The Montclair Board of Education approved a tentative budget for the 2019-20 school year at its March 18 meeting after hearing concerns from members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) about cuts – mostly involving paraprofessionals – and how the funds were itemized. The budget, as passed by the school board, anticipated a $132 million spending plan with a general fund of $128.3 million and a $3.8 million special revenue fund, along with a health care cost adjustment to the 2% tax levy increase totaling $122,000. The taxes to be raised total $118.9 million.
Members of the MEA teacher’s union dominated public comment with expressions of dismay over the budget. They pointed out that the budget audit found a $1.5 million surplus, $4.1 million in unspent funds, an average of $450,000 a year in unrestricted surpluses, and 1 million in special education aid, which MEA President Petal Robertson said the board never explained. Robertson said she could not imagine how the district could go forward and cut paraprofessionals before examining the numbers, especially when the money appeared to be available. She added that the programming for the money in the budget can be purposely vague because the money can be directed toward line items not in the budget.
“You have to prove we’re wrong by giving this budget the same due diligence as we did,” Robertson said.
MEA Vice President Tom Manos crunched several more numbers. He looked at the breakage, or revenue from retirements and attritions, saying that the board neglected to give any salary information necessary to identify breakage, and the MEA disputed the revenue figures the school board had offered. He also noted that Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson proposed the addition of eight lead teachers for the high school; he wanted to know what these positions would entail. Manos also said that Superintendent Johnson was planning to start an alternative school, listed in the budget under the Gateway program, which the district no longer offers. He said that this budget item should be titled by what it’s allocated for, for the sake of transparency. He also wanted to know where Superintendent Johnson thought she could find extra money for the budget; in response to her claim that the alternative school was just an idea she had, he wanted to know if this was still the case.
Among the calls against cutting paraprofessionals, MEA member and district secretary Beth Albert said that one paraprofessional had been shifted to the high school without explanation, which only demonstrated what a necessity they are. She also wanted to know how Superintendent Johnson could decide that part-time paraprofessionals weren’t providing continuity in the system when part timers had been part of the paraprofessional staff for 19 years. Former student Noah Gale spoke, capturing the public sentiment when he said, without any numbers or complicated language, that cutting paraprofessionals was a big mistake.
Superintendent Johnson, for her part, said that she moved paraprofessionals at her discretion to help students, and she has not been hiding away any extra money that could maintain paraprofessionals. She said she wanted to be as transparent as possible.
Members of the board made it clear that they were not happy with the budget they had produced. Board Vice President Joseph Kavesh lamented that cuts were needed, and the district could not go on spending money in an unsustainable fashion given the crisis in educational funding statewide and nationwide; he was still disappointed about the dearth of state aid. Board President Laura Hertzog expressed hope that the state could provide more money in the immediate future.
Board member Priscilla Church, however, while admitting the need for a surplus that could offer a buffer for emergencies like the staircases in the high school building, said she wished the board had been more focused on prioritizing cuts, with the understanding that they cannot anticipate everything, before the Board of School Estimate reviews it.
The board also received a presentation from the StoneGate Associates security service on make the schools safer. Errol Brudner, StoneGate’s vice president of strategic planning, said the security plan pursued for Montclair schools includes rapid-response guides for emergencies provided to all teachers and increased drills attended by the police. Brudner also recommended greater staff training and the ability to speed up lockdowns or evacuations of the school buildings. The presentation also included the recommendation of closing schools, which serve as polling places, on election days, which led to a discussion on designing the 2019-20 school calendar. Board Vice President Kavesh said he preferred to keep the schools open for elections, as it costs a day of classes for the students; and he wanted preferred to find a way to keep students and voters separated on days when elections are held in order to making voting and school schedules easier. Board member Anne Mernin found the possibility of extra spending on election security problematic, and board member Eve Robinson concurred. Meanwhile, Superintendent Johnson encouraged parents to e-mail the district for feedback on the 2019-20 calendar before the board discusses it again at its April 3 meeting.
The board also voted unanimously to approve a resolution rejecting bids to rebuild the staircases in the high school, which were deemed unsatisfactory. Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea said there was still time to seek new bids before the start of the next school year, and he was certain that a satisfactory bid would be found soon enough to have the staircases fixed before then.