Montclair School Budget is Approved With a Slightly Smaller Tax Increase

BY  |  Tuesday, Apr 08, 2014 7:30am  |  COMMENTS (7)

Kulwin-Jackson-Spiller

The Montclair Board of Education had another interminable meeting on April 7, lasting beyond midnight, but this was partly due to a suspension of the meeting in deference to the Board of School Estimate, which met to vote on a budget for the 2014-15 school year. The Board of School Estimate (BoSE) voted 5-0 to approve the budget mostly as proposed by the Board of Education, albeit at a 4.08 percent tax levy rather than a 4.41 percent one.

Board of Education President Robin Kulwin explained that the only changes made in the budget were savings in transportation operating costs and teachers filing for retirements, which she felt could allow for further cuts.

“It doesn’t mean they’re retiring today or tomorrow, they’ve just given formal notice that they are and filing papers,” she explained. Nine teachers have put in for retirement, allowing the savings from their salaries to be passed on to the taxpayers in terms of a slightly smaller tax increase. The school tax levy for 2014-15 totals $101,492,086.

Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller won applause from the audience in the Montclair High School auditorium for proposing a resolution that “implored” the New Jersey Department of Education to adequately fund technology improvements and other unfunded mandates. Montclair Board of Education Chief Operating Officer Brian Fleischer drafted the resolution on the spot, and it passed unanimously.

Kulwin was pleased with the outcome of the budget, and she expected the district to continue moving forward. “We have a  good team,” she told reporters. “I believe in them.  They’ll do fine.”

Mayor Jackson tells Barista Kids he is, “pleased that the Kindergarten class-size and World Language initiatives will move forward and that the property tax increase was moderated.”

Glenfield Middle School Teacher’s Report
Teachers from Glenfield Middle School took their turn to report what “was and wasn’t working at their school.” Their overall assessment of the school was that it worked as well as it did, because of the devotion of teachers to their students and the school’s unique “house” system that ensures that a student is taught by no more than five teachers throughout his or her entire three-year tenure, allowing for stability in a student’s development and a better transition into high school. The Glenfield faculty faulted the district, though, for not paying enough attention to special education teachers and not including them in the planning of these changes. Later in the night, Chief Academic Officer Gail Clarke admitted that this had been a problem and that her office was working to remedy it.

The  teachers also cited the aging of the building itself, the environmental hazards of the basement (staff members  who worked there have died prematurely, leaving the faculty to call for an environmental study) a lack of textbooks and rehearsal space for performing arts classes, and a lack of security, among other concerns, as examples of what wasn’t working. Teacher Margaret Whitsett, focusing on the academic agenda, blasted the quarterly assessments, stating that midterms and finals were a better way to gauge a student’s progress.

The Glenfield teachers left the auditorium when the Board of Education stepped aside for the Board of School Estimate’s one-hour meeting (the whole night lasted more than five hours) and did not come back.  Montclair Education Association (MEA) president Gayl Shepard tried to take questions on their behalf, with board member Anne Mernin asking most of the questions.

On the issue of security and the teachers’ discomfort with changes in the academic agenda, Shepard conceded that it would be more appropriate to ask Glenfield faculty directly, possibly through e-mails. On the lack of communication between the school and the central office, though, Shepard was to the point.

“My understanding is that there continues to be a feeling this year that we’re not getting enough written communication administratively,” Shepard said. “Very often, communication that we receive, sometimes it’s not consistent. We might get two or three different communiqués that say different things, or we’re left trying to decipher which one to follow.”

Technology Presentation
Two technological presentations were made during the part of the Board of Education meeting that followed the BoSE meeting.  New Technology Director Barry Haines, who comes to the district after serving as the Director of Technology at Parsippany-Troy Hills school district, said he was undergoing a study of the technological amenities the district has on hand to develop a two-year plan to spend the money allotted for improvements to its computer network.  Haines plans to consult with the PTA and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) to formulate a strategy, which he plans to present by the end of June.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Marshall has been working toward a plan to revamp Montclair High  School’s own website, which hasn’t had an overall since it first went online in 2004.  Marshall’s objective is to work with students and faculty on what the high school needs for an interactive site that students can use as an online high school paper, use to provide class-oriented content.  A vendor is currently being sought, with hopes for a launch by the beginning of the next school year.

