Montclair has adopted the budget for the 2017-2018 school year.
The Board of Education approved the $120 million budget during a three-hour meeting at the George Inness Annex Monday night. The budget will now go to the board of school estimate for review.
A number of parents in the audience at the budget adoption were unhappy with some of the proposed cuts, most notably the elimination of about 50 paraprofessional positions, for an estimated savings of $2 million.
Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi — who was presiding over his last meeting as superintendent that evening — repeatedly stressed to the board and the audience that he wished that he did not have to make the cuts and modifications that were being laid out in the budget.
“Believe me, this is painful,” Bolandi said at several moments during the budget presentation. He emphasized that there were several budget items that the district really wanted to keep. “But if we keep it all, we’re $6 million in the hole.”
The budget presentation started with the board presenting the slideshow that had been shown at the first budget talk, in February.
Some of the staff reductions had been modified since the last budget presentation, Bolandi said, due to some staff retirements. He told the district that going forward, should there be additional teacher and staff retirements, it should use the resulting savings to hire new staff. “The most important thing you can do is to put staff in front of the kids.”
Jim Zarrilli, who works as a teaching assistant, was among the audience members who got up to speak during the public comment period. “I thought the days of us speaking in front of you to defend our job security were over,” he told the board. He noted that his wife also works in the district as a paraprofessional.
“It’s no secret that our special needs students are among the most vulnerable in the district,” he said. “We are in the trenches with them, and yet it’s pencils, not common sense, that’s deciding what’s best for them.”
Zarrilli finished by asking the board to think of the paraprofessionals and their families, who would also be affected by staff cuts. “I implore you, please, that every para’s job you save is important to the para’s family, and to the students in the district.”
Another item of concern was a proposal to have Nishuane’s assistant principal work at several of the schools. The staff cuts include eliminating three dean positions at three of the elementary schools. But several parents doubted whether sharing an assistant principal among several different schools was a good idea from a financial or educational perspective.
Lynn Fedele said that Montclair’s budget situation was due in part to Montclair not receiving its full state aid allotment over the past eight years. “We should have that money to throw at problems,” she said during her turn at the microphone. She also thought it was distressing that the board was looking at cutting paraprofessional positions.
Eric Eder, a physical education teacher at Nishuane, told the board that his partner was facing the possibility of having her position in the schools cut. He added that there was a trend for the related arts — physical education, music, arts and so forth — to be targeted for cuts during the budget process.
James Harris, who is a member of the Montclair NAACP’s education committee, was next to speak. “Someone should have been watching and advising the board so we wouldn’t get into this mess,” he said of the district’s budget situation. He noted that he also had concerns about the special education situation, because special education classes tend to contain a disproportionately large number of African-American students, and that paraprofessionals are often where the greatest staff diversity is seen.
Harris went on to thank Bolandi and the board for their efforts toward improving diversity and targeting racism, but he said that there was still much more to be done in that regard.
Before the budget was passed, Board President Jessica De Koninck thanked all the audience members for their feedback, and for their understanding and patience during the budget process. She also noted that the parents had had the patience to sit through board meetings lasting until late in the evening.
Bolandi will step down from the district at the end of this week. Barbara Pinsak will be taking his place as interim superintendent until the end of the school year, as the BOE continues its search for a permanent superintendent.
De Koninck presented Bolandi with a copy of a resolution recognizing his service, and each of the board members took a moment to pay tribute to Bolandi.
“We are all only here temporarily,” de Koninck said. “We’re all interim.”