The Montclair school district’s spring break occurred in the first full week of April for 2018, which meant the Board of School Estimate (BoSE) would have to begin its annual school budget review later than usual. On April 9, the BoSE finally met at the George Inness Annex of the Montclair High School to begin that process for the 2018-19 budget. Mayor Robert Jackson chaired, with Councilors William Hurlock (First Ward) and Rich McMahon (At-Large) in attendance. Board of Education President Laura Hertzog was the only school board member present; BOE member Joe Kavesh did not attend (per the district website, business to take place at a Special BOE Meeting on Wednesday, April 11, includes the appointment of a Board of School Estimate member).
Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak went over the main priorities of the budget, explaining the emphasis was on building and recruiting a strong staff of teachers to support the students and offering an improved curriculum, with the latest technology to support instruction and with tools to assess students and help teachers understand what the students need for success. She was quick to point out that 81 percent of the $125 million budget goes to salaries and benefits, the better to recruit and maintain top talent. Pinsak also placed top priority on repairing and updating school buildings, taking pride in the district’s many older buildings for their architecture, but also highlighting the great responsibility in keeping them modernized. She also said improving security at the schools was a top concern.
Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea tried to break down the particulars for BoSE. He said the overall budget looked to balance out the staff by reducing six teachers, 10 paraprofessionals, one administrator, and two central-office secretaries. The budget also seeks take advantage of breakage from retirements. The current amount of breakage is $315,000, according to all of the retirements reported up to March 12; that amount has thus been cut from the budget. D’Andrea informed the board that the budget also factors in $537,000 in state aid from the new Murphy administration, adding that while it is a small amount, every bit helps.
D’Andrea also addressed health insurance, an ongoing concern for the district. He said the request or proposal for a health insurance plan was put out by the district’s consultant and the plans are being evaluated. D’Andrea expressed the need for caution in looking at the offers, noting the disruption that can be caused when switching plans and determining how many doctors and health providers are covered by the old plan that are also replaced by the new one. Ideally, he explained, there should be as many health practitioners as possible covered by both plans to avoid as much inconvenience as possible. He said he was hopeful that the disruption report would suggest a percentage in the high eighties into the nineties because “that tells us that the disruption to the staff is at least at a minimal proportion that is something reasonable.”
“We just don’t want to make a change in carriers because of dollars,” he added “Sometimes the numbers that come out are [for] one year, and then you flip it back and forth.”
Councilor Hurlock noted that health benefits have become unsustainable, and he asked for the time frame on how much the costs were likely to be for health insurance. D’Andrea said he’d try to reach out to the consultants, and he has been looking at various offers, but he still sought to minimize the disruption. Councilor Hurlock agreed it was imperative not to burden members with increased costs from switching carriers.
D’Andrea also cited the emphasis on repairing infrastructure and amenities in the capital ordinance request for the next school year, with various improvements totaling $4.37 million with an additional 486,650 in hiring architects, engineers soil investigations, and legal assistance necessary in getting the projects going, resulting in a grand total of $4.86 million. A good deal of the work would be on masonry, repairs to athletic fields and pedestrian and parking areas, and waterproofing, with $550,000 to be spent on security – improving the key entry systems to the buildings, minimizing points of entry to prevent intruders from gaining access to the schools, and digital upgrades to school security systems. The $500,000 would be a down payment on what is needed. D’Andrea also advocated an $86,000 set-aside for a state School Development Authority (SDA) assessment grant application. The grants for SDA assessments usually add up to $5 million, which makes the $86,000 fee, usually a back-charge from the state, cost-effective. D’Andrea also said the seemingly modest $6.4 million line item for textbooks and classroom supplies is the biggest single item after salaries and benefits, jibing with Superintendent Pinsak’s emphasis on giving teachers the necessary instruments for teaching.
Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson addressed the various line items in the budget, expressing gratitude to D’Andrea and Superintendent Pinsak for involving the union in the discussion. But she still had some concerns. She said she was concerned about the loss of six teachers, lamenting that losing any teachers before scheduling was completed could ultimately cost the district because of the possibility of needing more classes and having to enlarge existing classes. Robertson said the reduced number of secretaries would increase the workload on the remaining secretaries, which she feared could be a violation of central-office employee contracts. The reduction of paraprofessionals, she said, could be unsustainable and force the district to call back some paraprofessionals; not every paraprofessional can easily return to work, she explained, and many of them would lose their benefits over the summer months and possible go into debt. Robertson also added that adding the special-ed budget to the general budget and cutting the general budget across the board could have a negative impact on school supplies. She said it made greater sense to cut items in the budget that don’t have any impact on students.
Superintendent Pinsak insisted that the budget is proactive, not reactive as Robertson suggested, and she said they needed to find money to ensure more special-ed positions. She said that, based on new programs that were developed to try to serve the students in the district, they were able to do that. She added that the district has money targeted for special-ed contingencies and she hopes to move some people around and not have to replace any retiring teachers. She said the whole idea behind the budget is to make sure the district has what the students need.
The Board of School Estimate takes up the school budget again on Thursday, April 12.