By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair school system will have to adopt a final budget by April 5 — but big questions hang in the balance about how that spending plan will affect staffing.

The budget being considered by the Montclair Board of School Estimate — with hearings set for March 29 and April 5 — trims $3.7 million in salary spending from a version first presented by the Board of Education in February. Those cuts were made as part of an effort to plug a $6.2 million shortfall in that initial draft. The current version still spends $3.1 million more on salaries than the $81.8 million Montclair budgeted in 2020-2021.

Earlier this week, district officials estimated that the $3.7 million amounts to salaries for about 53 people — using a rough estimate of $70,000 per employee. The exact count could be higher or lower, depending on which specific positions are affected.

And the district is anticipating some influxes of cash. It’s expected to receive $6.6 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. But the district hasn’t yet made decisions on how that money will be used, with officials citing the need for further guidance from the federal government on how the money can be spent. That money won’t arrive until after the budget is finalized. Montclair’s schools are also anticipating $2.2 million through the state’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II — again, not reflected in the current spending plan.

At a March 22 Board of School Estimate meeting, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock — who sits on the board as a mayor’s designee — said he had concerns about the uncertainty around staffing. He said he’s “not not a fan of those budgets where everything’s up in the air, and teachers and students are up in the air.”

“It’s extremely disruptive to teachers, the staff, the students, the families, to deal with, ‘Is my son or daughter’s aide coming back,’” he said.

He also noted the large number of job openings in Montclair schools. As of March 24, the district was listing 41 open positions online.

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea and Personnel Director Damen Cooper will be meeting with each principal over the next few weeks to conduct an “efficiency review” of staffing and schedules, Ponds said.

The review will include how each school could maintain its magnet programs — specialized programs in each school, meant to cater to a variety of learning styles throughout the district. Through the system, students do not necessarily attend the schools closest to their homes, but are instead paired with specific schools. The officials will also review educational programs, and what staffing changes would mean for scheduling in each building. 

That is expected to be done by April 12, after spring break, Ponds said. 

The $3.7 million cut to salaries, relative to the February presentation of the budget, has raised alarm with Montclair Education Association members, and concern among the Board of School Estimate as well. 

Teachers at this week’s meeting criticized the budget and the prospective staff cuts during the public comment period. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, this budget makes me incredibly sad,” teacher Margie Saraco said. She too pointed to the unfilled, advertised open teaching positions from last year, and questioned why the district was paying for consultants and other services, when those same roles could be performed by in-district staff.

“I don’t understand how this budget even got to the Board of School Estimate,” she added.

Margaret Whitsett, a teacher at Glenfield Middle School, questioned why the district has large deficits each year.

“It’s either that we are under budgeting or overspending. Either one is troubling,” she said. 

This year, the district started the 2021-22 budget process with a 6.2 million deficit. The 2020-21 budget process started with a $7.5 million shortfall. The year before, a $2 million shortfall. 

MEA Chair Petal Robertson said Montclair High School was so short-staffed at one point that administrators had to teach classes. 

Ponds reiterated that the district is not going to make any cuts that would negatively impact the magnet program. 

Board of Education member Eve Robinson blamed state funding and state-mandated budget constraints.

“We’re in a rock and a hard place sometimes,” she said pointing to a state-mandated 2 percent cap on year-over-year tax levy growth, as well as Montclair not receiving its full allocation of state aid for several years. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, Montclair will receive 8,033,732, up from $7,894,013 for 2020-2021. Under a statewide funding formula, Montclair should receive $9,038,249 — but the state has underfunded schools relative to its own formula since it was put in place.

The first Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund was created under the CARES Act, to address learning loss and disruptions caused by prolonged school closures, and to address a return to normal learning and school operations. 

Montclair intends to use its ESSER funding for the following purposes, though the district noted that the dollar amounts provided are approximate:

  • Technology: $950,000
  • Professional Development: $150,000
  • Assessment Resources: $50,000
  • After School Programs: $150,000
  • Summer Learning: $144,912
  • Mental Health: $45,000

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.