After about 100 students, parents and staff shared their thoughts about the Montclair school districts’s 2023-24 budget Monday night, the Board of Education approved the document.
In the meeting that lasted more than seven hours, the speakers shared support for teachers fired from the district, questioned why the cuts most affected schools in the town’s southern half – located in the 07042 area code – and emphasized the need to seek school funding from the township.
To balance a $5.5 million deficit in the budget, the Montclair school district cut 31 teaching positions – 22 certificated teachers and nine positions through attrition – along with 34 paraprofessionals employed by the district. The district will also not renew a contract that provided an additional 39 paraprofessionals during the 2022-23 school year.
At Montclair High School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with two additional cuts through attrition; at Glenfield Middle School, eight certificated teachers will be cut, along with three additional cuts through attrition; at Hillside School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with three additional cuts through attrition; at Nishuane School, five certificated teachers will be cut; and at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with one additional cut through attrition.
The teacher cuts include arts positions, foreign language positions, physical education positions, math instruction positions, special education positions and more. There are also $635,000 in cuts to salaries and benefits in Central Office.
All but one of the present board members voted in support of the budget, with board member Eric Scherzer choosing to abstain. Board member Kathryn Weller-Demming was absent from the meeting.
If the board did not approve the budget at the Monday meeting, the county would assume responsibility for budget approval, deciding the fate of Montclair’s many beloved programs and teachers. And with a district budget nearly $24 million above what the state deems adequate, cuts by the county could be extensive.
Not approving the budget Monday would have been “a nuclear button that would put kids and staff right in the blast radius,” board member Brian Fleischer said.
“They don’t care about the magnet system, they don’t care about courtesy busing medical system,” Fleischer said. “They don’t care about anything that is beyond adequacy and what the state mandates.”
At the meeting, dozens of students argued for their favorite teachers to be offered their positions back in the district.
Hillside’s theater teacher John Poff taught student Maayan Vaknin to be creative, confident and passionate, Vaknin said.
Hillside’s dance teacher Trisha Kelly is “a splendid teacher for many different reasons,” Hillside student Noah Akinyemi said.
Not only is Glenfield math teacher Jennifer Brna “a great and kind teacher” who is good at differentiating learning for students, she also greets the middle schoolers each morning and says goodbye at the end of each day, Glenfield student Chloe Fulco said.
Glenfield Spanish teacher Miosotty Martinez has taught her students greetings and goodbyes, days and months of the year, and helped student Max Shaffer so he can speak more Spanish at home with his family, he said.
Nicholas Santangelo, a Montclair High School guidance counselor, supported senior Ella Loscalzo when she struggled with depression, and served as her biggest advocate in helping her graduate, Loscalzo said.
“You are choosing to take away someone who has been a steadfast advocate, unwavering resource and ally to students in every way,” Loscalzo said. “You are only making it worse for others in the future that may have struggles the same as I did.”
Many also pointed out that the cuts were only happening at schools located in Montclair’s South Side – in the 07042 ZIP code – and in the same schools that have historically been underfunded. Glenfield and Hillside are slated to receive the largest amounts of funding in the bond referendum work, after Montclair High School.
The cuts were based on enrollment at each school and looking at where efficiencies could be found, district leaders have said. And with enrollment down by 611 students between 2019 and 2022, it does not make fiscal sense to retain the same staff levels, they say.
But the disparities between the middle schools are “alarming,” Kiss Turner, a Montclair High School student, said at the meeting.
“You think that these kids aren’t asking questions?” Turner said. “Why is my school’s basement flooded and crumbling around me? Why is my leadership constantly changing? And why can I not form a lasting relationship with teachers because there’s a new one every five months?”
Turner used to pass by Buzz Aldrin Middle School each day while walking to elementary school and wondered why the school seemed to receive more support.
“Why do they have fresh linoleum? Why do they have AC?” said Turner, who attended Glenfield. “Why was my first day of middle school cut short? Because our school had no air conditioning and you can’t have kids in a building when it’s over 98 degrees.”
And the inequities in the district’s schools are only getting worse, Turner said.
“We have lifelong Montclair residents whose parents were there for the integration of Montclair,’ Turner said. “Well, now you’re here for the resegregation of Montclair. Now you’re here for the re-red lining of Montclair.”
Speakers, including union members, also said the cuts to these schools threaten what makes them and the Montclair school district so special – the magnet system.
“Losing our full-time drama teacher at Hillside is going to mean a big loss for that school as the gifted and talented magnet,” student Veda Kueneman said. “It feels like you’re trying to strip our school of our magnet. It just doesn’t make sense or add up.”
The magnet program is what sets Montclair apart from neighboring towns, Hillside parent Jamie Smith said.
“Gutting our magnet drama, dance and art is the equivalent of gutting what makes Montclair Montclair,” Smith said.
The district’s struggle to make ends meet each budget season is in large part a result of factors outside the control of the board or administrators. The district can increase the budget by only 2% each year, and with relatively stagnant state funding and costs that increase each year at a rate beyond 2%, the deficit continues to grow.
It’s a “mathematical problem that is not going to be solved tonight,” board president Allison Silverstein said Monday.
“The student voice is going to be heard so that maybe people outside of this building will hear you and understand the problem that we face is not something that this board has caused or this district has caused, but people outside of this building cause year after year,” Silverstein said.
Board members, administrators, union members, parents and students said at the Monday meeting that they plan to advocate for funding from the township. The district should get a cut of the payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, that the township receives from developers, they said.
A Change.org petition, started by parent Lani Sommer-Padilla on Sunday night, asks Montclair Township Council members to use PILOT funds to support the district. As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the petition had 980 signatures.
The district supporters plan to speak at the Township Council meeting on Tuesday, May 16, during a public hearing for the 2023 municipal budget.