The school budget process moved into its next phase Monday night as the Board of School Estimate had a line-by-line review.
Monday’s meeting was the first for Barbara Pinsak, the district’s new interim superintendent.
Board President Jessica de Koninck introduced Pinsak at the start of the meeting. “And I cannot say how delighted and happy we are to have her here, and this is her first day on the job...and as you know in Montclair we have no honeymoon period but I wanted to extend a warm welcome to her.”
Pinsak noted that she had just attended a student performance at one of the schools, and was very impressed by what she had seen so far in the schools and the township. “It’s always about the children for all of us — just unbelievably talented and wonderful children,” she said.
She continued, “I promise to work very hard for the children and families of Montclair, and I do appreciate this warm welcome.”
Several members of the board expressed concern about whether it would be in the district’s best interest to cut 50 paraprofessional jobs. “It’s always the paras that are first on the chopping block,” said Councilor-At-Large Rich McMahon. He asked if the district had taken a look at central office and administrative staff.
Board Secretary Steven DiGeronimo noted that administrative costs per pupil in Montclair were relatively low: $1,500 per pupil, compared to the state-mandated limit of $2,100.
McMahon acknowledged the need for more efficiency. “These are people, yes, but they are servicing children, which is obviously the most important of all,” he said.
“This is my fifth-go-around now,” said Mayor Robert Jackson. “And it seems that every year we’re dealing with paras and staff and how we’re going to complete the budget.”
Other items that came up for discussion included nursing staff and overtime costs.
During the public comment period, Sara Blaine took a moment to welcome Pinsak to the district. And she urged the board, during the budget season, not to lose sight of all of the school district’s strengths.
“I just wanted to take a moment to say, this is a tough moment and a hard time, but we have a plethora of riches here,” Blaine said.
She urged the board to visit some of the schools, which are having their annual school tours this week and next. “Think about and see with your own eyes what we are talking about.”
Montclair High School teacher Petal Robertson thanked the board for hearing the audience’s concerns at the March 16 meeting regarding student assistance counselors. At that meeting, several audience members said that the proposed cuts to paraprofessionals and student assistance counselors would disproportionately affect minority staff members in the district.
Gayl Shepard, president of the Montclair Education Association, urged the board on Monday to reach out to the MEA for advice and expertise during the budget process.
“There are programs that we’d like to have conversations with you about,” she said. “Ask us. We’ll tell you honestly. Probably more than what you want to hear. What’s working, what’s not working, and what we can do about it.”
She continued, “But please don’t wait until it’s too late. Just ask us.”