Fact Checking Some of the Attacks

Now that the budget debate is over, we can take a look at some of the attacks that were made around it by Montclair “Cares” About Schools and others and see if they were fact-based. SPOILER: Unsurprisingly, most weren’t.

First, a provocatively (and deceptively) titled Facebook post from MCAS. It makes a number of claims. We’re going to present the facts on a few of them. The attacks are really heavy on technology spending. We plan to write another piece soon addressing those attacks specifically…

We’ll start with the title: “Cutting Aides To Buy Tablets.”

BaristaNet and school board member Lombard do our job for us here:

“This prompted board member Shelly Lombard to remind Montclair residents that spending on teachers and spending on technology came from two different budgets, the capital and operating budgets, respectively, and that one had no impact on the other.” Baristanet, March 7, 2014

The claim that technology investments are replacing staff is just false. We’re probably way under-invested in tech for our students, but regardless, they aren’t competing budget priorities.

Another claim: “No reduction in class sizes.”

That wasn’t true. The budget will provide for additional kindergarten teachers, and lower kindergarten class sizes.

[Kulwin] “said the budget also includes funding for three additional kindergarten teachers and three kindergarten teacher aides. The hiring will permit the district to create new kindergarten classes in Bullock and Nishuane elementary schools, reducing average kindergarten class size district-wide from 24 to 21 students.” The Record, April 9th, 2014

They also claimed there would be just 3 World Language Instructors (and suggested it as a reason not to be impressed with the plan.

Actually, the plan includes 4.5 world language instructors – more additional staff are being hired by the district than they claimed.

Not sure why they misstated this, other than general anti-school-districts sentiment.

Another attack on the budget came in a letter from Cary Chevat.

First, he wrote:

“When you consider the $12.8 million surplus discovered by outside auditors in November, this is a $20 million swing in the district finances in 120 days.”

It is pretty misleading to say that auditors “discovered” a $12.8 million surplus – there had been a surplus each of the past few years, including a $11 million surplus at the end of the 2010-2011 year.

That surplus grew to $13.9 million by the end of the 2011-2012 school year.  The district had discussed that $13.9 million surplus with the auditing firm Nisivoccia, and talked about a “glide path,” expecting the surplus to begin to decline in 2012-13. 

Moreover, it’s even more misleading to have characterized this as a $20 million swing. The budget surplus is allocated to future budgets when it is accounted for. So of the more than $12.8 million, $4.8 million went to the school 2013-14 school budget, $2.2 million to 2014-15, $2.8 million to the capital reserve, $.75 million to maintenance and repairs, and $2.2 for operating reserve for 2013-2014. Long story short, despite the attacks, the auditor said the district’s finances were in good shape:

“Sarinelli said an adequate surplus for a district like Montclair would be in the one to two percent range.

‘You’re right in that range,’ he told the board.

He also commended the board for reducing the amount of tax revenue needed to support the district’s public schools.

‘The tax levy for the year ending June 30, 2011 was $101.1 million. The year ending June 30, 2012 it was $97.5 million, or a $3.6 million reduction,’ he said. ‘You’ve held that same tax levy for the year ending June 30, 2013, and you’ve also kept it the same for June 30, 2014.

‘I think that’s a significant accomplishment and it needs to be pointed out,’ Sarinelli said. ‘There is no other district that I deal with that can say that the tax levy is less than it was four years ago,’” The Record, November 19th, 2013

But in his letter, Chevat also claimed:

“Eight months into the 2012-13 fiscal year, Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack was unaware of a major surplus according to her presentation of 2/23/13.”

That’s clearly just not true. For instance, this press release from the district months earlier shows her talking about the budget surplus, well advance of the date that Chevat claimed she didn’t know about it (a false, petty claim clearly just aimed at undermining her credibility).

Chevat also claims that:

“The board has already missed major deadlines to approve and fund a wide range of educational initiatives by November 2013, including world language, magnet school policy, Montclair High School facility updates and MHS technology plan.”

Again, this is misleading. In fact, the budget that he is attacking funds many of those things he’s talking about. It includes funding for tech upgrades, restores funding for world language, has capital funding, and magnets. For instance, the budget book explicitly highlights the  “continued support to preserve a high quality integrated magnet system with no reductions to school level programs or instructional staff.”  (Page 4 of the Budget book)

Later, Chevat again seems to suggest that the district didn’t have a plan to fund programs, saying:

“In the next few months, the district is facing their own funding deadlines for programs that include district maintenance, learning disabilities, achievement gap recommendations, Pre-K and PARCC compliance. These represent millions of dollars of unfunded programs, many required by law. With the district bankrupt, what is the superintendent’s plan going forward?”

The reality is that the 2014-2015 budget explicitly provides for “Capital funding for district-wide technology improvements to support digital learning and achieve PARCC readiness… Resources for continuing to bring special education students back to in-district programming… [and] Resources to meet requirements of special education, ESL, remedial programs in math and language arts for students at risk and programs for accelerated students.” (Page 4 of the Budget book)

This of course raises questions about why he would make these claims since they aren’t true.

Claiming the district has ignored obvious solutions, he says:

“Four years ago, I chaired the Alternative Revenue Committee, which identified opportunities to generate incremental income. The board’s failure to approve our recommendations has cost taxpayers over $5 million to date.”

It’s true that Chevat chaired the committee. As I recall, their suggestions involved selling advertising billboards on our school buses and fields and selling alcohol in the schools. The community made a decision not to adopt those measures and that, certainly, was not a decision the superintendent had anything to do with. That question about whether we should be selling booze in our schools is really a different debate than this one about our budget.

Finally, Chevat characterized the district in his letter as “bankrupt,” reckless language that’s clearly just not true. Critics of the superintendent are obviously free to criticize the functions of the district, but we should be having these debates with honest facts not lies and exaggerations.

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