The Montclair Board of Education’s March 19 meeting momentarily had the drama of a political convention from the days before direct primaries. When it came time to approve the 2018-19 budget and start the process for the Board of School Estimate to go over it, it failed on the first ballot when four board members abstained, mainly on the grounds that it didn’t offer enough of a vision going forward.
District Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea took the board through a presentation of the revised figures for the school budget. He said he was able to get the expenditures from $1.5 million over budget to balance through revisions such as a $1,002,000 waiver for health benefits and additional state aid totaling $537,000 from Governor Phil Murphy’s administration, helping with revenues. Also, a total of $617,000 for staffing was restored. All programs originally put in the budget remained in place, with two programs added for special education, and D’Andrea explained the reduction in special-education supplies was a re-allocation to regular classroom supplies.
“Any supply that every student is using should be part of the school-based budget,“ D’Andrea explained, “and any money that’s left in special education supplies are very specific to the needs of the program that is being run in that classroom, and those supplies can only be purchased by the Director of Special Services.” He said other general classroom supplies would be allocated as if they were regular classroom supplies to the rest of the district.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak expanded on staffing, which included an additional $84,000 in breakage from retirements, and putting money back in the budget. She said that, in the previous budget draft, the district looked at cutting 10 paraprofessionals and a number of teachers and staffers, and that not being able to put staff where it’s needed has obstructed the district in recent years.
“We need to add about four-and-a-half teaching positions this school year,” she said. “We were able to do that because we had fills in administrative positions, and so we had the money to add the teaching positions; two-and-a-half positions were in special education.”
She explained that after the start of the year, they were able to add paraprofessionals back for new special-ed students, and that the additional $617,000 added to the staffing line item for 2018-19 allows the district to add positions where necessary.
Members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA), however, remained skeptical toward some of the details in the budget, and in public comment, MEA members such as MEA President Petal Robertson and Vice President Tom Manos, along with numerous teachers, addressed their concerns. The MEA had met with Superintendent Pinsak, D’Andrea, and D’Andrea’s assistant Melissa Beattie on March 13 to discuss various line-item issues, and while Robertson was thankful for the district involving the MEA, she and her MEA fellow members still found a good deal to be desired. Robertson was afraid that the number of paraprofessionals cut would leave the district vulnerable to non-compliance lawsuits over how students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs) were executed. She was equally concerned about laid-off paraprofessionals who may be hired back in September but would not have health benefits over the summer. The MEA also expressed concern that current secretaries would have to absorb the workload of dismissed secretaries, and that new programs would be difficult for fewer teachers to implement as class sizes grow.
Manos, meanwhile, wanted to know why no past analysis of breakage had been done since 2013, and he and other MEA members demanded to know which positions held by retires were not slated for replacement. They were also afraid that the moving of money to the general-education classroom supply budget, coupled with a $50,000 reduction of special-ed supplies and an overall reduction of supply spending by $300,000, would cause a reduction of supplies for all students. They also wanted clarity on what items in the budget were ‘technology” items.
Board President Laura Hertzog was satisfied that D’Andrea and Superintendent Pinsak put together a budget that met with the board’s objectives, but board member Anne Mernin said the budget had “not been terrific” at spelling out a vision of where the board wanted to go, especially on how to lower the achievement gap. Board member Eve Robinson added there was a need for more of a vision and a philosophy behind the 2018-19 spending plan, and she said the board was “not there yet.” Board member Franklin Turner fretted over the $114.8 million revised tax levy, saying that it would make Montclair more expensive for too many people.
With that, the vote was taken on the budget, and Turner, Robinson, Mernin and Jessica de Koninck, who said the budget did not have any objectives to pursue the board’s goals and that there haven’t been any conversations on the issue, voted to abstain on the first ballot, denying the board a four-vote majority.
“We will never achieve those goals if we’re not clear about what our commitment is,” de Koninck declared.
With such grievances aired, the board voted again, and the budget passed on the second ballot, this time with only Mernin and Robinson abstaining. De Koninck hoped the board could spend the summer recess having the “vision” conversations she’s insisted were lacking in their discussions.
Less controversial was the presentation by Jacqueline Mroz and Candy Cooper of Succeed 2gether, the local group that tutors Montclair students. Mroz said that Succeed 2gether has been effective in helping to narrow the achievement gap and providing workshops for students to help them improve their grades, and Cooper singled out students who mentor others by tutoring and reading to younger children. Mroz did say their budget has been tight, and she told the board that it would be better to have more volunteers – she said that at least 20 more people were needed to help out. Robinson told Mroz and Cooper that it was “lovely” to see Succeeed2gether accomplish so much.