Montclair schools budget hole
BOE President Laura Hertzog, right, speaks during the Feb. 25 budget meeting. The schools are facing a $2.2 million budget gap, and may have to eliminate several staff positions in order to fill it. Also pictured is Superintendent Kendra Johnson, left.
PHOTO BY ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

A $2.2 million Montclair school district budget shortfall could translate to 10 teaching positions and at least 10 part-time paraprofessionals being cut.

The Montclair Board of Education held a special budget meeting on Monday, Feb. 25.

The BOE and district officials blamed the shortfall on an expectation of flat state aid for the coming year. The district expects $7,928,526 in aid, which accounts for 6.21 percent of the budget. That amount is short of what Montclair should be receiving under the state’s funding formula for school districts, the BOE says.

If fully funded under the state formula, Montclair would have received $9,038,249 in the 2018-2019 school year. The full funding amount for 2019-2020 has yet to be determined, Johnson said Tuesday.

The state determines how much money each school district needs, Board President Laura Hertzog said. “But that formula is subject to the budget. So then they come up with the formula, but not give it to you because it isn’t in the budget,” she said. “If we were fully funded, we wouldn’t have to make any of the cuts that we’re talking about tonight.”

The elimination of the 10 paraprofessional jobs is expected to save $300,000, while cutting the teaching positions would result in an anticipated savings of $700,000.

It remains to be seen whether any of the teaching positions would be eliminated through layoffs, or simply not refilled after the retirement of a staff member. The district has not yet determined which schools would be affected if the positions were to be cut.

At the central office level, the district proposes to eliminate the director for K-12 STEM. That position, along with the director for K-12 humanities, would be merged into a new position: director of equity, curriculum and instruction. The resulting savings would be $150,000.

The district mental health/HIB coordinator job would also be cut, with those duties re-assigned to other staff members, at a savings of $145,000.

There will be no cuts to programs, and there will be no reductions to student assistance counselors, guidance counselors or therapists. “We still want to prepare for the whole-child experience,” Superintendent Kendra Johnson said.

Johnson said she had recently met with the district principals to get their input, and that she would be meeting with the Montclair Education Association later in the week. She is also open to meeting with the PTA Council.

The budget

The proposed budget at this time includes a $3.4 million tax levy increase of $118,260,105. Last year, the tax levy was $114,889,279. The tax levy this year accounts for 92.55 percent of the anticipated revenues.

The increase to homeowners’ tax bills is dependent on Montclair’s state aid numbers, which are expected to be finalized in March.

In 2018, the average household owning a home assessed at $510,588 paid $10,330 in school taxes, roughly an increase of $294 over the 2016-17 tax bill.

For expenditures, salaries are expected to be $83,349,324, accounting for 64.12 percent of expenses. Employee benefits are expected to be $21,072,656, which is 16.21 percent of expenditures.

For expenditures by department, regular education — the term often used to describe the educational experience of typically developing children — is expected to account for 32.18 percent at $41,839,134.

Salaries, benefits, transportation and out-of-district tuition, by themselves, make up 93 percent of the expenditures, The revenues are up by $445,000, Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea said.

D’Andrea said he doesn’t anticipate that the district will have any room in the budget for health benefit waivers, but the district will continue looking into that.

Other items in the budget include $40,000 for an attendance officer, $75,000 for curriculum writing staff, $825,000 for new textbooks, classroom supplies and other consumable items and $195,000 for professional development.

The district hopes to buy a new school bus on a lease-purchase plan at $25,000 a year, or $110,000 over five years.

“This is a difficult and uncomfortable meeting, and there will probably be a few more of these as we go forward,” Vice President Joe Kavesh said.

March 12 is the deadline to get the budget to the state.

Paraprofessionals

The idea of cutting paraprofessional jobs did not sit well with the board, or with members of the audience.

“How can you reassure the parents of kids with special needs in this district that the budget is not going to be balanced on their kids’ backs?” asked Kavesh.

Johnson assured him there would be no cuts to special education, related services or the child study team.

“We have a disproportionate amount of paraprofessionals one-to-one. You look at any district in New Jersey, we have more based on our size,” Johnson said.

She added that the budget situation was very fluid. “It’s based on what data we have in this moment,” she said. “However, if we get four new kids next week, we may have to get four new paraprofessionals.”

At issue was how many paraprofessionals are needed per student. For the last several years, Johnson said, Montclair has become accustomed to a one-to-one model: one paraprofessional for each special-needs student.

But board member Eve Robinson said she did not like the idea of cutting paraprofessional jobs, questioning whether it was the best move from a special education standpoint.

Johnson said it would take time to convince families that the one-to-one model was not necessarily the best for students.

Board member Anne Mernin pointed to conversations, both among the board and in the community, about children’s social and emotional needs, and a growing rate of anxiety and depression among children and teens. “And they’re struggling at a rate so much higher than previous generations have been seen to have been struggling.”

Audience reaction

MEA Chair Petal Robertson noted that paraprofessional jobs were on the list of possible budget cuts every year. Robertson also asked about how much the district spent on outside consultants.

James Harris, speaking on behalf of the Montclair NAACP, said he was concerned that staff reductions, including the possibility of “last in, first out,” would result in decreased diversity among staff.

As for special education, Harris noted that Montclair is still under review by the state for over-classifying African-American students into special education classes.

Resident Nicole Farjani questioned whether the budget needed to include $40,000 for a new attendance officer position, since the district already had people on staff who were checking on students’ residency.

Affordability

Amid the budget talk was a larger issue: anxiety over how Montclair’s high taxes are making the town less and less affordable for many families, thereby putting the town’s identity as a diverse community at risk.

Resident Selma Avdicevic said that in the time her family has lived in Montclair, her family’s tax bill has gone up by $1,000 a year in the last 10 years. She urged the board to try to come up with budget options that did not involve raising taxes by two percent. “You have to understand, besides the repercussions of not raising the budget, the repercussions of raising the budget two percent-plus,” she said.

“It’s not even a school district conversation,” Robinson said. She said she has watched as neighborhoods near her own became less and less affordable over the years.

“I view a bigger problem, and I’m not trying to go macro here, folks, but I think this state faces an affordability crisis,” Kavesh said. He said he was afraid of regionalized services, including what he called the “Glenmont Grove” solution. But, he said, New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in the United States, geographically. And the state has 565 municipalities, he said, virtually each of them with their own police force and school district.

Hertzog made an impassioned plea to the audience members – both physically present in the atrium and watching the televised link at home – to talk to elected officials. “Don’t talk to us. Talk to the governor. This governor campaigned on education. This governor campaigned on public education. This governor talked about free tuition for community college. How are we going to get our kids to community college if we can’t even afford books?”