Kulwin asked if such a site could be replicated for the middle schools, but Fleischer, who has been working on the high school site issue with Marshall, said he wasn’t ready to commit to that yet. He said the focus now is on revamping the high school site, but the middle schools could get their own sites based on the success of the high school’s Web site.

Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell’s report
Also, in a report she gave to the school board, Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell said she has been aiming to help more students get after-school tutoring and reach out to families of students caught in the achievement gap, many of whom are minorities. Russell said she is working with the community to address systemic problems and is collaborating with the Montclair Civil Rights Commission. She also said  that she is continuing her efforts to draw high-caliber teachers into the district, hoping to  ensure a hiring process that will guarantee “the highest- quality candidates” for openings.

 

7 Comments

  1. POSTED BY spencerg  |  April 08, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    Yesterday was an important meeting that will dictate how millions are dollars are spent to educate our children. So why are we allowing board members with troubling allegiances to cast such influential votes?

    Sean Spiller, in particular, has a major conflict of interest, and it makes no sense that our town lets him serve on the Board.

    Here’s the problem: In addition to being our Ward 3 council member, Spiller serves as one of the top officials in a statewide capacity for the New Jersey Education Association. His job is to represent all of those members – and the district’s budget is mostly comprised of the salaries of those NJEA members. Spiller can’t possibly be an independent voice on the budget.

    He should step down from the Board of Estimate, or our Mayor should remove him.

    According to the NJEA’s site:

    “Spiller’s focus as NJEA secretary-treasurer is on helping members become more involved at the community level in confronting the challenges that face public education and school employees.”

    In other words, he is charged with representing the interests of the thousands of teacher-members statewide (and “confronting” likely means “getting in local political fights.”)

    https://www.njea.org/about/who-we-are/leadership-and-staff/officers/secretary-treasurer

    He’s already involved here in Montclair.

    This isn’t the first time this issue has been raised. When Spiller ran, people asked about his conflicts of interests in negotiating with town employees.

    “Also, the PCEA (Passaic County Education Association) PAC gave $1,000. As Sean Spiller is head of a teacher’s union himself (in Wayne), opponents have wondered if that will impact his ability to negotiate against town employees.”

    http://baristanet.com/2012/04/the-lowdown-on-campaign-donations/

    And that’s not even about his voting for or against the budget that pays the salaries of all of the NJEA members here in Montclair.

    Spiller wasn’t originally a statewide NJEA official representing teachers here in Montclair when he was elected and appointed to the Board of Estimate. So, in 2013, when he voted on the budget, it was less of an issue.

    But now that he is serving in that role, it represents a serious conflict of interest, and basic ethical standards would say he should step down from the position, or the Mayor should remove him.

  2. POSTED BY dherron  |  April 08, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    spencerg wrote,
    “So why are we allowing board members with troubling allegiances to cast such influential votes?”

    Surely you jest? Remove him, conflict of interest of please, such poppycock.

    Where were you when the issue of a certain BOE with troubling allegiances, having a conflict of interest when she voted to send district employees to Virginia for a seminar which was run by a company that her husband founded.

    Where were you went the State Ethics Commission ruled and certified that this same BOE member had troubling allegiances and did in fact have a conflict of interest and referred the matter to an Administrative Law Judge of hearing.

    Where were you when BOE members voted for quarterly assessments of students, when in fact, five out of 7 BOE members who voted for the quarterly assessments had the own children exempt from quarterly assessment by virtue of being in either AP classes or Small Learning Community classes,

    Where were you when BOE members’ hid information from the very public they serve?

    Where were you when BOE members’ hid $71,000 in legal fees to investigate assessmentsgate.

    Spiller-conflict of interest, is just silly.

  3. POSTED BY walleroo  |  April 08, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

    The Montclair Board of Education had another interminable meeting on April 7, lasting beyond midnight…

    Sounds like Steve Maginnis needs a vacation and/or raise.

