Over the next two months, the Montclair school district will work to make up a more than $7.5 million deficit in its preliminary 2023-24 budget.

The district is projecting $138,858,260 in revenue and $146,404,430 in expenses, leaving a preliminary deficit of $7,546,170.

The district is pursuing a collaborative process with input from school community stakeholders to balance the budget, Christina Hunt, board secretary and business administrator, said during a March 20 budget presentation. 

But the Montclair Education Association has not been given an adequate seat at the table, despite their requests, union president Cathy Kondreck said during the March 20 meeting.

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. By fall 2023, many of the staff members had been hired back

But the 2022-2023 deficit was less than half of what the district faced during the previous two years. The 2021-22 preliminary deficit was $6.2 million. The 2020-21 preliminary budget started off with a deficit of $7.5 million. The preliminary budget for the 2019-20 year had only a $2.2 million deficit.

District leadership will be meeting over the next two months with the Montclair Education Association, the Montclair Principals Association and the board to work on balancing the budget, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the March 20 meeting. 

“This is just the start,” Ponds said. “This is going to be a transparent and collaborative project.”

Board president Allison Silverstein said at the meeting she was looking forward to the many budget discussions to come. 

Kondreck said at the March 20 meeting that the Montclair Education Association has already become an afterthought in the process. 

Last week, the union was invited to a budget meeting with central office staff and board members, Kondreck said. But union leaders had been asking to be part of the budget conversation for months. 

“While the MEA is thrilled to have been invited to a budget meeting last week, we feel it's too late for our voice to truly matter,” Kondreck said. “The MEA will never co-sign on reductions or staff members.”

The union was not invited into the conversation until March 15, only days before the budget was due to the county for approval on March 20, she said. 

“We have sat on the sidelines waiting to be invited to conversations about programming,” Kondreck said. “We have continued to be kept in the dark.”

Last spring, Ponds presented Stabilizing District Personnel - The Path Forward, a plan for “breaking the cycle of budgetary trauma year to year,” according to the presentation.

“Clearly none of what was said worked because the district continues to do what it has been doing, which is balancing the budget on the backs of district staff, and that is a quote from a senior staff member,” Kondreck said. “And then hopefully hire them back in the 11th hour and begin the next year in a deficit.”

The largest portion of the district’s revenue would come, as always, from the tax levy – totaling $128,008,540 for 2023-24. The tax levy totaled $125,498,569 for 2022-23. 

Montclair taxpayers will also pay $1.2 million for debt service, in service to the $70 million in school bonds sold earlier this year. 

But the estimated impact on the average home from the bond sale will be lower than anticipated, according to the budget presentation. Before the bond sale, the estimated average impact was $199. But due to debt service aid and interest earned, the levy is lower than projected and the estimated impact on an average home will be only $106. 

The second largest portion of revenue is state aid, totaling $10,457,817, up $344,180 from 2022-23. The final revenue source is categorized as miscellaneous local revenue and the Special Education Medicaid Initiative, totaling $391,903. The total is down about $42,881 from 2022-23. 

The district’s special revenue fund will total $7,509,399 for the 2023-24 year, down $3,716,273 from the 2022-23 year, largely due to one-time coronavirus grants expiring. The special revenue fund, composed of grants targeted to certain areas and programs, is not part of the general fund because the money has strict allocation rules. 

The district’s appropriations, or expenses, for the 2023-2024 will total $146,404,430, an increase of $7,546,170 from the 2022-2023 budget. Salaries make up the majority of the expenses, totaling $86,933,986. The other expense categories are benefits, totaling $27,390,606; tuition, totaling $8,337,168; facilities, totaling $7,367,989; transportation, totaling $9,184,485, and other, totaling $7,190,196.

The Board of Education will hold a public hearing about the budget May 3. The final budget adoption will be May 15.