Students and their parents demanded a solution to Montclair Public Schools’ budget cuts. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ/STAFF)

Dozens of local parents and public school students gathered on Tuesday, June 13, at the Montclair Municipal Building to demand that the township share some of its revenue with Montclair Public Schools.

The protesters urged township officials to help find a solution to the $5.5 million budget deficit facing Montclair Public Schools, which will require teacher cuts. The demonstrators’ suggested solution was that the township share the money it collects through “payments in lieu of taxes,” or PILOTs.

A little after 6:30 pm, the protesters started to show up and lined up outside the front steps of the main entrance of the building. They were holding signs with messages supporting funding for public schools.

Students from Montclair public schools and their parents made signs before protesting at the Municipal Building on Tuesday. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ/STAFF)

Save Montclair Schools, a group of local parents, organized the protest calling for PILOTs for Schools.

“We want the council to share its pilot revenue with schools,” said Mariana Horta, one of the parents who organized the rally and a resident of Montclair since 2015. “We want them to plug this $3 million and some deficit that they created by their actions.

“We just want them to pay up because it’s fair and it’s proper, and it’s a deficit they caused with their poor policymaking.”

Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo addressed the parents and students minutes after the rally started.

“PILOTs have to be dedicated to schools,” Russo said. ‘I’ve got all the material you sent me. I’m a teacher by background. So I know what you’re talking about.”

Around 7 p.m., most of the demonstrators entered the Municipal Building to take part in the Montclair Township Council meeting.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, many of the protesters packed the standing-room-only chambers and spoke in the two minutes allotted (a change from the usual three minutes allowed) addressing Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings and Russo. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager was absent.

Along with the parents, some of the students waited in line to address their concerns about losing some of their favorite teachers to budget cuts in the next academic year.

Max Martinez Shaffer, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Glenfield School, joined the rally. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ/STAFF)

Max Martinez Shaffer, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Glenfield School, shared his thoughts on solutions to help close the deficit.

“I urge the council to consider using a fair and effective percentage of PILOTs funds,” he said. “Other townships, such as Orange, Cedar Grove, and Jersey City, have used PILOT funds to help prevent budget disasters, such as the one we are facing now. I highly encourage you to rethink your funding decisions and remember our future is in your hands.”

Montclair’s adult residents, many holding signs, repeatedly stood up in groups to show their support for speakers. Some chanted, “Montclair is broken, no competence, no compassion.”

“The only one leading on the issue of pilots is Councilman Russo,” Josh Cohen said. “He’s actually going to introduce a resolution tonight. I want you to pay really close attention to who is going to vote for PILOTs. Peter Yacobellis, you talk a good game, but if you want to be mayor and you want to lead, then that should be a yes tonight.”

Addressing the mayor, Cohen continued: “Spiller should be a yes. You represent the New Jersey Education Association and you’re throwing teachers under the bus in Montclair? How do you do that?”

Deirdre Birmingham said that years of underfunding by the township had resulted in the district losing tremendous teacher talent.

Yana Robbins spoke of the impact that school budget cuts would have on theater and dance, a “big part of what makes this town special.”

Mayor Sean Spiller was accused of having a conflict of interest. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ/STAFF)

“It was highly inappropriate and a clear conflict of interest if I ever saw one for you to include NJEA officials and their questions in your emails arranging a meeting that was an opportunity to respond to the budget crisis that our district has faced for years now,” said resident Lani Somer-Padilla, who urged the council to share PILOTs revenue with the district. Somer-Padilla also called for Spiller to recuse himself from “all discussions and votes regarding the school budget.”

Spiller responded that he didn’t see a conflict.

“I will be working with every resource I have, including bringing in experts who do this in districts all over the state,” Spiller said. “I believe there is no conflict between parents and teachers in the community trying to make sure we save our students’ teachers.”

After public comment and near the very end of the meeting, Russo said he would read the resolution he had drafted regarding sharing PILOT revenue with the district.

“Aren’t we going to executive session,” Price Abrams asked.