  4. POSTED BY mcinmtc  |  April 09, 2014 @ 12:23 am

    I agree with both of the posters above that all potential conflicts of interests should be vigorously investigated. I don’t think it helps to call each other silly. We can all agree that we need to be informed and involved and serve as our own watchdogs when it comes to our public schools. Facts are important. People can have their own and differing conclusions and opinions, but they can’t have their own set of facts regarding investigations. In the case of the BoE member being investigated, I have inquired and learned that the seminar in VA was a professional development course (I think for principals) not run by private company founded by her spouse as stated above. It was run by Uncommon Schools, a group of charter schools that operate in Newark. The Board member’s husband heads a business that he relocated and headquartered in Newark He is an unpaid member of Uncommon School’s board and has been for some time, with his name and background noted on their website. His affiliation is not hidden, and it does not seem that his business would see financial benefit from services or sales to public or charter schools. I don’t think that has been alleged in the complaint (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    His position as an unpaid, volunteer advisor of this charter school group and provider of professional-development seminars may have been enough of a reason for the board member to have recused herself from the vote that approved several Superintendent’s spending requests, including funds to send staff to that seminar. Legally/ethically, I do not know the standard that should guide a board member’s actions in a situation like this. As dherron states, the ethics of that vote will be decided by an Administrative Law judge based on the facts of the case. Again, opinions about the potential outcomes of the ethics investigation will differ but the facts behind it should not. I’m trying hard to keep up with all this stuff (I am not an attorney), so please correct my facts if they are wrong. I share no opinions here.

    In regards to comments re Mr. Spiller, I think it is critical to recognize that every single member of the Board of School Estimate (not only Mr. Spiller), through his/her final vote on education funding/budget, has a great responsibility to and significant influence over the education of our 6500 public school students and our more than 1000 Montclair Public School employees. I think it is incredibly valuable for citizens to have some level of familiarity with the background and professional perspective of each BOSE member (and BoE member for that matter). It is a fact is that our duly elected Councilman Mr. Spiller is currently employed as the secretary-treasurer of the NJ Education Association. No one is disputing that fact – and it certainly isn’t a secret. Spencerg has an opinion that such a paid professional connection is a conflict of interest. Dherron concludes it is not. I appreciate having forums like Bkids where facts can be discussed and many opinions shared.

  5. POSTED BY mcinmtc  |  April 09, 2014 @ 12:28 am

    And yes, I agree, walleroo. Steve Maginnis should be getting double overtime pay.

  6. POSTED BY cspn55  |  April 09, 2014 @ 9:26 am

    “Board of School Estimate…. has a great responsibility to and significant influence over the education of our 6500 public school students and our more than 1000 Montclair Public School employees.”

    Don’t forget the other 30,000+ people who live in Montclair who may not have children or don’t use the school system. The BOSE and TC has to balance all of these interests to give our schools the funds they need to function well while keeping costs somewhat reasonable so that our residents can continue to afford to live here. According to many on this site, they are losing both ends of that battle.

    As for conflicts of interest – many of the anti-BOE crowd confuse “conflict of interest” with “difference of opinion” in terms of how to run the district. If those in power have a plan to proceed a manner the poster doesn’t agree with, then they must be tools of coroporations out to destroy public education and are working on behalf of evil corporations for profit. I happen to like Sean Spliier as my councilor and think he does a better job than the last guy in general. However, in this setting he openly sits on the opposite side of the bargaining table in his life outside of the BOSE, can’t imagine that is not a conflict.

    And dherron, you can have more than one person have a conflict of interest and acknowledge that this may happen in life. Throwing a “they do it too” argument out there is silly.

  7. POSTED BY mara  |  April 09, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

    Regarding Sean Spiller, I think there might be a reason to recuse himself if the Board of School Estimate negotiated contracts. This is not the case, teacher contracts are negotiated by the Board of Ed. The council people on the BoSE have nothing to do with that.

    I was in the audience for several of these recent BoSE meetings, I appreciated Mr. Spiller’s knowledge of how school systems work, I think it helped him ask good questions.

    Mara

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