeting recessed to give Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo time to work in the new numbers. When the meeting returned to order, DiGeromino explained that the tax increase would add to the general fund budget, bringing it to $120,431,440 with a $172,636,458 tax levy, and it was so passed.
Much of the meeting had been devoted to public comment, and several Montclair High School students spoke in protest against the SAC cuts. Members of the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance said the cuts would be disastrous mistake, singling out counselor Hugh Witter as an essential member of the SAC staff and praising him as someone who understand students and respect students’ identities. They all agreed that having someone like Witter to speak to helped them in high school. They also spoke out on the need for diversity in the SAC staff; Witter, who is black, would likely be let go in a budget crunch due to being a more recent hire, but this would result in a more white SAC staff in a school system with a large black student body.
Glenfield Middle School counselor Rebecca Weintraub, joined by Witter and other counselors from different schools, spoke for the SAC staff, saying that the job as a counselor was to make sure students’ needs are met and that they are ensured the ability to reach their full potential. Students, she said, have numerous problems to deal with at home or in school and need assistance with their anxieties and working through problems. Weintraub urged the BoSE to look at the SAC line items through the eyes of their students.
The most poignant moment came when student Steven Davis said he had transferred from a charter school beset with anxiety and thanked Counselor Witter for getting him through a difficult period. Mayor Jackson was undoubtedly impressed with his testimony. “Whatever anxiety you’ve had,” he told him, “you’ve certainly overcome it.”
Other issues came up. One student spoke on behalf of the school’s Latin program, saying it helped improved Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and gave students a sound base from which to learn many languages, not just the Romance ones. Petal Robinson renewed a plea to save paraprofessional jobs, calling them “magic when they work with students. Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard said it would be better to start conversations about the budget earlier in the process to see what the district needed, but she was grateful to the BoSE for working and communicating with her.
Joe Kavesh, a school board representative on the BoSE, said the budget presented difficult choices, agreeing with School Board President Jessica de Koninck, and added that cutting staff at the Central Office would not help, as many office staffers were already multitasking with two or three jobs per one person. Two council members on the BoSE were not satisfied with the budget before them. Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon, who thanked the students and staff members for their “courage and commitment” in speaking out against the cuts, said that while no budget is perfect, he was uncomfortable with the budget as presented. Deputy Mayor/First Ward Councilor William Hurlock echoed Councilor McMahon’s concerns, saying for himself that he didn’t feel he had enough information about the budget.
Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak tried to answer people’s concerns in her statement. “Any staff reductions will be made with some idea already by very careful monitoring and assessment of schedules,” she said. “In some of our schools, we’ve lost enrollment, and in some of our schools, we’ve increased enrollment. We’re going to look at that.“ She said that staff members are added when necessary, but she cautioned that there is a need to consolidate without increasing class size.
“That’s the hard task at hand,” Pinsak said, adding that any retirements would allow the district to spend more money on instruction – the “breakage” Mayor Jackson alluded to. She said that while she would love to bring every position back, many of them were not necessary. She said she hoped to maintain “the best of the best.”
And so it went. The budget was approved 3-2, with Councilors Hurlock and McMahon voting no, citing their lack of comfort with the budget as reasons. The BoSE also approved the resolution acknowledging receipt of the budget form the school board 4-1, with Hurlock voting no.
Mayor Jackson said he still saw a bright future for Montclair schools.