By ERIN ROLL
Montclair has approved the 2017-2018 school budget, but with a few adjustments from the version approved by the Board of Education.
The Board of School Estimate voted, 3-2, in favor of the $120 million budget, at its meeting on Thursday, March 30.
The budget now includes a 2.47 percent tax increase, which amounts to an additional $165,000 in taxes. This means that the total tax levy stands at $112,636,548. The remainder of the budget comes from other sources, including $6,863,068 in state aid.
The board decided to approve the budget with the additional tax increase at the recommendation of Mayor Robert Jackson.
Deputy Mayor William Hurlock and Councilman-at-Large Rich McMahon cast the two dissenting votes, citing concerns about some aspects of the budget.
The Board of School Estimate has five members. Three are Township Council members — Jackson, Hurlock and McMahon; the two remaining seats are filled by members of the Board of Education, Jessica de Koninck and Joe Kavesh.
Many members of the community have been concerned about some proposed staff reductions in the budget, especially some anticipated reductions aimed at student assistance counselors and paraprofessionals.
Several students and faculty members came to speak on behalf of the student assistance counselors, who are facing the prospect of staff reductions. Several Montclair High School students were in attendance, including some speaking on behalf of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
“There are a bunch of students here in Montclair who cannot afford certain types of health care, to provide for, I guess, paying for a therapist and mental health help.”
Keturah Paige, the first of the students to speak, noted that the student assistance counselors were a valuable resource for students whose families could not afford mental health treatment or therapy sessions. She added that the counselors are especially helpful for LGBT students, as well as students who may be experiencing problems at home.
“Especially in high school, it’s a very difficult time for a bunch of students.” She added, “It’s really comforting to know that there are people there that we can talk to, and that makes it kind of like a safe haven, because they do, I guess, enforce that school should be a safe and comfortable place for all students.”
Jacob Walter, the head of in-school activism for the GSA, told the board that the students were concerned about losing Hugh Witter, one of the school’s two counselors for grades 10 through 12. “This would be a disastrous mistake, and a disservice to the students of Montclair High School who rely on him,” he said. He added that it is crucial for a counselor to make personal connections with the students, something that would be far more difficult if the counselors were reduced.
Rebecca Weintraub, a student assistance counselor at Glenfield Middle School, came to the microphone, accompanied by five other counselors from across the district. “Students knock on our doors because their real backpacks were burned in a fire in their apartment, or because the police were at their house last night for a family dispute, or because teachers notice a mark on their face that looks suspicious. Because they can no longer withhold secrets of abuse, or they’re tired from not having slept all night because of anxiety,” she said. But she said students also came to the counselors to celebrate: a good grade, or scoring a winning shot in a basketball game, for example.
Steven Davis, a senior at MHS, told the board about his own struggles with anxiety, and how valuable the student assistance counselors had been to him when he transferred into the district in his junior year. “Coming to MHS and having such a supportive staff team was definitely an eye-opener, and was a key factor in providing me with a smooth transition into the Montclair public school system.”
He also paid tribute to Witter’s work with LGBT students at the school, and added that it was highly encouraging for MHS students to see Witter, as a person of color, serving as a counselor.
“I appreciate your taking the time to listen to me and my peers, and I hope that you have heavily considered the points that we have all made,” he finished.
“We’re seeing a lot of courage tonight,” said Board Member Joe Kavesh. “When I was 15, 16, 17, there was no way I could get up at a board meeting like this.”
Both McMahon and Hurlock had some concerns about aspects of the budget.
McMahon questioned whether the district could look at staff reductions in the upper-level staff, rather than looking at the paraprofessionals and student assistance counselors for possible cuts.
Hurlock also had concerns about the timing of the budget process. “I think January is a much more appropriate time to start the conversation.”
“I, too, think that there’s probably more in these budgets that could have been done,” he said, referring to McMahon’s remarks.
Board President Jessica de Koninck thanked the Board of School Estimate for their work on the budget, and reiterated that the district was in a difficult place financially.
“There’s not money hiding someplace,” de Koninck said.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak praised the students for speaking out, and mentioned that she would be visiting MHS the following week as part of her school tours. “Kudos to you,” she said.
She emphasized that the budget process was a difficult one. “This is a difficult decision — any staff reductions — and we hate the word ‘cut,’” Pinsak said.
Before the budget was passed, Jackson made some recommendations about modifying the budget, in order to come up with some additional funds.
“We’ve certainly heard the hue and cry from our students and parents,” Jackson said.
Besides the 2.47 percent cap on the tax increase, Jackson also said that the district may realize $410,000 in additional funding from retirements, and he recommended that certain salaries and benefits be capitalized. That, when added up, may result in an additional $700,000 for the district.