The Montclair Board of School Estimate (BoSE) adopted the $132 million budget for the school districts 2019-20 year, and it also approved the corresponding $118.2 million tax levy for it. The process took all of 27 minutes to complete at its April 4 meeting.
Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson started the meeting with a report of changes made to the budget. She explained that, initially, the budget planned for reductions of 10 full-time teachers, 10 full-time one-to-one paraprofessionals, four kindergarten paraprofessionals, one district coordinator, one district director, and one full time secretary, along with $200,000 cut in the supply line item. As the process continued, she said, the district was able to find savings in health benefits of $622,000 and was then able to reduce the number of full-time teacher cuts to four, with the understanding that there would be additional breakage. She also said that the 10 one-to-one paraprofessionals would be hired back and that their duties would change per the students’ individualized education programs (IEPs). The district also plans to hire paraprofessionals for current IEPs that require different needs.
“It is our commitment, as we previously stated,” Superintendent Johnson said, “to ensure that our current employees who are paraprofessionals will be placed in position for the 2019-20 school year.” She added that the budget now restores four part-time kindergarten positions, district director, and the $200,000 facility supply line item. The $122,000 increase in the tax levy was eliminated, and the budget now also increases salaries of supervisors of instruction by $130,000 and salaries of other professional staff by $150,000.
Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea also reported to the BoSE, for the benefit of Mayor Robert Jackson and the board’s township council representatives, what he had informed the full Board of Education the night before – that the New Jersey Schools Development Authority would reimburse the township $244,000, and with older grants being closed out, he now foresees a reimbursement of $1.8 million (originally reported at $1.2 million) for the township. Mayor Jackson was pleased with D’Andrea’s report.
In public comment, Montclair Education Association (MEA) Vice President Tom Manos said the MEA was correct in finding a breakage exceeding $500,000. The MEA calculated total breakage at $860,419 earlier in the day after meeting D’Andrea and his assistant, Manos said, and it came to a net breakage of $286,419 after accounting for retirement replacements, adding that D’Andrea had told the MEA that breakage had been scattered across several line items.
“In the interest of transparency,” Manos said, “the MEA has requested that, in the future, we go back to the way these numbers were presented before so that there may be informed conversations regarding how to best utilize this breakage. As it stands, this number would be enough to save multiple staff positions.” He did thank the BoSE for listening to their concerns, a comment echoed by MEA President Petal Robertson. She added that future budgets should be presented as moral documents on how the district wants to educate children.
In that spirit, resident Andrew Gideon didn’t bother with numbers, speaking instead of the bigger picture. Citing a fellow resident he left unnamed who called for a reduction in spending and taxes by arguing that Montclair “can’t have it all,” he said the district’s recent spending plans have been unable to provide just that. Gideon noted that problems with the facilities in the form of aging buildings with insufficient climate control, dated textbooks, and under-qualified teachers in the classroom have left him wondering how students can have everything necessary for a quality education. Gideon acknowledged Superintendent Johnson’s efforts at reform, but he also lamented that the PTA was having to raise money for the basics of education, such as laptops, rather than for the extras. He was both pleased and saddened by how Montclair was learning from other districts – because, he said, it used to be the other way around.
At the moment before the budget’s passage, Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon said he thought the BoSE members all worked well together and had done a good job, but he didn’t want to see teachers and paraprofessionals possibly on the “chopping block” again in 2020. He appreciated the fact that positions had been restored and that his questions had been answered quickly. First Ward Councilor William Hurlock was glad that the process had started earlier and had gone more smoothly, and Mayor Jackson agreed. The council’s BoSE representatives said they looked forward to working again in early 2020 on the 2020-21 budget, and Board of Education President Laura Hertzog said she considered that a win for BoSE collegiality.