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.
Although there is a lot going on, we would like to focus our comments on the budget and where we are today. Much like last year, we are also going to highlight some systemic issues that create our current quandary and are unlikely to go away in the years to come.
The last few days have been very upsetting. As the news about 55 staff cuts came through, suddenly the budget process became inexplicable, upsetting, and contentious. While it is true that the budget process forces us to live within our means, and to only approve spending what we have – the real impacts are on the lives of people and their families – at that point it becomes personal and it is no longer about a process or numbers. At that point we are talking about some beloved teachers and paras.
This also puts us in a situation where emotions run high and misinformation spreads easily. Battle lines get formed unnecessarily and we forget that we are all in this together. So, I would like to start by reminding everyone what we had asked the Board last year when we were faced with budget cuts –
We had made 3 specific recommendations to the Board and the District –
- Principals be involved early and deeply in the process. Early involvement of Principals with guidelines around maintaining confidentiality, given the personnel matters here, would be highly productive.
- The Montclair Education Association be involved early and have them also be party to the same confidentiality guidelines.
- The community representatives be involved under the same confidentiality.
This year we understand that the first 2 of our recommendations were followed, but the earlier involvement of community representatives didn’t happen – so we are 2 for 3.
These recommendations are driven by the desire to come up with better decisions as we believe in transparency and we also believe that no one person or group has a lock on good ideas.
I know that there are a lot of upset folks with where we stand today. There are many aspects of the budget and many complexities involved, made worse because there is a deficit, and very upsetting when it is clear that we are dealing with decisions that has significant impacts on people’s lives and their livelihood. The emotions are hard to keep in check and our love for our teachers and the programs for our kids make this very difficult.
We would like to provide some context here and highlight the systemic and persistent nature of some of the issues in the budget process. One of the top issues that make the budget structurally very difficult is – the 2% cap on tax levies for schools. The schools, under current state mandates, cannot increase their budget by more than 2% annually. As we know – the contract with Teachers has a 3% raise for teachers in it and before anyone can raise an issue with that – remember we have had one of the worst inflation in recent times that ran almost to double digits in some months. So before we blame anyone – let’s acknowledge the terrible situation we are in – high inflation, teachers who have practically taken a paycut, and revenue ceiling that is mandated. We have a math problem. So in order to bring the budget where we plan to spend only the money we have, it leaves us with no great option. Given that the 2% cap is not going to be breached, costs can be reduced by either reducing number of teachers or programs. This is the terrible reality of our current budget situation.
One other thing to point out is that every year the school district is faced with uncertainty on retirements and attrition. I don’t have the exact date, but a teacher can choose to announce their retirement after the budget approval. I can imagine that not every teacher is in a position to make clear plans way ahead of time and may themselves face uncertainty, but this causes the district to go through the disruptive process of RIFs and then rehiring. This is a systemic issue, but one we urge to be an area of focus and solve through some creativity and incentives.
So given the points we just covered, it is clear that we have limited dollars and competing demands on how those dollars are spent. It is clear that we want all the amazing programs, we want none of our teachers to lose their jobs, we want our teachers to be well paid given the outsized impact they have on our children, we want it all. The citizens of Montclair will also clearly tell us that we are overburdened by property taxes and that we want lower taxes. So we all want it all, but it is clear for now – we can’t have it all.
We understand that budgets are complicated – made even more complicated when we face deficits. 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 between the budget requester and the budget approver.
Budgets also force us to make tradeoffs. We want it all and I know many of us will step up to make the case for our beloved teachers or our beloved programs. I urge us to always do that so that our voices are heard, but I also urge that we take it a step further and highlight what we are willing to give up to have what we want. That would make these comments even more constructive.
We highlighted last year some macro factors at play and I will run through them as important context for the current discussion –
- Lower enrollment – we have lower enrollment than in previous years. The audit report shows us that we had 6,659 students in 2019 and that number is 6,048 in 2022 – a loss of 611 students. With the passage of the bond referendum and investing in schools this may get reversed soon, but for now this is the reality.
- This leads to not only lower overall needs, but also to…
- Disruption in utilization of certificated teachers – some may be left with fewer hours of need in their buildings and may get utilized in ways that doesn’t comport with their qualifications – leads 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!
These factors create a high stakes situation ripe for everyone to get riled up.
Turning our attention to the tax levies that support our school district. We sent a letter to the town council urging them to revisit both the percentage of overall town budget spent on education as well as the decisions on PILOT generated funds to increase funding for schools. There are likely to be creative paths such as allocation of shared services, or provision of certain services by the town for the schools that could alleviate the spend by schools while meeting the standards of the 2% cap on operating budget. The letter was from Dr. Ponds, BOE President Allison Silverstein, and me. We understand that the MEA is also on board with this request. Together, we plan make these points at the Town Council meeting tomorrow May 16th at 6 PM. We hope to see many of you there as we are at the “no stone unturned” moment. It is also an opportunity for the Town Council, Board of Education, District Administration, MEA, and PTAC to work together for our children and their future.
As pointed out last year, it’s worth repeating – 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.
We are hoping that despite the fiscal limitations summarized in the budget, and the intense on-going discussions between stakeholders, we are able 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.