MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Board of Education presented the public with the tentative 2017-2018 budget, and while it contained additions that pleased residents, it also contained reductions that caused concern.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronald Bolandi outlined the details of the new budget at the Monday, March 6 workshop meeting. The tentative budget – which is a $120 million budget – includes an improved world language program, added professional development, and the tools necessary to better the special education program.
Although there are many positives of the 2017-2018 budget, Bolandi admitted that some tough decisions regarding the staff had to be made.
“Sometimes I have to make decisions based on the greater good,” Bolandi said, adding that these decisions were not personal. “I’ve languished over this for like three weeks now.”
The interim superintendent said one problem this budget fixes is the school district’s tendency to throw money at problems rather than fix them. Instead of tossing money into the district’s shortfalls, the board hopes to train professionals to better address the problems.
A few areas Bolandi hopes the district can improve on with this new budget is its mental health services, buildings and grounds construction, and food service.
“I truly think it’s time to make our food service better,” Bolandi said. “My impression of the food service in Montclair – and I know people get crazy when I say this but I try to be honest – is mediocre at best.”
Bolandi hopes adding a food service supervisor will address that problem.
One major addition to the budget is a world language supervisor, costing the district $125,000. This is to make world language a more prominent subject, Bolandi said.
Professional development is also a huge addition to the budget, with world language professional development costing $50,000, special education professional development costing $100,000, and equity professional development costing $50,000. These additions are a way to improve training for staff and make staff more knowledgeable in handling both special education and the different races and cultures within the district.
In addition to the many positive additions, the budget includes reductions that affect many staff members, paraprofessionals specifically. Still, Bolandi assured the public that these cuts will not affect the students’ education.
“Not one of these cuts will affect your children’s education,” Bolandi said, adding that they will not affect the magnet or the core that are already in place.
In the past couple of years, many paraprofessionals – especially long-term substitute teachers – were hired to fill scheduling gaps, but Bolandi said these hires did not make teaching more efficient. Rather, they wasted the district’s money and filled in in places that did not need paraprofessionals, like in general education classrooms. In order to fix that problem, Bolandi proposed reducing paraprofessionals down to the 2014-2015 level.
With the added training of the staff, Bolandi said these cuts would not affect the education given to students. This raised concerns, though, for the public.
“I’m very happy to see that there is going to be substantial money put into training for the paras but I am a little disheartened, a little concerned about the fact that the bulk of the money being saved is on the backs of special needs once again,” Montclair resident Alma Schneider said. “It’s pretty much every year we go through the same thing, with the budget cuts on the backs of kids with special needs.”
Several other residents echoed Schneider’s concerns and expressed worry that special needs children will be the ones who end up suffering from the budget cuts.
Board of Education member Joseph Kavesh also expressed concerns with the special needs component of the budget.
“I’m not thrilled with this budget, particularly the special ed component,” Kavesh said. “I can support it but it’s lukewarm support.”
The concerned board member said that they must be careful not to hurt the special education program and further shared his worry about how this new budget will affect the children and their parents.
“Parents of children with special needs should not feel that they’re always the first to be cut,” Kavesh said. “And that’s very disconcerting.”
To alleviate the concerns of both the public and the board, Bolandi said the cuts would be based on scheduling issues rather than IEP issues and that paraprofessionals that are necessary to children with special needs will still have their jobs.
Throughout the budget presentation, Bolandi reiterated the fact that Montclair’s biggest problem is throwing money into issues rather than fixing them, and he hopes that this new budget will solve the district’s setbacks. Bolandi also stressed that the teachers are not the problem.
No set decisions have been made on where the cuts in paraprofessionals will be yet but Bolandi said the board will have those decisions made by the Monday, March 13 meeting, which is the meeting that will also be Bolandi’s last as Montclair’s interim superintendent.
With Bolandi leaving the district – as much as he said he wishes he could stay – he offered a piece of advice that he urges the board to follow in the years to come.
“In education same old, same old creates mediocrity,” Bolandi said, using a quote he heard from a friend. “Montclair has got to move away from some of the things you’re doing.”