By Sergio González
The passage of a 2023-24 budget by the Board of Education, which included significant job cuts, has left even some longtime residents wondering what is going on with a school district that has long been a source of pride and a draw for new arrivals. The district has provided a helpful FAQ on the crisis, the local media are on it, and some engaged parents and residents have created online forums and chat groups to fill in the gaps. But the resulting spray of information can sometimes obscure longer-term structural issues that for various reasons are not adequately discussed in public. Among them are the following.
Budget-season layoffs are a recurring, and mostly preventable, problem. The sending out of nonrenewal notices to nontenured teachers at the close of the school year is nothing new, and is largely due to a communication gap. We see this happen every year when the community is made aware of the nonrenewals and many of these nonrenewed teachers end up getting offers before the new school year. But it is worse than just an annual drama. The practice of “last in first out” (LIFO) baked into the district’s (and mostly statewide) labor agreements means little choice in who gets let go.
These are traumatic events that impact not only the children as they become privy to the possibility of losing their favorite teachers, but also the very people that we entrust with helping us grow, nurture and educate our children. It is a practice that needs to stop immediately so we collectively stop harming LIFO educators and their families. I implore the Montclair Education Association to work with the Board of Education to make a change now and protect the LIFO members. This is preventable and unacceptable. The MEA should be working with the district to inform in a timely fashion of upcoming retirees so that they can better protect the members that are “last in,” because they don’t have to be “first out.”
The budget hole this year is bigger, and for reasons of basic math. It may yet turn out that there are enough retirements to cover most of the positions being eliminated. But the underlying math of the district’s budget has long made difficult choices inevitable. State law essentially mandates a 2% cap on the growth in annual operating expenses. Personnel costs, which represent the majority of annual operating expenses without even taking account of faster-rising benefits, are currently contracted to exceed the cap by at least 50%. While state law mandates a 2% cap on operating expense budgets, the BOE has had to continually find ways to cover deficits as they arise. And after years of shuffling reserves to cover budget deficits we have now run out of easy options. If the Board of Education and Superintendent Jonathan Ponds can be faulted for anything, it is in not ringing the alarm bells more loudly.
One-time pandemic-related federal aid offered a temporary high. A quick glance through the adopted 2023-24 budget reveals millions in grants from the American Rescue Plan stimulus package in 2021 and 2022. Some of this money may have been used to fill teaching positions. According to district figures, teaching staff hovered in the range of 568-585 in the decade up to 2022, and then jumped to well over over 600. Now this windfall source of funding is largely gone.
While costs went up, enrollment went down. In part because of the long closure of the district to in-person instruction during the pandemic, the MPS lost more than 600 students between 2019 and 2022. This figure – almost 10% of enrollment – is equivalent to Buzz Aldrin Middle School or the population of Northeast and Renaissance combined. Because of the recent runup in the budget (Exhibit J-17) in part due to the pandemic rescue funds, the cost per pupil has jumped dramatically in recent years. Any discussion of budgets needs to center these realities.
Staff utilization needs to be continuously optimized. Recent scrutiny has rightly been placed on the size and allocation of staff in municipal departments, like the police and fire departments. Similarly, Montclair Public Schools is actively ensuring that teachers are deployed effectively in classrooms. For the first time as far as I can tell, the pupil-teacher ratio was under 10:1 in the elementary and middle schools, and roughly 12:1 for the high school in 2022. While this is something I would normally applaud, in this budgetary scenario it is untenable.
Chasing away superintendents is a traditional, and devastating, local practice. As with delayed retirements, Montclair has a habit of hiring and then summarily ejecting superintendents, meaning that just three years into his five-year contract Dr. Jonathan Ponds is among the longest-tenured MPS superintendents in the recent history of the district, which saw six superintendents between the departure of Dr. Frank Alvarez in 2012 and the appointment of Dr. Ponds in 2020. While parents and other stakeholders should not shy away from offering Dr. Ponds constructive criticism, kicking him to the curb would be yet another signal to administrative talent to steer clear of the MPS.
Our township government isn’t a savior. Currently, there are some hopes that the township can help bridge the gap in the district’s operating budget, either in the long or short run, for example by redirecting a significant portion of the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) tax abatement programs the township negotiates with developers of certain new properties. But there is no indication that this council has the will to do so in any meaningful way.
Meanwhile, some on the council, including Mayor Sean Spiller, have suggested that the district’s finances were better off when the council exercised control over the system’s finances via the Board of School Estimate, which was dissolved following the conversion from a mayoral-appointed Board of Education to one elected by the voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under council control the system was starved of money for improvements, and even basic maintenance, while maximizing payroll. This unsustainable situation was finally addressed with a $187 million bond issue for capital spending overwhelmingly approved by voters last November. The issue then was dealing with a long-term mess created by the council involving the schools’ capital budget. The issue now is dealing with a similar long-term mess involving the operating budget, while the township government is mired in an expanding and dire web of scandals, including some that the judge overseeing the current CFO harassment case last week warned may result in criminal indictments.
No one is going to save us but ourselves. Just as the township council is unlikely to ride in to the rescue, as a relatively affluent community Montclair shouldn’t expect much from the county, state or federal governments. Instead, the current situation will at some point almost certainly require a referendum asking local voters to modestly raise the tax levy on which future budgets will be calculated, adjusted for any contributions from the council and other new sources.
On one level, the 2% levy growth cap that triggered the current situation is a fiction; for the past two years this 2% has been less than half the inflation rate, meaning that in real terms it actually represents a decline. Still, any increase in spending will invariably raise the tax burden on residents, further threatening the township’s diversity. Therefore, it is up to the district and its leaders, including the MEA, to first do their utmost to offer greater efficiency, accountability and transparency, aligned with Montclair values. We need to stop the brinkmanship and see the MEA work with its members to inform the Board of Education and superintendent in a timely fashion on retirees, so that painful nonrenewals can be avoided. And while it should not need to be said, while our children have been left wondering what is going on with the most important community in their lives, now is not the time for personal drama among adults.
In these challenging times, we must rally together as a community to find sustainable solutions for the schools that are for many of us what brought us here in the first place. We must continue to hold our leaders accountable, support our educators, and make the necessary decisions to secure a brighter future for Montclair’s students.
Sergio González was an appointed member of the Montclair Board of Education and a leader of the referendum campaign that transformed the BOE to an elected body independent of Montclair Township Council control.