Montclair schools are still anticipating eliminating dozens of positions under a newly adopted school budget — but fewer than just a week ago.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said Monday he’s now estimating “28 potential reductions” to district staff, down from the working figure of 53 discussed often in the last several weeks. That number itself had been a hypothetical — a rough accounting based on $3.7 million in salaries spending the district cut from its first presentation of a 2021-22 budget in February. School officials had stressed the final number could be lower or higher, depending on which staff positions were targeted.

Some of those cuts might come from attrition, through retirements or 17 currently open positions, Ponds said at a Board of School Estimate meeting where members formally adopted the budget. That’s still a loss of personnel available to students and the district — “but it won’t be a person,” he said. And the figure of 28 could shrink further as the district looks at ways to reallocate recurring grants like federal Title 1 funds, he said.

Cuts would be made “compassionately, with first our children in mind, our staff in mind and our community in mind,” Ponds said. He said as he considers cuts, he’d aim to protect instruction, mental health support for children and the district’s magnet system.

But the vote Monday to adopt the budget makes the spending plan official even as key questions about how it affects staffing remain unanswered. 

That isn’t ideal, Brian Fleischer, vice president of committees for the Montclair PTA Council, told the Board of School Estimate. But he said with state funding constraints, a state-imposed 2% cap on tax-levy growth year-over-year, the coronavirus pandemic and other complications, “I don’t think it was mismanagement.” He urged the district to back regulatory reform to give it more options.

The district is also anticipating some influxes of cash that haven’t yet been received — and therefore aren’t part of the accounting. It expects to receive $6.6 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. Montclair’s schools are also anticipating $2.2 million through the state’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II.

Gregory Woodruff, a teacher and treasurer of the Montclair Education Association, said the budget as presented doesn’t give a clear picture of one-time costs that might be supported with those funds — for instance, whether increased costs for custodial services or technology could be offset with the federal and state support, helping save some staff positions.

Woodruff said he’s glad to see the projected cuts reduced, but the number remaining is “not acceptable.”

“Let’s imagine the entire Edgemont [school] staff being gone. Let’s imagine half of Northeast [school], or half of Renaissance [Middle School] gone. Entire departments at the high school,” he said. Woodruff said those losses treat employees with disrespect, and predicted poor and minority students would “bear the brunt of this bad budget.”

Petal Robertson, the MEA’s president, urged the district to avoid using the incoming funds for one-time budget fixes — but also to embrace guidance that urges districts to maintain smaller class sizes and provide social and emotional support for students.

“Nothing addresses learning like having an actual teacher in the classroom,” she said.

The budget anticipates a tax increase of $34.07 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. For the average home valued at $627,995, the school tax bill would go up by about $214, to about $10,910.