Clifton Board of Education Discusses Budget Issues and Other Important Topics
The Clifton Board of Education met on Thursday March 23, 2023 at 7 pm. The agenda can be found here. In attendance were the Commissioners Mr. Fahim K. Abedrabbo, Mr. Feras Awwad, Ms. Judith A. Bassford, Mr. Mark Brunciak, Dr. Lucy Danny, Vice President, Mr. Richard Mejia, Mr. Alan Paris, Mr. Anthony Santiago, Mr. Jim Smith, President. Also present were Danny A. Robertozzi, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools, Mark Gengaro, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Janina Kusielewicz, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Michael Ucci, Business Administrator /Board Secretary, and Ahmed Shehata, Assistant Business Administrator/Assistant Board Secretary.
Public Comments (limited to 5 minutes):
Shannon S. High School Teacher and member of the Teacher’s Union stepped up to say that the schools need more funding. Currently the classes are too large - we have 30 students in a classroom and the classrooms are falling apart. She spoke of teachers leaving education or retiring early because it takes a toll to have to provide for so many children and deal with so many issues. We are losing very good staff because they can’t handle the stress.
Laura L: The teacher and union president stated that raising taxes to fund the budget can help every student have the resources to succeed. Good schools attract businesses and families. It is good for our community. In addition, underfunding causes schools to not be able to meet their legal obligations to the students. No matter how wonderful and committed our teachers and students are, you “can’t have a Cadillac education at Pinto prices.”
John O’R: This CHS teacher said that we have great people at the Clifton schools but the classrooms have 30 kids and that is problematic. Teachers are so busy juggling obligations and counselors are very busy dealing with so many kids with challenges. Every person is doing the job of two so the burnout rate is high. Teaching is a performing profession and a caretaking profession. He talked about having several jobs and stipends just to make ends meet. He also said we don’t have enough paraprofessionals to get the most vulnerable kids to the bathroom.
Superintendent Robertozzi Report: Dr. Robertozzi began by saying that Clifton stands in solidarity with our Muslim community and wishes all celebrating a Ramadan Mubarak. He said that the CHS tennis courts are done and that invitations to the ribbon cutting are going out next Monday. The turf field at Woodrow Wilson Middle School will be put down at the Field House and students will be able to play on it in the spring. Every school has something going on, whether it is the installation of new windows or HVAC. He then reminded everyone that the commissioners needed to pass a resolution to approve and send the preliminary budget to the county office. This is just preliminary; they will still have until May 4th to make any necessary changes. The budget will be finalized at the May 4th Board of Education meeting.
Auditor’s Report: Paul Lerch from the Lerch, Vinci, and Bliss public auditing firm presented the audit for the financial statements for the Clifton School District for the school year, which ended in June 2022. The Clifton Board of Education got an unmodified or clean opinion, which means that it was well done and had no significant deficiencies. There was only one note about how the encumbrances and reserves for contract payments for the installation of the windows was handled. He explained that the audit looks at the financial statements and then looks at the State and Federal grants received. The auditors review the $109 million in State aid and the $26 million in Federal aid provided to Clifton and examine how those grants were spent, looking at eligibility and allowable costs.
Lerch mentioned that food services generated $1.1 million of profit in 2022 (Robertozzi stated later that in the past those profits would have been used to pay down outstanding lunch debts but that this is no longer permitted).
Lerch reported that the District has received awards of $39.1 million in Covid related grants over the last 3 years.
Lerch discussed GASB 75, how the State funding of post-retirement benefits (except pensions) is handled.
The General Fund balance is approximately $22,129,398. Last year the district retained $1.3 million. He said that while some funds are set aside and have a requirement for the retained balances, the District has $9 million in free balance funds. Prior to Covid, the rule was that only 2% of the free balance funds could be retained moving into the next year (the remainder would have to be moved into capital or emergency reserves). During Covid, the District has been allowed to retain 4%, in recognition of the unexpected expenditures many schools had to make during the pandemic. Now that the pandemic is over the District will only be able to retain 2% again, so when the fiscal year closes the balance of free funds can only be up to $3.9 million. The difference will be diverted into reserves for emergency or capital reserves.
Policy Committee: Commissioner Bassford reported on the meeting of the Policy Committee and discussed that they will be submitting a Proposed District Therapy Dog Proposal next meeting.
Student Liaison Committee: Commissioner Paris stated that the committee met with three CHS students from each grade level, who gave their feedback on what they like about Clifton High School. The students reported liking the lunch program, the variety of college options, school security, and the dedication of the teachers. They raised concerns about people using one another’s cards to buy food, the start time of schools, and the reputation of Clifton schools, as they look at their options for summer and for colleges. Paris praised the students as a credit to our high school. Robertozzi said that he was surprised that the group of students they spoke to unanimously liked the current start time, and thought that if school started later, it would just mean that kids would go to bed later. President Smith said that it was really moving to hear how much the teachers mean to the students. They met one student who was concerned with where she was going to go and how to pay for school, and that day she found out she got a full ride to MIT. Smith added that students are very appreciative of the new security team in the schools, the relationship with the security, and how it has helped “the mosh pit” tremendously.
