School Superintendent Penny MacCormack went through a slideshow presentation of the achievement scores of Montclair students at the December 17 meeting determined by the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) and High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) studies, representatives from Nisivoccia LLP, an auditing firm, explained the highlights of a complex audit report on the district and calendar changes were announced.
The meeting began, though, with an acknowledgement of the shootings in Connecticut and a moment of silence. Board President Robin Kulwin spoke of how the tragedy affected children and parents everywhere.
”What if they were our children, in our schools?” she said. “In a sense, they were our children in our schools.”
Board member Norman Rosenblum offered a defense of people affected by autism and Asperger’s syndrome in light of the Connecticut shooter’s links to such disabilities. He noted that not all people affected with autism or Asperger’s are likely to commit violent acts and, indeed, they are more likely to be victims of such acts. His stand for people with autism and Asperger’s delivered at the end of the meeting, drew applause from the audience.
Dr. MacCormack presented a slideshow depicting strong scores for middle and high school students in the state assessments, with high school juniors outperforming other students statewide in language arts. However, third graders and fifth graders both showed dips in math, with a significant decrease among seventh graders. Many grades showed a seventy percent proficiency in language arts, but Dr, MacCormack noted that growth above seventy percent is more difficult that growth from a lower percentile to the 70s.
“That’s a difficult growth area, and very challenging,” she said. That’s going to be a difficult but achievable road for us.”
One notable set of statistics showed double-digit gaps in many areas between more affluent and poorer students, as well as blacks and Hispanics scoring below their white and Asian counterparts, despite some progress among black and Hispanic students between 2009 and 2012.
Dr. MacCormack also reported that the district’s 2012 graduation rate increased from 89% in 2011 to 92.5% in 2012
Auditor Raymond Sarinelli tried to break down an audit report that looked like a high school yearbook and had some good news for the district in how it has been preparing its budget. Sarinelli noted that the tax levy has been flat over a past four or five years, with a slight dip in 2012 over the previous year – $97 million in 2012 versus $101 for 2011, with the forecast for it to remaining flat for 2013. One notable point he found in going over the numbers was that expenditures for 2012 totaled $118 million after rising to as much as $136 million two years, but was comparably at the same amounts spent in 2007 and 2008 – between $116 million and $117 million.
District aid also contributed favorable numbers, with $198 million for transportation generated where none had been expected, along with $425,000 in extraordinary aid had been anticipated with $1,134,000 allotted. “So just between those two line items on the revenue side, that generated $1.8 million of excess funds,” Sarinelli said. The district also saved money of energy costs, thanks to the mild winter of 2011-12, and up to $1.9 million in health insurance costs and $1 million in bringing Montclair special education students back from other districts.
The Fund Balance at the end of June 2012 was $13.9 million, with $5.7 million added to the 2012-13 budget and $3.2 million expected for 2013-14, sparing Montclair residents a tax increase. But given the two-year lag in budgeting, it is expected to decline, and Sarinelli advised the board to budget wisely in the near term to avoid a big drop-off.
Sarinelli’s colleague Valerie Dolan also called attention to a problem with the district’s food service contractor. She noted that the contractor is expected to cover the district for running deficits up to $30,000. The audit summary distributed at the meeting recommended that the contractor be verified to supporting documentation before payment is released.
“Somehow I thought, silly me. That . . . someone [who] was hired to provide oversight, I thought, they were doing those things,” Board President Kulwin said.
“School districts must budget conservatively since we cannot go back to taxpayers and raise taxes during the year if we failed to budget adequately,” Dr. MacCormack stressed. “However, my goal is to improve our practices so that our budgets more accurately reflect what we need to fund the district. Going forward the budget process will utilize actual costs, rather than estimates, as a starting point for the following year.”
Resolutions approving the audit’s findings and approving bills and claims were passed unanimously, with board member Deborah Wilson absent.
The finer details of the budget audit can be found on the district’s website here.
Calendar Changes Due to Hurricane Sandy
Dr. MacCormack announced that classes would be held on May 24, the Friday before Memorial Day, with the vacation days of March 29 (Good Friday) and February 20 to be reclaimed in that order as makeup days for any snow days. The schedule was revised as a result of school closures during Hurricane Sandy and the days that immediately followed the storm.
Appointment of New Principals
The board also announced the appointment of Dr. Jill Sack and Dr. Barbara Weller as principals of Mt. Hebron Middle School and Renaissance Middle School at Rand.