“We’re not going to executive session yet,” Russo said. “I’m just going to read this and if nobody wants to second it, fine. I waited four hours for this.”

Russo then read a resolution proposing that effective January 2024, the township would authorize from any and all PILOTs and cannabis sale revenue the identical percentage that schools would have received from the appropriate tax levy had no PILOT been approved.

Russo’s resolution also stated that no further PILOTs would be approved without the schools receiving at least their fair share of taxes annually.

He asked for a second to move it on to the agenda, but none of his fellow councilors responded.

Yacobellis asked if the attorney could weigh in.

“There’s no dollar amount in here,” Yacobellis said. “So I don’t know that it’s even a legal thing to consider.”

Paul Burr, the acting township attorney, said that because he had received the resolution at a late hour, he had not had time to review it for legality.

Russo said he had sent it Monday night. Yacobellis questioned a note on the resolution that said “maybe cut or change this.”

“I’m just trying to point out that you are putting on a show,” Yacobellis said. “It’s just not serious.”

Russo said: “The schools need millions of dollars. Not just for right now, for the emergency we are in. The schools need a continual source of revenue. This is not a one shot thing.”

Yacobellis said: “Mayor, I’d like to make a motion to go into executive session.”

Cummings then seconded the motion and the council moved to executive session, cutting Russo off from speaking further about PILOTs.

Residents crowded into the council chambers on Tuesday, June 13. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ/STAFF)

— Maria Monica Fernandez/Liz George for Montclair Local

17 replies on “Montclair Parents, Students Urge Council to Help with School District’s Budget”

  1. Sincere question – I totally understand where a Conflict would arise if the NJEA popped in, said “Do this”, and Spiller voted on it. But where’s the conflict right now in bringing them to a meeting? If Peter asked them to get involved, would the meeting be a conflict? ((Note: If it was a NJEA sponsored solution, yes, Spiller should recuse from a vote, but that’s so far away))

    Folks are pointing to other towns in terms of how to handle PILOT funds.
    It seems like the NJEA would at least have the context to advise how other towns are dealing with the problem of budget increase caps not matching actual.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think the NJEA has anything to gain here (since they wouldn’t be gaining or losing jobs either way?)? I may be completely naïve, or just ill-informed, I’m happy to be educated.

    The clock is ticking – let’s get anyone that may have an idea in the room. Even if the meeting only generates one idea, and people want to have another meeting without the NJEA, you still kept the same timeline you’re already on, and got an idea out of it.

    Residents have proposed ~3 million in transferred revenue (which, in year 1, is difficult, since most of that money is already spent), and still would have to make the cuts elsewhere to offset the loss.

    There appears to be 2-4 millions dollars in the school finances that could be improved, beyond simple budget cuts, and then additional savings with breakage coming up – but that’s late and keeps teachers in the lurch.

  2. I have a few questions that may seem naive but here goes.
    If money from PILOT goes to the schools does that mean the town has to cut other services or raise taxes to make up the budget shortfall from the reallocation of PILOT money? (robbing Peter to pay Paul)
    What is the student/teacher ratio and is a staff reduction not only due to finances but due to reduced need?
    How many students are non-residents illegally registered in MPS? What is that cost? (I have feeling the number is quite large but the the school system has no incentive to enforce because even more staff cuts would be warranted)
    Lastly, how did we get in this situation? Clearly for political reasons and to appease certain voting blocks prudent decisions have been kicked down the road.
    Frank, My decoder is ring is back from the repair shop. I am counting on you!

  3. @flipside,

    As you will recall I voted for the $188MM bond referendum*. I did so for four reasons: 1) the buildings were deficient to the point repairs exceeded the replacement costs, 2) we had this amazing generation of diverse parents/caregivers who had just snatched direct charge of, and taken full accountability for the BoE’s performance – from the Council, 3) the promise the school levy for ongoing operations would be held to 2%, 4) that any significant changes in funding needs would be brought to a referendum.

    The deal, this community compact, was wrapped up with with a clear, bottomline bill due each of us.

