Montclair BoSE Approves 2017-18 School Budget With 2.45 Percent Tax Increase

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 Montclair Board of School Estimate

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.

Student assistance counselor Rebecca Weintraub, second from right, speaks out for the Montclair school district’s counseling staff. Counselor Hugh Witter is second from left.

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.

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  1. “The change was a response to pleas from the community not to cut vital positions such as student assistance counselors (SACs) and paraprofessionals.“

    There was never a question that the superintendent, the BoE or the BoSE had ways to increase the budget. The hard choice of the 2.3% budget was a downpayment on our commitment to long-term fiscal responsibility. An issue that Mr Bolandi made a hallmark of his tenure. One that the new BoE said it was behind 100%. Then we have this.

    The BoE members wouldn’t vote against the gift horse presented by the Mayor, even if it had political strings attached which go against BoE budgeting policy. The BoE has little choice but to use this newfound funding to retain some SACs and other positions. Once again, and not a week after the beloved Mr Bolandi’s departure, we revert back to budgeting rationals that he scolded us about.

    Once again we are taking the best case scenario of potential staff retirements and treating them as a given to fund reoccurring expenses. The fact that this annual, last minute, budget exercise (oh, look what we found that the CFO missed) always results in the same retirement figure savings of $400,000 is just weird. $400,000 covers an additional handful of long-service retirees, so who’s to question it.

    But, we agreed 2 years ago that we would not fund recurring expenses based on these unreliable projections. Why did we do that. Because we used that “found money” to fund these same SAC positions back then – and the retirements didn’t happen. Oops! My bad. Shouldn’t do that again. But, hey, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. On top of this, let’s capitalize $700,000 of staff compensation and not use it for other capital expense or one-time expenses. Let’s use it to fund recurring payroll. Brilliant.

    Bad habits die hard. It’s our version of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I’m sure the Diva/Rock Star is not surprised.

  2. The BOE approved a budget with a 2.3% tax increase by a 6-1 vote. The one “no” vote is also a BoSE member. By law, the BOE members on the BoSE are required to vote to reflect the will of the majority of the BOE (which, as noted above, supported the budget). Only a material change to the budget at the BoSE level permits a BOE member to vote against the will of the majority of the BOE. It is doubtful a 0.17% deviation (approx. $165k) qualifies as a material change, though that is best left to lawyers. Put another way: de Koninck and Kavesh had to vote YES.

    The bigger question is whether the BOE sufficiently anticipated these budgetary issues when it negotiated the contract with MEA in 2016. One could argue that falls on Bolandi – “beloved” and “rock star” though he may be – and de Koninck.

    Finally, the 2 “no” votes by the Council members must be taken with a grain of salt. Both are thought to aspire to run for mayor in the event Mayor Jackson does not seek another term. They now have “cover” to proclaim their opposition to tax increases. There is more than a bit of hypocrisy in this, considering that McMahon doth protested the potential reduction of paraprofessionals, and Hurlock lectured at the second BoSE hearing about rising health insurance costs.

  3. I din’t know that about the voting obligation. Thank you. Two points in reply:

    Firstly, the will of the BOE was a 2.3% increase and that is the budget they are bound to, voting-wise. As I said, there was room in the cap calculations for the BoE to vote for a higher budget. They didn’t. Yes, the BoSE can’t tell the MPS where to spend the newfound funds. But, the use of this increase was framed to influence the MPS to spend it on recurring payroll expenses. The Mayor appoints the BoE members.

    Secondly, a major reason for an appointed school board is to shield the appointees from short-term political pressures and any unpopular, but necessary choices. Regardless of their BoSE representative’s vote, the full BoE still retains the choice NOT to apply this increase to recurring payroll. Let’s see how they end up using the money.

  4. School budgets as job programs.

    One young student of color at BOE meeting plead for her counselor’s job to be spared primarily because, from the Baristanet account, he was black. So now students are providing job references for their counselors? And where were the white,hispanic, asian, jewish, LGBT students recommending their preferred councilors and paras? People think “inclusivity” is uniting, but I predict it’s balkanizing. This is real Tom Wolfe/Bonfire crap, just less glamorous.

    Maybe layoff “rock star.” Bolandi was a bit of a bloviator, but he didn’t call himself that. He also spotlighted something I wasn’t tuned to; spending on special need crowing out spending on regular needs and gifted.

  5. His supporters hung that descriptor on him, not me. Also, I don’t think he was a bloviator. He was lecturing and shaming us. We had lost our way as a district. He was a big fish in our small pond. We were looking for a father figure to step in and tell us what to do. Done.

  6. Oh, and as to that $700k of salaries and benefits, we should look at changing our district auditors.

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