MONTCLAIR, NJ – Tension was in the air as a large contingent representing Montclair Education Association confronted Board of Education members during the public meeting held Monday evening at the George Inness Annex Atrium at Montclair High School.

At odds are the looming cuts and personal reduction in the tentative budget of $129,999,204 for the 2019-2020 school year.  The tentative budget was adopted during a special public BOE meeting last Monday, March 11.  The preliminary budget was first introduced February 19.

MEA members were present in full-force decked out in their blue T-shirts while holding up signs and posters in protest during the entire meeting.

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Presiding over the meeting were Superintendent Kendra Johnson, Board President Laura Hertzog, Vice President Joseph Kavesh, Business Administrator and Board Secretary Emidio D’Andrea, Jessica de Koninck, Latifah Jannah, Eve Robinson, Priscilla Church and Anne Mernin.

More than 92.55% of board revenues, equating to $118,260,105, come from taxes, and taxes can only go up 2% on a yearly basis.  Therefore, the board was $2,227,541 over budget with their preliminary estimate.

On March 11, the state aide allocation amount was revealed, totaling $177,106.  Even with the state aide, the board is still $2,050,435 over budget with the tentative estimate.

Tough decisions were made by the BOE to help balance the budget, including a downsizing of paraprofessionals.

Just like last week, the MEA lined up at the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting, including the president and vice president as concerns were voiced about impending cutbacks and a reduction of the workforce.

“The most obvious point is that these layoffs should not happen because the money is available to keep them from happening,” said MEA President Petal Robinson.  “Our budget audit found $1.5M in surplus that is unexplained, $4.1M that is unspent in the budget that is unexplained, an average of $450,000 a year in unrestricted surplus that is unexplained, and $1M in special education aid that we are still waiting an explanation for.”

Robinson continued, “When you talk about cuts, I can’t understand as a district how we can go forward before we examine the numbers we put before you.  Now, I understand why the superintendent communicated that she can predict where she would find money for the alternative school, it’s because the district must know that its sitting on a healthy surplus and they are programmed to be purposefully vague so that all the additional monies can then be funneled into systems that are not in the budget.  To vote ‘yes’ to these cuts that change classrooms, course offerings, school climate and student-teacher ratios is not a necessity as presented, but rather a choice.  You have to prove that we are wrong by giving this budget the same due-diligence that we did and analyze the spending line-by-line.”

Robinson’s comments were received by a standing ovation from the MEA members in the audience.

“By the end of the 2017-18 school year, this district spent $4.1M less than they received in revenue,” said MEA Vice President Tom Manos.  “To put it simply, that left (the BOE) with an additional $4.1M at the start of the 2018-19 school year.  That $4.1M almost doubles the deficit the district is now claiming.  How was that money spent this year that could cause you to make cuts for the next school year?”

In response to the public comments by MEA, Superintendent Johnson said, “In terms of a couple comments that communications were sent to me and were met with no response – that is false.  I did respond to the communication regarding the movement of paras and if you look at the contract, we can definitely move paras at the discretion of the needs of students.  Lastly, I’m looking forward to looking at the link that there is no intentional design to hide money.  My stance has always been and will continue to be transparent and honest whether it’s in private or in a group to the best of my knowledge.  I look forward to looking at the (MEA’s) information because that’s not the information that we currently have in front of us.  It’s important for us to collaborate and be critical friends (with the MEA).”

The first public hearing of the Board of School Estimate is scheduled Monday, March 25.  Two subsequent meetings follow on Monday, April 1 and Thursday, April 4 with the BOSE, with final budget adoption expected April 4.

The next Montclair Board of Education regular public meeting is Wednesday, April 3 in the George Inness Annex Atrium.  The meeting begins at 5:30 pm and immediately goes into closed session until approximately 7:30 pm when it re-opens to the public.