The Montclair Board of Education spent much of its March 5 meeting going over a blueprint for the 2018-19 school budget, presented by the board’s business administrator, Emidio D’Andrea. D’Andrea said parts of the budget are subject to change. He also noted that Governor Phil Murphy has delayed the state budget address to March 13, which means that there is no revised state-aid figure available yet.
The proposed budget calls for a spending plan of $125 million, with $1.8 million in key appropriations programs such as new technology, tagged at $85,000, and a new classroom for students with autism, which would cost $61,000. D’Andrea also earmarked $35,000 for legal services, which he said received priority because of pending negotiations with the Montclair Education Association. Adjustments for 2018-19 include $39,000 in retirement breakage, as older teachers retire and younger replacements come in at lower salaries. D’Andrea said he had been given a large request for custodial services, but he had to pare it down to $136,000, which he believed would suffice. Expenditures would remain relatively stable, with programs and staff salaries mainly increased or cut by less than 1 percent. The overall budget has an increase of 2.4 percent over the $120.6 million adjusted amount for 2017-18, with a tax levy increase of $114.8 million from $112.6 million for 2017-18. The increase would be $39.31 per $100,000 of assessment.
State aid, however, is expected to remain flat at $6.9 million, despite hope that the Murphy administration would be more generous with state aid than the Christie administration had been, though, again, D’Andrea could not give a new state-aid figure until Governor Murphy addressed state school aid in the budget. Even with Montclair district’s careful budgeting, though, D’Andrea projects a deficit of $1.55 million. He asked the board members to consider numerous solutions to close the gap, and one possible idea was to request about a million dollars in health benefits waivers.
“Through the state program, we have already gone on and dropped in our health benefits numbers, and because the state’s health benefit numbers have gone up so drastically,” he said, “and increased at such a higher level, the budget system right now has already calculated and allowed us, that we qualify on an estimated basis . . . there is a potential for requesting an additional million dollars to be added to the budget which generally, basically gets added to the levy.”
D’Andrea also proposed eliminating aides for buses on regular-education routes, cutting stipends for school scheduling, and cutting classroom supplies, which would save $1.4 million but would still not be enough to avoid a shortfall. He said additional staffing reductions and cuts to other expenses should be considered. None of his proposals are in the 2018-19 budget just yet; D’Andrea merely suggested various ideas as a way to bridge the gap. Noting that staff salaries and benefits comprise nearly 80 percent of the budget, D’Andrea said there were few if any easy choices for the board to make.
The preliminary outline does make room for a $500,000 balance, which D’Andrea said would help guarantee more budget security for the future. He also presented a $4.86 million capital budget for improvements that he and Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann worked on. They made a detailed, prioritized list of projects in all of the district’s school buildings, ranging from masonry repairs at the elementary schools and Montclair High School to a new elevator for the high school and completion of a retaining wall for Renaissance. There would also be $500,000 for a new security system including a master key for all of the schools and a coded master key for each school kept by each principal, along with security cameras.
Board President Laura Hertzog noted the gap in the budget proposal was smaller than it had originally been, and she thanked D’Andrea for his leadership in the budget process. She suggested the teachers could get involved in the discussions over the budget, and D’Andrea welcomed that opportunity. Board member Eve Robinson lamented the lack of a commitment to an energy-saving program, but D”Andrea assured her he was still engaged in trying to formulate one.
On the proposed student walkout, Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said she was preparing for the March 14 event by taking precautionary steps, though she refused to elaborate on the details as to how the district was planning to handle it. In public comment, residents Joan Furlong and Domenic Cotter criticized what they perceived to be Superintendent Pinsak’s non-committal approach to handling the walkout, accusing her of endorsing a politicized action that violated the ban on partisan, political activities on campus during school hours. Superintendent Pinsak countered that the students didn’t think that promoting safety and speaking out against gun violence in schools constituted a partisan demonstration. Meanwhile, regarding the cutting of 10 paraprofessionals, the superintendent said the district worked with parents and child study teams to determine how many paraprofessionals they could cut without adversely affecting service, and Board President Hertzog said the district took a serious look at saving as many paraprofessionals as possible, the message from Montclair residents to do so having come through “loud and clear.”
Also, JoAnn McCullough, executive director of IMANI, gave a presentation on the importance of the program and noted how its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) preparation courses and study groups, along with its summer programs and its elementary-to-middle and middle-to-high transition programs helped many minority students excel and close the achievement gap. Board member Anne Mernin thanked McCullough for her service.