Montclair schools will bridge $3M budget deficit by cutting staff members
To make up a $3 million deficit in its 2022-23 budget, Montclair schools will cut 26 nontenured staff members as well as an undisclosed number of paraprofessionals.
Nonrenewal letters will be sent Thursday, May 12, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the Monday, May 9, Board of Education meeting.
The amount set to be raised by taxes is $125,498,569 of the $140,796,990 overall budget for 2022-23. The tax levy for 2021-22 was $123,037,813, of a $137,692,143 budget.
According to figures the district posted to its website Wednesday (after Montclair Local's deadline for its May 12 print edition), the district anticipates a tax increase of $34.65 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. The tax rate would increase from $1.733 per $100 of assessed valuation to $1.767.
For a home valued at a township-wide average of $628,952, the school tax bill would go up by $217.94, to $11,114.74, or 2%, the district says.
(Montclair Local's own calculations of the tax impact, based on the rates cited in the district posting, vary slightly from the district's — but only by a few dollars overall.)
Ponds, accounting supervisor Melissa Beattie and Paul Roth, interim business administrator/board secretary, have not yet responded to voicemails left Tuesday with their offices with questions about the tax levy and rate.
During a preliminary budget presentation April 27, Ponds said because the district projected $140,796,790 in revenue and $143,875,832 in costs, there was a preliminary deficit of $3,079,042 for the new budget. The bulk of the increased expenditures can be pinned to transportation costs and inflation, he said.
The cost of transportation for the 2022-23 year is estimated to be $2 million more than it was during the 2021-22 year, totaling $8.9 million, he said.
The increase is due to a decrease in bus drivers, and the district’s having to offer higher compensation rates, along with increasing gas costs, Ponds said. These are statewide issues, he said, adding, “We are not unusual.”
The increased gas costs have also significantly impacted the district’s plant operations and maintenance costs, up to $11,938,111 for the 2022-23 year, more than double the spending this school year.
But the largest expenditure in the preliminary budget is salaries, at $86,469,728, followed by employee benefits, at $23,430,673. In the 2021-22 budget, salaries totaled $84,924,417 and benefits totaled $23,373,511.
“I’ve really gotten down to the last thing I could get down to and it comes to people,” Ponds said at the Monday meeting. “What we did was look at efficiencies.”
The efficiencies were identified by looking at enrollment and scheduling, he said.
For example, kindergarten enrollment has been low for the past few years, a fact that district officials have attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. As those smaller populations matriculate, there may be room for decreases in staff, Ponds said.
And for staff members without full schedules, the district will look for ways to make changes, which may mean one staff member travels between schools to teach while another is not renewed, he said.
But while Ponds said he plans to issue 26 nonrenewals to untenured staff members, he plans to hire back some of those members before next school year.
“I did that on purpose because if you don’t do this, you can find yourself in a pinch if you under-nonrenew and then you have to find money for those individuals that is not there,” he said.
In May 2021, the district issued 36 nonrenewal notices to staff members, more than half of whom were special education teachers.
No special education staff members will receive nonrenewal notices, Ponds said.
As for paraprofessionals, Ponds said he spoke with colleagues in other districts and referenced reports from the state to see how Montclair was aligning with other districts of its size. Montclair has about 265 paraprofessionals, between 97 and 100 more than other districts of its size, he said.
“Newly hired paraprofessionals” will receive nonrenewal notices, Ponds said. He has not responded to an email sent Tuesday asking what he means by newly hired and how many paraprofessionals are included in that category.
But cuts to paraprofessional staff will not come in the way of Montclair students getting the support they need, he said. District staff are reviewing all Individualized Education Plans and 504 Plans to ensure the needs of students are met — any students who require a shared paraprofessional will have one, and any students who require a one-to-one paraprofessional will have one, he said.
Board of Education President Latifah Jannah said she was concerned about how the staff cuts will affect diversity. The district worked hard to hire diverse new staff members, so she asked how the cuts will impact those hires.
One parent also expressed concern over cuts affecting staff diversity in the district.
Obie Miranda-Woodley’s daughter, a student at Nishuane School, had been nervous to wear her hair naturally to school after a classmate harassed her about it, Miranda-Woodley said at the Monday meeting. But on Monday, her daughter finally got up the courage to wear her hair naturally.
Miranda-Woodley said she emailed her daughter’s teacher explaining the situation and how her daughter’s choosing to wear her hair naturally was a big deal.
After school, Miranda-Woodley’s daughter came home and said her teacher and her had been “hair twins” that day and that the teacher told her she looked beautiful, Miranda-Woodley said.
“Representation matters, and I really hope that we do not lose the diversity in our schools and the staff,” she said.
The district continues to prioritize hiring diverse staff, working with Montclair State University and other organizations to recruit young, diverse teachers, Ponds said.
While the Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of the budget and it is now finalized, members butted heads on how the process had unfolded.
Six members of the public spoke during the public hearing for the budget Monday night, before the board held its vote.
“We’ve never had less impact from impacted stakeholders,” board member Kathryn Weller-Demming said at the meeting. “We haven't heard from the public. The Board of Education members were not involved.”
Board member Eric Scherzer, chair of the finance and facilities committee, said the committee had met with Ponds for a couple hours to discuss the budget and ask questions.
“We certainly felt like we had the opportunity to interact and to ask all the questions that at the time occurred to us,” Scherzer said.
And board Vice President Priscilla Church said she felt she had been involved in the process — receiving the preliminary budget and having an opportunity to ask questions at the April 27 meeting.
But Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck said Monday that the union was still waiting to hear back about budget questions it had sent to the district last week. The union also has questions about the nonrenewals, but has not yet received information about them, she said.
“We are ready and willing to collaborate, but it takes two to have that conversation,” Kondreck said. “Together, perhaps we could devise a plan to eliminate the need to non-renew staff due to budget constraints. We hope that you value our input, take our comments into consideration and schedule a meeting to discuss the budget and nonrenewals with us in the very near future.”