Some hard truths about the schools budget (Town Square)
By ALLISON SILVERSTEIN
Special to Montclair Local
I want to share a secret I have learned in my first few months as president of the Montclair Board of Education.
It’s this: every board member sitting at the dais – along with district leaders, community partners, public commenters and pretty much everyone I have ever met in this work – shares the same goal. The approach may not always look the same on any particular issue, but at heart we are all working together to provide for the safety, health, happiness and success of our students.
This is important context as we enter the always-difficult school budget season.
The history of public-school funding in New Jersey is long and complicated and embroiled in politics, so I will get right to the point: for years, the state has fallen far short of its own standards in providing funding to public schools.
Annual school budgets are built on a buckling foundation of state aid that cannot support ever-increasing health care costs, steep inflation for the costs of goods and escalation in the costs of transportation.
Recall, too, that budgets are bounded by a 2% annual cap on local property tax increases.
All of this leads to a difficult but inarguable truth: funds flowing into the district are not keeping up with the rising cost of essential expenses.
You may have read that aid to Montclair will increase by 4% next year, with more than $344,000 going just to special education services. To be clear, special education funding is the only line in the budget that will see an increase – every other funding stream will remain flat, irrespective of new costs. Given that the overall budget is $139 million, it’s clear that this increase barely makes a dent.
(Additionally, about 18% of Montclair’s student population is classified to receive special education services – considerably higher than the 14.78% figure the state uses to calculate its share of special education funding.)
Then there is another truth: our love for and commitment to Montclair teachers and staff. It is difficult to overstate a teacher’s influence on a child’s life – little more than a week ago an Academy Award-winning director attributed his success to teachers he listed by name.
I have for years personally seen educators in the district work quietly behind the scenes, seeking no praise or compensation, to make sure students are fed, clothed, nurtured and made to feel special.
That is why the board unanimously approved in December a new contract providing salary increases to our educators of more than 3% in each of the next three years.
Ratifying the contract reflects how much we value our staff and prioritize their professional success and satisfaction. While those raises will not amount to a large part of the budget challenge and were deserved, they will have a budget impact.
The bottom line right now is this: just as in districts everywhere across the state and country, budget cuts in the current environment are unavoidable here in Montclair. Public school districts are not corporations – they cannot just make more widgets to raise revenues. Nor can they charge a higher tuition price to balance the books.
They have to be smart, efficient and creative with the resources they have, of course. But when revenues trail expenses, something will always have to give. It doesn’t matter who crunches the numbers, who leads a district or who sits in the seats on the Board of Education; it may be easy to blame administrators but the issue isn’t mismanagement. That’s why this dilemma – and the very painful choices it demands – re-occurs year after year.
So, as we get ready to start larger discussions regarding the Montclair Public Schools budget, it is inevitable that some people will be unhappy. Please give us feedback – we want stakeholders to speak up and be heard – but realize too we must all live with the simple math: you cannot spend more than you bring in.
I leave you with these closing thoughts. Someone shared a tweet recently that said the devil’s greatest trick was “convincing people to be mad at everything other than the corporations and billionaires fleecing them on a daily basis.” I hope when people hear things they don’t like in budget talks, they understand where the deeper issue lies.
As for myself: someday, after my school board days are over, I look forward to advocating for change that better supports the most important thing in the world – our children. For now, we live with what we have and every day do the best we can.
Allison Silverstein is president of the Montclair Board of Education.