Good evening. My name is Tessie Thomas and I am the President of the Montclair Council of PTAs (PTAC) an elected body that represents and supports the whole community.
I would like to cover two topics tonight – the Reflections Arts Program and the Budget.
As you know, we celebrated the Reflections participants on Thursday, May 5 in the Glenfield auditorium. Thank you Dr. Ponds, Ms. Cathy Kondreck and the Board members who attended the celebrations and made the young ones feel special and inspired. Two accomplished artists – Gretchen Prater, a landscape and portrait artist, and Daniel V. Anderson whose 12 foot sculptures are on display at the World Trade Center delivered brief keynote addresses directed at the children. It was a wonderful evening. There was just one benchmark to measure the success of that night – the children. As we could all tell at the event and as confirmed by the photographs shared by Armando Diaz, who just agreed to volunteer and contribute his time, the children were beaming. Their eyes said it all and reminded us all on why we do this. Their submissions can be seen on the PTAC website at montclairpta.org. Reflections was a true collaboration between the district, the Montclair Education Association, and the community. We are ready to make this bigger and better next year. The theme for next year is “Show Your Voice”.
Moving on to the second topic – the Budget. Before I talk about it, I would like to share how upsetting the last few days have been. As the news spread about the 83 staff cuts, suddenly the budget process became inexplicable, upsetting, and contentious. Although we are talking about the budget process, it is critical to remember that we are actually talking about people, their livelihood, and the impact on their families. We are talking about some beloved teachers and paras. The news flamed further uncertainty and anxiety. It is also critical to remember that we are talking about our most vulnerable students. The comments tonight addressing some of the background behind the number 83 and the rehiring process helps alleviate some of the concerns, but it puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of the budget process.
I would like to focus our comments on the budget on 2 things – process and communications. Yet again we find ourselves in the middle of budget cut discussions and deficits. It feels like this is increasingly going to be the norm – “do more with less”. That said, we would like to share our view and concerns on the process being followed and the communications, or the lack of it, around the process. Our overall message is that – we need to seriously revamp the process and put significant and detailed communications out for all the stakeholders way in advance.
We understand that budgets are complicated – made even more complicated when we face deficits. As has been said by many in the past – Budgets are policy and strategy statements. Budgets show what one values – what our priorities are. Budgets are also the moment of truth as they force us to make decisions and disclose decisions on how to manage plans that need money that we just don’t have. Let’s also acknowledge that Budgets for a Public School are a process of negotiations that plays out in public. We all know how budgets work. Many of us have been involved in budget processes at work or maybe even at home. It plays out typically in patterns that are familiar to us all between the budget requester and the budget approver.
I would like to frame our point of view in the context of the current situation. Here are some points that we understand and ask everyone to consider –
- Lower enrollment – the pandemic effect or other factors have led to materially lower enrollment in the early education years, as Dr. Ponds summarized. This leads to not only lower overall needs, but also to inefficiencies.
- Inflation has caused costs to go up, so we have a bigger hole in our budget
- State or federal aid is not going up any time soon and property tax increases impact everyone in the community especially the most vulnerable in the community
- Fiscal discipline is no longer a buzz word or a matter of choice, but the only way to conduct ourselves
- On the other hand – we have fantastic educators. Our teachers work hard, go out of their way, and are dedicated to the students. They have their own families and like everyone else, they expect some certainty in their jobs – this is their livelihood!
All of the above points to significant deficiencies in the budget process and the communications around it. It also creates a high stakes situation ripe for everyone to get riled up.
We also realize, having been through this a few times over the last few years – that the budget outcomes are never close to our worst fears or our most optimistic hopes. Typically, the outcomes land in the middle – we don’t get everything we want, nor do we lose everything that we feared.
All that said – we would first like to say that budgets, especially details, need to be shared way in advance. We urge that on a go forward basis the budget related information be shared with all the stakeholders well in advance of the budget hearing and adoption. We also urge that information summarizing highlights and changes be shared early on. At the last Board meeting we talked about the benefits of having an involved and engaged community, the biggest one being “buy-in”. This is our budget and we all need to make sure we understand the limitations we need to live with and that the budget reflects our collective priorities. Suffices to say that a delayed sharing without full clarity around the solutions towards meeting the deficits does raise concerns and puts the community in a position to take a leap of faith to go along.
We also realize that the district has been hard at work with the Community Investment Plan and the operating budget work while remaining short staffed. That said, even under those challenging circumstances – we urge for more transparency with the community.
Tonight, the Superintendent’s report and the Montclair Education Association statement provided the details and some context to the cuts and what to expect. We also understand that the budget process being followed is one that has been followed every year where – first the RIFs are announced to submit a compliant budget to the state and then later on a portion of the RIFed staff is rehired. We would like to question the need to follow such a disruptive process. Even though the process has been years in the making and follows state guidelines, we would like the district to challenge this process and come up with a better one that doesn’t cause so much acrimony. There are livelihoods at stake here. There are vulnerable students at stake here. Following this disruptive process without adequate communications ends up making this a lot more acrimonious and fuels distrust. We can do without all of that. A lot of this seems unintentional, and we strongly recommend that close attention be paid to communications and the process. and both be revamped.
We also realize that there are some real factors at play here that complicate decision making – uncertainty around final enrollment numbers, final teacher/staff retirement numbers, final aid numbers from other sources, etc. That said, we have some specific process recommendations. Our recommendations are designed to balance the need to maintain confidentiality, given personnel discussions, and involvement and inputs of key stakeholders. Here goes –
- Principals be involved early and deeply in the process. We know they are involved and will be through the next few weeks when most of this will get sorted out. Early involvement of Principals with guidelines around maintaining confidentiality, given the personnel matters here, would be highly productive.
- The same holds for the Montclair Education Association. They should be involved early and have them also be party to the same confidentiality guidelines. Clearly when the negotiations happen between the MEA and the District on the contract, the discussion is held confidential and only the final outcomes become public. The same can be done here.
- And finally, the same holds for the community – let the community representatives be involved under the same confidentiality.
We also have a recommendation for those we have asked to be involved early – let’s make sure that we respect the confidentiality and the process. We are open to other ideas other than confidentiality if they work – the recommendation being on wide engagement without undermining the process. Let’s treat the budget as a collective process to learn to live within our means without compromising the overall objective of providing the best education for our children.
We are hoping that despite the fiscal limitations summarized in the budget, the intense on-going discussions between stakeholders results in a resolution that allows us to see through next year viably and without material impacts. It is our expectation that the education programs and offerings don’t get cut and the RIF impacts get reversed materially.