Personnel cuts were on the minds of many audience members as the Board of School Estimate took a first look at the 2017-2018 Montclair public schools’ budget.
The budget went before the Board of Estimate — including Mayor Robert Jackson, Deputy Mayor William Hurlock and Councilman-at-Large Rich McMahon — Thursday night for the first of at least three reviews.
The district proposes to eliminate several positions, including about 50 paraprofessionals and at least three student assistance counselors.
Several audience members criticized the district for the intended cuts, asking what the reduced staff will mean for students’ well-being. There were also concerns that the staff cuts were disproportionately targeting women and minorities among the school personnel.
Presenting the numbers
“Budget time is a great reckoning. And the Montclair school district has had big budgets, and sometimes big surpluses. So that’s the luck of the draw, number one, but maybe you can do it better, look at doing things more differently,” said Board Secretary Steven DiGeronimo as he laid out the budget numbers at the start of the meeting.
“Budgeting is as much a craft as it is a science. It’s a feel for what’s out of proportion and what we should be doing,” DiGeronimo said.
Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi emphasized that the district did not want to have to make any of the cuts that were being proposed in the budget, a statement that he had made at the previous budget meeting.
The paraprofessional staff cuts were based on conversations with building principals and special education program coordinators, he said.
The district is also looking at eliminating three dean positions and some secretary positions, and the district is looking at sharing Nishuane’s assistant principal among different schools.
Bolandi strongly recommended that if there were retirements of top-tier staff, the district should take the resulting savings and use it to hire new staff.
Staff cuts and diversity
Each of the schools has student assistance counselors to work with students on personal and academic issues. The district also retains counseling services from Effective School Solutions (ESS) at some of the schools, including Montclair High School.
The audience criticized the budget for eliminating the student assistance counselor positions while holding off on plans to cut funding for ESS; several audience members noted that the ESS program serves only a small number of students while the student assistance counselors work with larger numbers of students.
Margaret Whitsett, a teacher at Glenfield Middle School, was the first speaker of the evening. “I could tell you that the SAC at my school services more than 300 kids,” in addition to other duties, she said, while the ESS program works with nine students. “Why then would you vote to keep this boutique program for nine students, to the detriment of the 300 students that our entire student population gets to benefit from? It makes no sense. No dollars and sense,” she said.
Bolandi said that the original plan was to eliminate the six ESS counselor positions and replace them with a counseling program with staff from within the district, but that the plan had been put on hold pending further review. “It’s not going away, but it’s on hold for two months.” The ESS program was brought in four years ago, he said, before his time, to work with what the district deemed to be the students most in need of mental health counseling. Bolandi said he hoped the new program would be equal to or superior to the ESS program.
Petal Robertson, a teacher at Montclair High School, noted that many high school students are faced with challenges such as thoughts of suicide, questions of gender identity, and cyberbullying: issues that require the presence of trained counselors to work with the students. “The problem is, kids don’t adjust their needs according to our budget, so we have to adjust the budget according to their needs.”
She also said that the hiring cuts raised serious questions about staff diversity. “We have to keep in mind that perception is largely reality,” Robertson said, noting that the counselors and paraprofessionals facing termination were largely minorities, and she urged the board to think about the message that the reduction was sending to the community. “If diversity is truly our strength, let our budget decisions reflect that.”
James Harris, the Montclair NAACP’s vice chair and a member of its education committee, also spoke. “It seems to me that there is a temptation in Montclair over time to balance the budget on the backs of the lowest-paid and, in fact, minority members of the [staff].” He said he didn’t think that was an intentional move, but urged the board to consider that when looking at what positions to cut.
“Once again, the paras are on the chopping block. I remember that last year they were on the chopping block. The year before they were on the chopping block,” Harris said.
He reminded the board members that many of the paraprofessionals live in Montclair, and urged them to think of staff members who live in town and pay taxes.