Montclair school officials are looking to scale back their plans for salary spending in 2021-22 by about $3.7 million, even as the district anticipates a tax increase amounting to hundreds of dollars per year for a typical home.

A version of the 2021-22 school budget presented and adopted by the Board of Education on Wednesday, March 3, reduces salaries spending by $3.7 million and benefits spending by $1 million from a draft presented just two weeks earlier, on Feb. 17. 

But it’s not clear what that might mean for staffing levels. Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea didn’t say in his presentation, which still has Montclair spending $84.9 million on salaries — $3.1 million more than the $81.8 million Montclair budgeted in 2020-2021.

One major factor in the salary growth year-over-year: The district is anticipating spending $8.5 million on salaries for its resource rooms, up about a half-million dollars from adjusted spending for 2020-21. And resource room spending 2020-21, in turn, was about $434,000 higher than the year prior to that.

In 2020-21, health benefits accounted for $16.7 million and other benefits accounted for about $5 million, for a combined $21.7 million. In 2021-22, the district is now expecting to spend $23.4 million, even after the recent revisions.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and D’Andrea haven’t returned messages seeking more elaboration.

The nearly $135.8 million budget — down slightly from 2020-21’s $136.3 million —  next goes to the Essex County superintendent of schools for review, then to Montclair’s Board of School Estimate for further hearings and to set a final tax rate. A final version is expected to be adopted in April. 

As drafted, the budget anticipates a tax increase of $34.07 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. For the average home valued at $627,995, the school tax bill would go up by about $214, to about $10,910. 

The cuts to anticipated salaries and benefits chip away at what district officials said two weeks ago was a roughly $6 million deficit in their spending plan. The district is now slated to get about $8 million in state aid under Gov. Phil Murphy’s own proposed budget (still subject to review by the state Legislature) — $1 million less than the $9 million the district used as a place-holder in the earlier version of the plan, based on an aid formula the state routinely underfunds.

The state aid award is still about 4.37% larger than Montclair received in 2020-21.

The district also cut $1.3 million for “administrative adjustments to overtime and non-salary accounts,” compared to the Feb. 17 version of the budget — including nearly $789,000 in technology spending. The category also includes $200,000 less for long-term substitutes, $246,000 less for improvements meant to provide energy savings, and several smaller adjustments.

It also scaled back another $26,000 through salary adjustments per personnel reports. With those changes, it zeroed out its anticipated deficit. 

Cathy Kondreck, the vice chair of the Montclair Education Association, said at the meeting the district has a deficit every year, and complained that somehow district officials fail to anticipate it. 

“How does the $6 million deficit sneak up on us every year like clockwork?” she asked. Last year, when the district first presented a draft of its 2020-21 budget, it started with a shortfall of $7.5 million.

Kondreck added that the district, for the last several years, has laid off teachers and other staff at the end of the school year in order to meet a budget gap, only to have to hire them back the following school year because of staff shortages. 

The Montclair Education Association hasn’t responded to a message seeking comment on the reduced salary expenditure. 

The budget as approved on March 3 includes a $123 million tax levy — up from last year’s  $120.6 million, the most growth allowed year-over-year under the state-mandated cap. That accounts for more than 90% of anticipated revenues, and the state aid for another 6 percent.  The other revenues come from a variety of sources, including tuition, rental fees, extraordinary aid, maintenance reserve funds, money from the district’s fund balance and Special Education Medicaid Initiative aid. 

Tuition revenue increased slightly, to about $6.2 million in the revised version. Plant operations dropped from $6 million to $5.75 million. The latest budget presentation now details two budget categories that were not discussed in the earlier version: student support services, at $2.9 million, and instructional supplies and textbooks, at $2 million

Other changes from 2020-21

The proposed budget also makes several adjustments compared to adjusted 2020-21 spending:

  • Spending on textbooks would drop more than $108,000, to about $234,000.
  • Autism spending is up by nearly $38,000, to more than $581,000. 
  • Home instruction would rise from $112,751 to $175,000.
  • Special education instruction would rise from $10.8 million to $11.4 million.
  • Spending for summer school would more than double, from about $40,055 to $103,000.
  • The district is planning to purchase more technical services, at a cost of $229,000, up from $161,000.
  • Custodial services would go from $6.8 million to $7.5 million, after making a similarly sized jump from 2019-20 to 2020-21. 
  • Security costs would rise nearly $100,000, to a little under $1.1 million.
  • Various student transportation services would collectively jump from about $6.5 million to $7.2 million, after nearly holding steady from 2019-20 to 2020-21. More than $800,000 is due to contract services for special education students, but the district anticipates savings in other areas. 
  • The amount of funds being transferred to charter schools would more than double, from about $19,000 to about $51,000.

Montclair's 2021-22 Preliminary School Budget by Louis C. Hochman on Scribd