By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair Public School District has issued 36 non-renewal notices to district staff members, more than half of whom are special education staff, according to Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson.
“The instructional staff members not offered contracts for the 2021-2022 school year was a direct result of budgetary restrictions,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local. “Although it is always a difficult decision to let staff go, we are charged with providing our community with a balanced budget and an excellent education for our students in Montclair.”
At an April 6 Board of Estimate meeting, Ponds announced 28 anticipated staff cuts — some from attrition, through retirements or 17 currently open positions. That number, officials had said though, was a moving target, after the district trimmed $3.7 million in salaries spending from the first presentation its 2021-22 budget along the way to an eventual adoption, to make up a shortfall.
At one point, the district had given a ballpark estimate it could cut 53 staffers — the figure of 28 followed further meetings among district leaders. There was no locked-in figure by the time Montclair’s Board of School Estimate gave its final approval to the budget.
The non-renewal notices were sent out during the evening of May 14 and came as a surprise to staff members and the MEA — who usually receive early notice of staff cuts from the district, Robertson said. A reduction of 36 is “a number you don’t see unless something drastic has happened in the district,” she said.
The staff cuts include special education staff, special education service providers and aides, several math educators and visual art teachers, general education teachers and building staff, according to a June 8 press release issued by the MEA. Seven of the cuts were at Montclair High School, Robertson told Montclair Local.
Ponds, in a reply to a message asking for a complete breakdown of staff cuts, didn’t provide one. Robertson has not yet provided a full breakdown either.
“We went an entire school year during a pandemic without a mental health coordinator and down a student assistance counselor in the high school, and yet, our decision is to cut another counselor from the high school,” Robertson said. This is very, very serious when we think about the lasting effects of this decision.”
Robertson echoed wording the MEA used in the prepared statement, saying the union believes “this is a decision, not a deficit.”
“The district has only offered ‘budget deficits’ as the rationale for these draconian cuts. However, the Montclair Public Schools are not in a financial deficit. The district has more than enough money coming in from tax revenues and federal grant monies to sustain its staffing and maintain programming,” the MEA wrote.
Staff members did not receive Rice notifications, legally mandated when their employment is to be discussed by the board, Robertson told Montclair Local.
“There was absolutely no heads up to the staff members that this was going to happen,” Robertson said. “That just speaks to the lack of rhyme or reason that we’re seeing with these reductions.”
Ponds told Montclair Local the district abided by “by all required laws and regulations with respect to any non-renewal of staff members.”
During a meeting with the MEA, Ponds said the district “wanted the option to recall those laid-off in the summer or afterward, if the district finds that they need them,” according to the MEA press release. That position by the district puts stress on staff who were already short staffed after two dozen positions were left open at the beginning of the school year, Robertson told Montclair Local.
“For the sheer purpose of self-preservation and protection for their families, those cut will seek employment elsewhere,” the MEA release said. “This means that highly qualified staff who are familiar with our students’ needs will no longer be available for rehire.”
Positions that have taken years to fill are being cut, Robertson told Montclair Local. In the past, a parent volunteer has filled in to do teaching when a staff spot remained unfilled, and these cuts will create even more gaps for students, she said.
“The consequences of these cuts will include limited support for our special education population, crowded classes for our students (physical education classes are already at approximately 40 students per class), a diminished visual arts program,” the MEA release said. “And for all of our students — but especially those of color — a lack of representation in their schools, as a significant amount of those cuts are people of color.”