Cutting 31 teaching positions – 22 certificated teachers and nine positions through attrition – along with 34 paraprofessionals, was not because of a fiscal crisis, but because the district chose to be conservative with spending, union leadership said in a press release Friday.
District leaders announced in early May that they had to bridge a $5.5 million deficit in the 2023-24 budget.
“For weeks, we have been hearing that there is a budget deficit, and the district was left with no choice but to eliminate positions; however, we learned today that’s simply not true,” Cathy Kondreck, the Montclair Education association president, said in the release. “That narrative was just a cover for what can only be described as a deliberately austere budget.”
During a virtual meeting between the Montclair Education Association and district leaders Thursday – lasting 35 minutes – district administrators confirmed that they “chose not to take advantage of millions of dollars available to the district through conservative budgeting choices, such as significantly underestimating their extraordinary aid,” the MEA release says.
“We stand by our budget assessment,” the district said in a statement Friday. “We are supporting our schools to meet the needs of our students academically and with respect to the arts.”
The district received $3,630,513 in extraordinary aid – state aid available to the district for special education costs – for the 2021-22 school year. School districts apply for the aid at the end of each school year, looking for reimbursement for costs from that year. The 2022-23 estimate is $1.7 million, according to the 2023-24 budget. The proposed extraordinary aid to be received for the 2023-24 year is also $1.7 million.
In a budget presentation May 3, business administrator Christina Hunt explained that the district wanted “to be conservative with that number,” referring to the extraordinary aid estimation, because the reimbursement rate from the state was unknown.
According to a memo from the state Department of Education website, award notifications are sent out after the application closed May 26, and payments will be made during fiscal year 2024. Extraordinary aid allocations are released typically around August, the district told Montclair Local Friday.
“Given Montclair’s history of receiving extraordinary aid and its increasing special education population, it’s unfathomable that they chose to underbudget these costs by $2 million,” Kondreck said in the release. “While there’s no guarantee that we will receive the same amount of aid each year, our history has demonstrated otherwise. Even if the district had only allocated $1 million for these costs, it could have significantly reduced the number of positions they ‘needed’ to eliminate.”
According to a budget analysis referenced in the union release, the district did not utilize $1.1 million in “cap adjustment money” to offset increased healthcare costs, the union release says. The analysis was completed the New Jersey Education Association’s Research and Economic Services Division, utilizing the district’s audited 2021-2022 budget and the 2023-2024 approved budget, Kondreck said Friday.
Benefits for the 2023-24 year are budgeted at $25,440,986. During the 2022-23 school year, the benefits were budgeted at $23,430,673.
During the campaign for the $187.7 million bond referendum project to repair and upgrade Montclair schools, the district advertised taxpayer costs based on bonds sold at certain interest rates. Based on a 4.2% interest rate, the cost for the owners of an average home assessed at $628,952 would be $258 for the first two years.
But the bond sold at a lower rate of 3.52%, so the tax impact for an average homeowner is $199 for the first year and $209 for the second year. The rates mean the average homeowner in Montclair saves $108 over the first two years.
The decision to not use the funds is “a decision MEA finds puzzling, especially since Montclair residents were not fully charged what they anticipated to pay in the recently passed bond referendum,” the release says.
“While we are not suggesting that it is always appropriate to raise taxes, Montclair – like hundreds of other districts around the state – could have utilized these funds without going over the budget cap and without prompting a vote on the budget,” Kondreck said in the release.
The state permits public agencies, like school districts, to raise local property taxes by only up to 2%, unless they go to voters with a referendum.
The union has also sought budget documents from the district through the Open Public Records Act, not received the requested information and has secured legal counsel, the release says.
“The bottom line is that the district willfully chose to ignore a variety of built-in financial opportunities that could have provided much-needed monies to create a budget that frees us from this yearly cycle of staff and programmatic cuts,” Kondreck said in the release. “It’s unreasonable to expect this community to applaud any conservative fiscal measures if it’s both unnecessary and at the expense of Montclair’s students and staff.”
There are no additional meetings scheduled between union and district leadership, Kondreck told Montclair Local Friday.