By ERIN ROLL
There’s a number being bandied about as the Montclair school district comes close to approving its 2021-22 budget: 53.
That’s the number of staff positions represented by $3.7 million in salaries spending the district has cut since the first public presentation of its budget, in February.
Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea told those attending a March 29 Board of School Estimate hearing on the budget that the number is just a place-holder.
D’Andrea, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and personnel director Damen Cooper expect to meet with school principals over the next few weeks for “efficiency reviews” of staffing and schedules — a process Ponds has said would be completed April 12, a week after the Board of School Estimate’s final budget vote, on April 5. Ponds has also previously said the process will protect the district’s magnet program — in which students are paired with schools on an individual basis, instead of necessarily attending the schools closest to their homes.
In all, the number of staff cuts relative to the early presentation could be more or less than the 53 place-holders, depending on salaries for individual positions.
“Everyone’s focused on the 53. Everyone should be focused on the $3.7 million,” D’Andrea said. The 53 is based on an estimate of $70,000 per position.
The current budget version still spends $3.1 million more on salaries than the $81.8 million Montclair budgeted in 2020-2021.
But D’Andrea’s description of 53 as a hypothetical didn’t allay concerns of teachers or community members speaking at that March 29 meeting and elsewhere.
“Why would the leaders in this district, those who are entrusted with our tax dollars to care for our kids, decide that those very people should be slated for layoffs?” a group of educators referring to themselves as the “Montclair 250” — named for the approximately 250 Montclair Education Association members who live in town — wrote in a letter to Montclair Local. “Our children need people who know them and will connect with them. They need educators.”
The writers objected to the uncertainty — “ Where will these cuts, affecting every school, come from? Will they increase class size, lead to fewer electives, or strip special education services?” — and said a budget is often described as a list of values.
“What are our values when we propose cutting 53 people? These cuts have a ripple effect, from scheduling to class offerings to maintaining the integrity of our magnet system, which draws people to Montclair in the first place,” they wrote.
D’Andrea said at the March 29 meeting the cuts would be drawn from the district’s 1,100 staff, not just teachers. But Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams — a member of the Board of School Estimate — said with 53 positions amounting to an approximate 4.8% decrease in staffing, she wondered whether reductions could be made elsewhere to avoid cutting staff.
Ponds said the district does not intend to make “draconian” cuts, and that his goal was to make them so the district would not have to lay off 53 people.
Some board members and attending teachers asked why the budget included spending for outside consultants. D’Andrea said that’s for specific services that, for whatever reason, the district’s regular staff cannot perform. Ponds said contractors may include auditors, architects, occupational and physical therapists, specialists who conduct neurological and psychological evaluations, and consultants who conduct professional development sessions with staff.
As an example, D’Andrea said the district needed to bring in a specialist to do a specific kind of evaluation for a student with special needs. He said he could not provide more details, in order to maintain the student’s privacy.
But teachers in attendance at the meeting were still wary.
Elyse Hoffman, a teacher at Charles H. Bullock School, said that in districts that see large numbers of staff being cut, three conditions usually exist: a steep decline in student enrollment, a decrease in state aid and a bare-bones budget. None of those conditions exists in Montclair, she said, describing enrollment as fairly steady despite some families pulling their students from the public schools in the pandemic.
The district argued the opposite in a court filing during its recently settled dispute with the Montclair Education Association over returning to in-person learning, saying 459 students had disenrolled during the current school year, about 7% of the entire student body.
Hoffman said that it is not sound practice to approve layoffs without showing an analysis of how that would affect students.
“People are not place-holders,” she said.
She said that by using staff numbers as place-holders for reductions, it sends the message that they are not valued.
Cathy Kondreck, who teaches art at Glenfield Middle School, said she was worried about proposed decreases in spending for visual and performing arts. Instead, she urged the district to cut back on “overpaid” consultants and outside professional services.
The district is also anticipating some influxes of cash. It expects to receive $6.6 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. But the district hasn’t yet made decisions on how that money will be used, with officials citing the need for further guidance from the federal government on how it can be spent. That money won’t arrive until after the budget is finalized.
Montclair’s schools are also anticipating $2.2 million through the state’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II — again, not reflected in the current spending plan.
For the 2021-2022 school year, Montclair will receive $8,033,732 from the state, up from $7,894,013 for 2020-2021. Under the statewide funding formula, Montclair should receive $9,038,249 — but the state has underfunded schools relative to its own formula since it was put in place.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II was created under the CARES Act, to address learning loss and disruptions caused by prolonged school closures, and to address a return to normal learning and school operations.
Montclair intends to use about $950,000 of its Emergency Relief funds for technology, $150,000 for after-school programs, $150,000 for professional development, $145,000 for summer learning, $50,000 for assessment resources and $45,000 for mental-health programs, officials have said.
The budget anticipates a tax increase of $34.07 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. For the average home valued at $627,995, the school tax bill would go up by about $214, to about $10,910.