The Montclair school district has decided to keep four part-time kindergarten paraprofessionals whose jobs were facing elimination due to an over-$2 million budget hole.

Superintendent Kendra Johnson made the announcement during the Board of School Estimate meeting at Montclair High School on March 25, in what was the board’s first discussion of the 2019-2020 budget.

The district had intended to replace the four part-time paraprofessionals with two full-time paraprofessionals, with an anticipated savings of $20,000. The two full-time paraprofessionals would have been eligible to receive benefits through the Affordable Care Act rather than through the district.

Also facing elimination were 10 teaching jobs and 10 full-time paraprofessional jobs. Both of those numbers have been revised. Now the district plans to eliminate six teaching jobs and nine paraprofessional jobs.

The new numbers reveal a tax levy of $118,382,105, up from $115,941,279 in 2018-2019. This accounts for 92.24 percent of the budget.

The district’s total state aid amount now stands at $8,105,632, which accounts for 6.32 percent of the budget.

For a household in Montclair with the average assessed value of $626,135, the school portion of the tax bill will be $10,529, an increase of $217, or 2.11 percent, from last year’s tax bill.

Staffing cuts

The nine full-time paraprofessionals work one-on-one with special needs children. Those children are now being transferred to a shared-model program, which the district said has the approval of the children’s families.

One staffer had resigned, which brought the number of paraprofessionals facing elimination down to nine, said Johnson.

To allow the part-time paraprofessionals to stay on, Johnson said the district had decided to make adjustments to supply-line expenditures in the central office.

As the budget is still a work in progress and cuts could be made elsewhere, the goal is ultimately for the nine full-time paraprofessionals to stay and be reassigned to other duties within the district, Johnson said. As an example, she said a paraprofessional whose student no longer required his or her services was recently reassigned to another school.

The proposal to cut paraprofessional jobs was heavily criticized by parents and teachers, who called the idea short-sighted and potentially detrimental.

At a Montclair Board of Education meeting, held just prior to the Board of School Estimate meeting, Charles H. Bullock School kindergarten paraprofessional Elaine Buttimore said she has given 19 years of loyal service to the district and its children. “And I now hope you can show me loyalty in return,” she said.

Members of the Board of School Estimate agreed paraprofessionals are important to the schools and the students.

“We really think paras are a really great bang for the buck, and I’ll take 10 paras over one administrator,” Councilman-at-Large Rich McMahon said.

First Ward Councilman Bill Hurlock said that in his seven years on the Board of School Estimate, it had been a usual trend in the schools to dismiss paraprofessionals in June, only to have to hire them back in September. It was a trend that the schools needed to get away from, he said. “It just seems very disruptive to me, it’s disruptive to the students, their families, the teachers, the paras, the paras’ families,” Hurlock said.

Montclair Education Association vice chair Tom Manos claimed the district has compliance issues due to not enough paraprofessionals to go around.

Johnson said there are times when a paraprofessional is absent and the school has no substitute to fill in. In those cases, she said, the school principal keeps a log of how much time with a paraprofessional a student is owed, and said that time must be made up under state law.

When skilled paraprofessionals jobs are cut, they end up leaving to find work in other districts, which means they won’t be available for rehire in September, MEA Chair Petal Robertson said.

“I think it’s important to keep them here because they are trained, and they are professionals, even though they are called paraprofessionals,” said Nicole Farjani, who works as a paraprofessional in Montclair.

Mayor Robert Jackson thanked the board members and school staff for all of their work, and acknowledged that the schools are facing difficult financial times.

“We have gotten this year, [a] two percent [increase in state aid], a little over two percent, and some of our good neighbors are in the 13 percent range,” he said. Montclair is reaching out to state-level legislators to see if there was any more money that could be sent to Montclair.

The next Board of School Estimate meetings are scheduled for April 1 and April 4.