The Montclair Board of School Estimate (BoSE) met on April 1 for the last time before a final vote on the 2019-20 district school budget set for Thursday, April 4. The overview of the $132 million budget picked up from a previous meeting held on March 25. The major issues driving the overall budget were creating programming for a world-class education and a safe and healthy school community.
Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea gave an overall view of the budget that sought to incorporate health benefits and employee benefits in a school-by-school analysis so the BoSE could get a better sense of the overall spending. Benefits, broken by department, added about 6.6 percent to the regular education department budget and about an extra 2 percent to support services. Employee benefits, separated from everything else, comprise 16 percent of the budget. Elementary school salary budgets average between 2.6 million and 3.5 million, while Buzz Aldrin and Glenfield Middle Schools come in at about $4.6 million and 5.3 million, respectively.
Also, when broken down, the budget allocates $895,324 in salaries for regular-education staffers compared to $10,227,371 for salaries for special-education staffers. D’Andrea explained that the discrepancy is based on the fact that special-ed programs are different in each school, with some schools having more paraprofessionals, while some schools also have programs that others don’t. Also, up to $200,000 has been restored to the facilities budget and four part-time kindergarten paraprofessionals have been restored at a cost of $20,000.
In health insurance, D’Andrea said consultants had found that the district’s experience rating, the amount of loss that the district has experiences compared to similar districts, has gone down steadily, potentially reducing premiums by as much as $821,000, with $122,000 in health care waiver adjustments reducing the tax levy by 1.1 percent. The district is soliciting offers from different insurance providers, hoping to get someone competitive to allow negotiations with providers by May.
Members of the BoSE representing the Township Council had numerous questions about the line items. Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon asked about the position of assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, and Board of Education member Jessica de Koninck explained that this was Superintendent Kendra Johnson’s previous position before her promotion in May 2018. Councilor McMahon also asked about expenditures in the technology department. D’Andrea explained that there was a new technology director with plans to restructure his department for the upcoming year with his position and others to be restructured as well.
First Ward Councilor William Hurlock asked about textbook expenditures, and whether there are enough in the budget. Superintendent Johnson said that the district purchases textbooks based on how many students are anticipated in the new school year, and that if it is beyond the purview of allocation that the school is given, the textbook purchase will be covered at the district level. She said she agreed that textbook policy needed to be looked at more closely to consider new textbook concepts, such as electronic books for science courses, and that the parents need to be a part of the discussion.
Montclair Education Association (MEA) Vice President Tom Manos had numerous questions and observations of his own in public comment. He expressed concerns with proposed teacher cuts, and he said staffing issues could be managed with better scheduling. He added that he was confused by the proposed spending for professional development in the budget, saying that an MEA member should be available to head professional development and the coordinator proposed in the budget wasn’t going to be in charge; he specially asked what the person being considered to be a part of professional development would be doing. He also saw efforts to cut teachers on special assignments by retaining the teachers but ending special assignments as smoke and mirrors. MEA President Petal Robertson added that she was nervous about the lack of a comprehensive line item for a restorative justice program, noting that elements of such a program were scattered across various line items and that the budget was overloaded with underdeveloped programs.
Superintendent Johnson tried to provide some clarity to the MEA’s concerns, saying a professional development coordinator was being considered to oversee partnerships in professional develop without actually running it, and in response to MEA Vice President Manos’ question about consultants that there was a process to assess partnerships with the Board of Education that would review before presenting the proposed partnerships with the public. She promised to give the MEA more detailed responses in writing, and D’Andrea, responding to Manos’ concerns about breakage, said he would be glad to meet with him about it over the week.
Also, James Harris of the Montclair NAACP expressed concern over possible paraprofessional cuts, given the high proportion of black students in special education, and he said a greater effort was needed to recruit more underprivileged students to sign up for the reduced-price/free school lunch program and assure them that their information would be confidential. De Koninck concurred. Harris also lamented the decline in black student body in Montclair over the last six school years, from 32 percent to 24 percent, and he suggested that a flight of lower-middle-class black residents unable to afford housing in town had something to do with it. Mayor Robert Jackson, in his capacity as BoSE chair, conceded that rising property values were an issue, but he also noted that the white student body had been holding steady for the same time frame, at 51 percent, and he said that part of the decline in black students was because more students who would have once identified as black were now identifying as biracial, thanks to a new choice on forms regarding race (Montclair is known for its large population of interracial couples and their offspring). Board of Education President Laura Hertzog said she wished she could have had the option to identify herself as biracial on district forms when she was a Montclair student.
The April 4 meeting to vote on the budget is slated for 7 P.M. at the Montclair High School George Inness Annex cafeteria.