By ERIN ROLL
The Montclair Education Association is questioning the Board of Education’s claim of a $2.2 million budget hole for the 2019-2020 school year. A recent New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) audit of Montclair’s school budget found that the district had a $3.8 million surplus overall, contends MEA members.
The NJEA used the BOE’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report from January to compile its audit, said MEA Vice Chair Tom Manos.
“So these are your numbers. We just analyzed them,” he told the board on March 18.
MEA Chair Petal Robertson said the budget misrepresents the funds that are actually available. Specifically, Robertson said, the audit found a $1.5 million surplus, $4.1 million in unspent funds, an average of $450,000 a year in unrestricted funds and $1 million in special education aid.
The surplus money is proof that the district had the financial means to retain staff, she said.
“There has been no intentional design to hide money. My stance has always been, and will always be transparent and honest, whether it’s in private or in a group,” Superintendent Kendra Johnson said. “Because that’s not the information that we have in front of us.”
Although Robinson told the audience on March 18 the audit was available to the public, a request for a copy by Montclair Local was denied.
According to the audit, Montclair had $3.8 million in surplus at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. The district had budgeted for $2.4 million in surplus money at the start of the 2018-2019 school year, said teacher Anne Baney.
“Simply put, you started this school year with $1.2 million extra,” she told the board. “Where did it go? How was that money spent?”
Over the last decade, the district has historically brought in more revenue than it budgeted for on an average of $1.5 million a year, Baney said.
“For 2019-20 we have increased our Fund Balance Allocation for Tax Relief to $1,000,000 from $500,000 in 2018-19. The increase in the amount for encumbrances are for goods/services that are committed at year end that have not been received as of June 30,” Johnson told Montclair Local.
Actual revenue includes state aid, local taxes, grants, federal aid, entitlements and employee health care contributions. The district spent $1.4 million less than received in revenue according to the audit, said Greg Woodruff, a teacher at Montclair High School.
He claims the district had $4.1 million at the start of this school year.
“It doubles what is in the budget hole,” he told the board.
Unrestricted miscellaneous revenue is what the district receives that can go to any line item the BOE chooses, said teacher Margaret Saraco. She pointed to historic data spanning 11 years in which the district received $457,000 on average more than budget for in unrestricted funds She questioned the budgeting of these funds for $184,000 in 2017-18 and $175,000 for 2018-19.
“By under budgeting [this item] you are essentially giving yourselves more money to play with,” she said calling it misleading and not transparent.
Johnson told Montclair Local in the last two years the budget reflected an increase in revenue from Interest on Investments. For the 2019-20 school year, the budget shows an increase of $535,000 to account for the additional revenue from interest. However, the district is anticipating less revenue from tuition due to removing the Before/After Care program from the operating budget, she said.
The district does not receive extraordinary aid funds until the end of the year, however teacher Karen Tripucka pointed to the receipt of funds that are growing every year. The BOE still budgets for $400,000, the same as in 2014-15, but last year received $1 million more than budgeted for, she said.
After the meeting, Johnson concurred that the district received $1,354,551 above the amount budgeted.
“The five year analysis reflects that we are trending towards getting more aid than in prior years but we are cautious to increase this amount until we have more consistency in the funding,” she said.
The 2019-20 budget now reflects a $500,000 amount.
Robertson questioned why a budget with a deficit would include funding for new alternative school programs, such as the Gateway program, and a new position for a dean of climate and culture.
“It’s because the district knows it’s sitting on a healthy surplus,” she said.