    And because of cynics like me who knew the compromised objectivity & the unreliable past performance of parents, they developed this award-winning web site to publish the facts. Published the promises. Published the expectations. So, I said let’s do this and watch the parents embarrass themselves. And now they have. Now it is the tight-knit group of usual suspects making the rounds. Same jaundiced set of numbers. The same self-serving, superficial analysis. The considerable care to not say they shouldn’t have to pay more taxes along with everyone else. No, they want other people to have their services cut instead. They want to use other people’s money. And best of all, they carry on like children – just feet from 8-10 year olds and adding to their high levels of anxiety – demanding not just help for their mistakes, but demanding it NOW. They wanted an organization they kicked to the curb to step in, take money from other constituents to remdey their widespread failure in a matter of days and weeks. I don’t know what world they grew up in. I seriously don’t know.
    It is always someone else’s fault.

    yes, they are robbing Peter, insulting him, and instructing him how to live a proper life while they take the money….NOW. And the best part of the PILOT money? Those residents’ dwellings are tax-exempt! Wait until the parents figure that one out this Summer or Fall. .

    In addition, there was the carry over promise of the transformative, transparent budget planning and control that would start 9 months ahead of introduction, with regular in-year status reporting and timely corrective steps. That this generation of utterly amazing’ stakeholders would be in the best shape ever for the annual Running of the BS Budget.


    * You will recall I said let’s vote to schedule out the full $300MM to avoid all the ignorance during the twilight years of Type 1 existence.

  4. Flipside: Re: Pilots – Yes.
    Additionally, the municipal budget is Jan-December, which means it’s roughly half spent (yes there are seasonal expenses so some months may be cheaper/more expensive, but 5.5 months have been paid), so assume half that money has alreay been spent. That’s why some folks don’t want to start the pilot redistribution until ’24. It’s a logical position, and whether folks agree or disagree all depends on their over all position. For example, some folks are more than happy to cut the fire budget, and then you don’t need to worry about the shortfall. But yes, you need to make accounting changes if you’re diverting that money this year, and you need to make up the shortfall next year if the plan was to use those funds elsewhere.

    Not well versed enough in the other topics to answer. I know Frank has feedback because I’ve seen his name pop up in comments from way back in 2016 re: school funding/BOE/etc.

  5. Thanks for answering some of my questions. The only solutions I can think of would be to ignore all the static and take the bull by the horns. Come up with a staffing number with a reasonable student/ teacher ratio. Come up with reasonable administration cuts. Strictly enforce student residency. Come up with a formula where apartment dwellers with children in the school system pay some sort of assessment since their tax dollars are minuscule compared to the benefit they receive. Everyone always screams about paying their fair share, don’t they? To take it a step further, I realize a strong school system benefits RE values but there needs to more accountability. Throwing money at problems is not the answer. How about a BOE that is half parents of school age children and half old curmudgeons like Frank to make them pinch pennies. BTW, Frank is it true that you pay the neighbor’s kid only a quarter to cut your lawn? That’s what I’m talking about!

  6. Frank,
    You are dead on! The residents voted for this and now they’re in this mess! They were better off staying with the former way, but were pissed at Spiller. Better start fundraising!!

    So you want to assess tenants living in an apartment building even though they are paying high rents?

    Is anyone questioning why the budget is so high to begin with? The state is saying it should only cost roughly 110 million for run the district. The BofE needs help with their financing and the town should not be responsible. This is what the majority of the residents wanted, DEMAND the BofE to be more financial responsible!

  7. I just want some parents overseeing whose word actually counts for something AND they get it through their heads that 60% of taxpayers have full & demanding lives, some with two jobs, some on fixed incomes (unlike many in their peak earning & family making years) without managing children through the schools system. Parents move here for above average schools and the didn’t come with an Entitlement permit. They need to grow up. NOW!
    And this is exactly why the suburban social compact is when you age out, it is time to move along to other senior pastures. This is the harsh reality of Montclair. It giveth and it taketh…and time flies by fast.

