To balance a $5.5 million deficit in the budget, the Montclair school district will cut 31 teaching positions and dozens of paraprofessionals – cuts that union leaders are calling “draconian.”

At Montclair High School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with two additional cuts through attrition; at Glenfield Middle School, eight certificated teachers will be cut, along with three additional cuts through attrition; at Hillside School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with three additional cuts through attrition; at Nishuane School, five certificated teachers will be cut; and at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, three certificated teachers will be cut, along with one additional cut through attrition.

The staff cuts include at least three foreign language positions, two physical education positions and six special education positions, according to a Montclair Education Association press release.

On Monday, David Cantor, the district's executive director of communications and community engagement, said 34 paraprofessionals would be included in the cuts, none of which are required to meet Individualized Education Plans or work in kindergarten classes.

In its Sunday press release, the Montclair Education Association announced 73 paraprofessionals were being cut. Union leaders did not immediately respond to questions sent Monday asking where that number came from.

There will be also be $635,000 in cuts to salaries and benefits from Central Office, Cantor said.

No programs — related arts classes and electives — will be cut, Cantor said. But in some instances, schools will share an instructor, which means there may be fewer meetings of the class in each school.

In a letter to the editor, board president Allison Silverstein says the budget cuts are necessary and a result of decreasing enrollment.

"What many may not be aware of is, according to the recent audit, student enrollment in Montclair decreased by 611 between 2019 and 2022," Silverstein said in the letter. "No one ever wants to decrease staff, but it is not fiscally responsible to employ more staff in 2022 than in 2019 when we have 9 percent fewer students."

On Monday night, the Montclair Board of Education will vote to approve the budget and certify the tax levy. If the budget is not passed, "the door is opened to the state to make its own determinations about what should be cut from the budget," Cantor said.

"We don't want to see this happen: the district budget is nearly $24 million above what the state deems adequate for Montclair schools," Cantor said.

The 2023-24 general fund levy is $128,008,540, while the state says $104,219,279 would be adequate to run the district schools, Cantor said.

Last spring, the district had to resolve a $3 million budget deficit, and the district issued 83 nonrenewal letters to district staff – 48 to paraprofessionals and 35 to teachers. The cuts received backlash from the Montclair Education Association and families, concerned about how the cuts would affect learning in the district.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds accompanied the announcement of those staff cuts with news that he planned to hire back some of the staffers before the school year. And by fall 2023, every teacher issued a nonrenewal notice had received a new offer from the district, but many had already accepted jobs elsewhere, said Cathy Kondreck, union president.

But this year, that has not been the case, Kondreck told Montclair Local.

“There is no expectation of the people getting rehired, at least as far as the certificated staff is concerned,” Kondreck said. “That has not been the feeling we have been given.”

At a March 20 board meeting, administrators announced they were working to make up a more than $7.5 million deficit in the preliminary 2023-24 budget. In a May 3 public hearing for the budget, district administrators announced they had reduced the deficit to $5.5 million.

At the hearing, district leaders said they were looking at areas for additional budget reductions, specifically in the central office, the pupil services department and schools that need to enhance efficiencies – Montclair High School, Glenfield Middle School, Renaissance at Rand Middle School, Hillside School and Nishuane School – while also considering attrition.

The formal budget process began in October, and school and department budgets were due to district leaders by Dec. 12, according to a presentation given at the May public hearing. Between Dec. 19 and March 12, administrators reviewed school and department budgets, updated salary guides and collected data, the presentation says. 

On March 15, Montclair Education Association leaders attended their first budget meeting with board members and administrators, Kondreck said. The $7.5 million deficit “took us by surprise,” she said.

“My biggest frustration is that we didn't do the budget process correctly,” Kondreck said. “We should have worked on it for 10 months.”

The Montclair Education Association's response "is disheartening," Cantor said.

"Nothing was done in secret and nothing in the budget proposal is a surprise," Cantor said. "No one wants to see educators lose jobs, and the district followed the MEA's cost-cutting suggestions where possible."

"Rather than engage in a public back-and-forth in response to the MEA's accusations, we continue to hope to collaborate — with the seriousness these problems demand — to break a cycle of conflict around the budget that has lasted for years," he said.

On March 20, the board approved a preliminary budget that was due to the county. But that budget included staffing cuts made “haphazardly,” to present a balanced budget, the union press release says.

“We were told the plan was to then back out of those staffing cuts by the time the budget was due to the state in May,” the release says. “This ‘plan’ was a massive failure.” 

Every county in the state is required to submit a budget to the county and with its approval, the district can then make further revisions based on continued review of budget data, Cantor said. The district's budget was approved by the county.

"It is tendentious and misleading to call the Montclair school district budget submitted to the county 'inaccurate' when by its nature it is a preliminary step that will be revised in a final budget," Cantor said.

The board’s finance committee, administrators, the Montclair Education Association and the Montclair Principals Association met several times in March and April to work on the budget. 

During those meetings, the Montclair Education Association offered several suggestions for budget cuts, including auditing clubs at the high school and reassessing funding for sports teams, Kondreck said. 

“I felt, in that room, our suggestions were not being taken seriously,” Kondreck said. “No matter what our suggestions were going to be, we felt that we were doomed to have staffing cuts be the answer.”

And without a line-item budget, it was difficult for the union to properly evaluate cost-cutting options, Kondreck said. 

“We've been flying in the dark this entire time with no line-item budget,” she said.

Kondreck is still waiting to hear answers to several questions the union has asked the district, including why so many paraprofessionals are being cut. She plans to ask the board to hold off on approving the budget Monday night, to allow more time for review. 

“This is important to our whole community,” Kondreck said. “These cuts are going to drastically affect our children.”

On Sunday, parent Lani Sommer-Padilla started a petition asking Montclair Township Council members to support funding for the school district. As of 5 p.m. Monday, the petition had over 500 signatures.