Members of the Montclair Board of School Estimate met Monday to review a budget presentation by Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson.
Johnson said she and her team adopted a different approach, using pie charts to show how revenues were received and to break down expenditures into major categories.
The biggest number — salaries and benefits which comprised 80% of expenditures.
There were questions from Mayor Jackson about transportation, which makes up five percent of the district’s expenditures.
Jackson wondered what the cost would be if the district abided by the state standard (busing for students within two miles of school) and what the savings would be. Business Manager Emidio D’Andrea said it would likely result in a 40% savings. Jackson added that given how Montclair is busing to maintain the magnet system and desegregation of schools, Montclair should receive more transportation aid from the state for the additional cost.
Johnson also answered a question about miscellaneous revenues totaling $535,000. She said these monies came from rental income and facilities use as well as prior year refunds.
Johnson also took a moment to explain the district’s new tagline — Montclair: Great By Design — which is regularly included in communications to parents from the district.
“What I mean when I say “Great by Design,” is that it’s an aspirational statement. We are aspiring to be great by creating programs that work and robust policies. I am in no means asserting we are there yet,” Johnson added.
Johnson told the BOSE that the budget reflects the district’s primary goals — providing a word class education and a safe, healthy and welcoming school community.
She also added that the district would be rolling out a comprehensive dyslexia plan and that it would maintain its commitment to the social and emotional needs of students by not reducing therapists, counselors or equity staff.
Johnson discussed the need for two new positions: an attendance officer, who would follow up on attendance issues as well as check on residency; and a Dean of Climate and Culture for Montclair High School. If the district receives additional funds, Johnson also hoped to put into place a Director of Content, as well as two teachers on assignment.
The Dean of Climate and Culture would assist the administration in reinforcing restorative practices and positive behavioral support interventions.
“We have some climate challenges with our young people,” says Johnson, adding that helping high school students be more respectful was an important goal.
Johnson announced that the four part-time kindergarten paraprofessional positions that had previously been slated to be cut had since been added back into the budget. She hoped that other paras that might be let go in May or June would ultimately be hired back in summer as a result of attrition due to retirements.
Both Councilors Bill Hurlock and Rich McMahon asked Johnson to look for other ways going forward to cut expenses that don’t involve cutting teachers or paraprofessionals.
“Cutting teachers and paraprofessionals seems very disruptive to students. We talked about this last year and how we need to get away from that, because it’s been a trend for the seven years I’ve been here,” Hurlock added.
MEA Vice Chair Tom Manos raised concerns about staff reductions.
“For nearly a decade, the district has not been replacing retirees and this practice adds more detriment to students. What is the reduction in staff doing to class size and course availability,” asked Manos, adding that there has also been a practice of having “just enough” paras which leads to compliance issues all year long, possibly opening the district to lawsuits.
MEA Chair Petal Robertson thanked Johnson for reinstating the part-time kindergarten paraprofessionals. Robertson raised the need for more monies for restorative justice practices to allow for adequate staffing of the program. She also said that a code of conduct recently sent out by the school doesn’t follow the restorative justice model.
Robertson, referencing Johnson’s earlier explanation of the phrase “Great By Design,” said the district needed to think of a surplus in a different way, not as funds, but resources. Robertson said a surplus of teachers could be utilized to create tutoring labs and implement other important programs.
“Don’t let titles fool us that we don’t have skilled individuals,” Robertson added. “We don’t have to recreate, or hire a Dean of Culture and Climate to be great by design.”
Roertson added that the climate isn’t helped when paraprofessionals are always on the “chopping block.”
Hurlock questioned what it meant to be out of compliance due to not having enough paraprofessionals. Johnson said the district is keeping a log of minutes/hours that are owed to students when there is a lack of paraprofessional coverage with the intention of giving that time back to the student. Johnson also mentioned looking at improving the substitute pay rates for paras as well as utilizing floating paras.
Jackson ended the discussion with the efforts he and others in Montclair are making to get legislators to give additional funding to Montclair Schools.
“When it comes to state funding, we are getting 2 percent when some of our neighbors are in the 10-13 percent range,” Jackson said. “We are talking to legislators to find out why that is and what we can do to get some additional monies for Montclair.”
The next two Board of School Estimate meetings will be held on Monday, April 1 and Thursday, April 4; both are at 7 p.m.