  8. Get it straight,
    What does “high” rent have to do with anything? There is no such thing as high rent, only market rate rent. Part of the reason rents are “high” is because you can jam a couple kids in an apartment and get the Montclair School system. Of course the taxes on apartment building and multi-family houses could be raised dramatically. In that case rents would stay the same or increase a bit but property owners would make less money and the school system would get more. For some reason Montclair assesses multi-family dwellings way under where single family dwellings are assessed.

  9. Flipside – The town is already increasing the municipal tax levy PLUS spending the PILOT funds over that and then bragging how they are keeping taxes in check. If these PILOT properties were paying taxes instead of PILOTs their assessments would be part of the general levy and the school, municipal and county portion of your taxes would all be lower – because the overall town valuation would be higher so the tax rate everyone in town pays would be lower.

    The PILOT is an end run around the tax levy cap. It allows the municipal government to raise taxes to the max of the cap and spend more because PILOT funds are considered additional revenue. This is smoke and mirrors. Not the the TC being wise and frugal with your money.

    What would the municipal budget deficit be or what new spending would they need to forego if they had to live within the cap just like they are asking the school district to do? Also what happens when these PILOTS expire and these properties are just part of the general tax levy? Will there be a budget crisis then with the loss of the additional “revenue”? Am guessing no one is gonna worry about that because it’s years away and thus someone else’s “problem”.

  10. Mostly right.

    About $1.5MM. Maybe less if I ever understood using our cap bank.

    The State worried already and there is a transitional declining payment structure in PILOTs starting, as I recall, 5 years prior to termination date.

    You should read the financial agreements for Seymour.

    Also, PILOT agreements are typically only for the improvements, not the property. I always get confused about the minimum library tax is above and beyond because it uses a mil rate.

    But, my two absolute all-time favorite wrinkles in Montclair is 1) the Montclair Center Corp still gets to assess tax exempt redevelopment area improvements and 2) the Council dangled a tax abatement offer to the Bellvue Theater to reopen. Movie theaters were the parents priorities back then.

  11. Gator,

    The council can vote to renew the PILOTS when they are about to expire. There are 13 PILOTS what I can see from the budget. 6 of the properties are affordable income, if the town was to raise them, they would no longer be able to stay affordable income housing. Even if the town gave 25% or even 50% to the schools they would still have a deficit. The BofE needs to curb their spending. Instead of the residents begging for money from the council, they should be going to the BofE and demand to see the books! They have a history of bad financing. Again they wanted this change now deal with it! Bring back the bake sales!

  12. GetItStraight:
    One of the citizens (Deirdre Malloy, apologies if I spelled that wrong) making comments during the meeting actually suggested that the BOE needs to look at the books (specifically, the BOE needs to revisit its budget practices). And someone from the crowd actually HISSED at them (1:12:40 timestamp), along with eyerolls from some of the usual suspects in the crowd.

  13. All in on any action that results in Russo speaking less. Only decent thing Cummings has done all year.

  14. I can only envision how those protesting parents will explain to their children, the children they put before the Council and along the street, how their supposed partner just pulled the rug out from under their entire, deeply flawed case.

    And you have lived in town just how long and you didn’t see this one coming? More than 5 years? And you are speechless? Seriously? Their President is our Mayor. Do you need instructions going forward?

    I think these parents should get 2 weekends of detention to dwell on their choices and get further tutoring on local history. Maybe they will get a realistic appreciation of the quality of the MPS. And I don’t care what you say to children. It was a learning moment!

  15. And the bestest of all? Montclair taxpayers (but not residents of PILOT dwellings) may get ANOTHER lawsuit! By the teachers who swear they put our kiddies first! What amazing times we are living through.

  16. There are two things that will never happen to resolve this problem.
    1) The parents that parade their kids in front of the council will never voluntarily donate to a fund to keep the teachers.
    2) The teachers will never take a pay cut.
    Yup, it for the kids….until you have to use your own money. Someone is going to feel a pinch. Most likely everyone.

  17. Rya,

    Loved Miss Mallory’s comment, “ I’m not the one to hiss at” and also calling out June Reagner! She’s right BofE needs better financial practices.

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