Montclair schools debate health waiver, bus aide cuts on eve of state budget address
By ERIN ROLL
The Montclair School district is facing the prospect of having to fill a $1.5 million budget hole. During Monday’s meeting, the board discussed several possible ideas, none of them particularly desirable, for filling the gap.
One idea includes a health benefits waiver which would allow the budget to go above the two-percent cap and result in a higher tax bill for residents. Another scenario would remove aides from buses and possibly cutting paraprofessional jobs, an idea that did not sit well with parents.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s new budget was expected to increase school funding from the state by $341 million and begins a four-year phase-up to fully funding our public schools.
Last year, Montclair received approximately $6.8 million in state aid. However, there was the possibility that Montclair could receive additional aid this year based on the new funding formula. Department of Education Spokesperson Mike Yaple did not return calls pertaining to Montclair’s state aid.
Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea said it would take two days from the governor’s budget address held on Tuesday, March 13, for Montclair to officially learn how much aid money it would get. “I wish I could tell you why it takes two days to download, but it does take two days,” he said.
Montclair has at least one aide riding on every school bus, unusual compared to other districts. The aides’ jobs include assisting children with their seat belts, alerting them when they’ve arrived at their assigned stops, and maintaining safety and security.
Eliminating the bus aide positions would bring an approximate $300,000 in savings.
“If the choice is between losing the bus aides, which is not a typical thing for people to have, versus losing teachers and paras in the classrooms, losing the bus aides would be the lesser of two evils,” BOE President Laura Hertzog said.
Although the proposed reduction of 10 paraprofessionals was not as bad as the 50 positions targeted for elimination last year, board trustee Joe Kavesh said saving the “para jobs” was a priority.
Last year, jobs were saved due to teacher retirements.
Health Benefits Waiver
A health benefits waiver allows the district to go beyond the two percent tax levy cap for health benefit costs.
Some board members were wary of higher taxes, while others said that without taking the waiver, the district would be forced to find $1 million in additional savings elsewhere.
“It is important that we maintain a high-quality public education in this township, in this state and in this country. And so, if it means that we take this waiver and put it in, and it has an impact a bit on the tax rate, I have found Montclair to be a township that weighs this very carefully. And they usually fall from the side of quality. They fall on the side of maintaining a district that is dedicated to the quality of education for their children. And that’s the side I’m going to fall on,” Hertzog said.
In the end, the board opted to apply for a partial waiver, and then review the budget for additional cuts including the bus aides and paraprofessional job cuts.
“We all have a desire to have a quality education. We also know the need to balance our budget. We also know that there are various ways we can do that. We have a million and a half deficit,” said Hertzog.