Commissioner Brunciak asked about an incident where a student used another student’s ID to buy food. Robertozzi stated that students need to put their IDs in the basket when they go to the bathroom and an ID was stolen and used to buy food. Robertozzi said that this was a one-time occurrence and that they are working to prevent this from happening again.
Transportation/Food Service Committee: Commissioner Santiago discussed the meeting with the committee. With respect to food service, Santiago discussed the equipment upgrades at CCMS, WWMS, and Schools 13 and 9.
Transportation. Santiago discussed that the Clifton School District has 45 buses and vans that are used to transport 2,500 students every day in the district (to and from their homes in Clifton to Clifton School District buildings). This number rises to 3,500 once you include children in charters and out-of-district schools. A single route used to cost $40,000 and now costs $120,000. Most of the out-of-district routes are to PCTI and private schools. The Clifton School District has applied for a grant from the State of New Jersey for part of the costs of three new electric buses and three charging stations. The committee also discussed the ongoing property search for a new transportation hub as the existing one is in bad shape. Commissioner Abedrabbo asked if we would be keeping both sites. He was told that the District has been looking for two years and is considering every option. He then asked if the three electric buses would be replacing three diesel buses, and was told that they would. This is part of the State’s initiative for getting rid of diesel buses to reduce pollution.
Lunch Debts. Robertozzi said that even though students owe $300,000 in lunch debts, we cannot fail to feed children. The District is reaching out to parents to have them fill out the forms that would allow them to get free/reduced lunch. Many of the students who are accruing debts would be eligible for free/reduced lunch if the forms were submitted. Please fill out the form here and submit it to the school through the Parent Portal, even if you aren’t sure that you qualify. Bassford asked about whether the form would cover lunch debts retroactively and was told that it would not. Robertozzi said that they were trying to alert parents while the balances were still low ($20) as this is an easier amount to collect. Commissioner Meija mentioned a service called Mongoose that could be used to text parents and students to remind them to pay their balances. The balances are reviewed weekly and once the threshold reaches a balance of $20 an email is sent every week, until the balance is paid. The business office can set the threshold at any amount.
Robertozzi stated that part of the problem is that during the pandemic all the students received free lunches and many parents may not know that they need to submit the free and reduced lunch forms to receive free lunches now. Abedrabbo asked what the District can do if we cannot recover the $300,000. Commissioner Danny stated there are districts that will hold a student’s report card until the balance is paid and will hold diplomas if needed. Students cannot be legally stopped from moving forward and students in danger of failing will still be notified, but the paper reports might be held back. Bassford stated that $300,000 is a lot of money, and wants a legal opinion on what we can do to recover it. Santiago stated that he is not in favor of holding diplomas hostage.
Finance Committee: Commissioner Brunciak reported that State assistance to Clifton was increased and it looks like Clifton is now fully funded. The bad news is that the District will not get any more money until the funding formula is revamped through legislation.
Facilities Committee: Commissioner Paris gave an update on the improvements being done with the money raised through the 2021 School Referendum which raised $168 million (of which $55 million was provided by the State of New Jersey for construction projects). Paris reported that the bathrooms are being worked on and may be finished by December 2023, barring any manufacturer delays. The HVAC systems are being installed but most of the HVAC improvements will need more power. Supply chain challenges are delaying the necessary equipment to install and upgrade transformers. Paris stated that the city will plant the trees once the district buys them. Concerns with the band field contractor will be completed by March 31. Construction is also being done for a bathroom near the soccer fields. The district is also looking into grants for safer streets, including the installation of speed bumps near the schools. These grants typically take a few months and we would find out if we had them by the summer. Robertozzi reported that the projects funded by the referendum should be done in three years from today, but the transformers will take longer - PSEG is 60 weeks out for this work.
Expression of Condolences: read by Comm. Bassford for the passing of Mrs. Vera Schimenti, who worked as a teacher's aide at the Clifton School District for over 20 years before retiring in 2019.
WHEREAS, on March 1, 2023, the community noted with sorrow the passing of Mrs. Vera Schimenti and
WHEREAS, Mrs. Schimenti had served the Board of Education and children of Clifton faithfully and conscientiously as a highly respected teacher's aide for over 20 years before retiring in 2019.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that this resolution be forwarded to her bereaved family to serve as an expression of the great regard in which Mrs. Schimenti was held by the Board of Education, the administration, employees, and pupils of the Clifton Public Schools, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the contents of this resolution be noted in their entirety in the official minutes of the Clifton Board of Education for future generations to peruse.
Education/Administration: All of the resolutions were passed except E/A 8 (Suspension of a student) which was held for private discussion in the executive session.
Personnel: All of the personnel matters were passed.
Finance/Facilities - The Budget. Bassford asked for a separate roll call on F7 (the adoption of the preliminary budget). Abedrabbo reminded the Board that the preliminary budget needs to be submitted to the County Superintendent, but that it doesn't need to be final - they can still change it until May 4th. The $22 million surplus means there will be no budgetary layoffs. Bassford questioned the fact that at the working session of the City Council Meeting, the City Council amended the ordinance to now charge the school buildings for sewer and water charges ($18,000 for the year), which is not in the current budget. Smith said that they did attempt to discuss this with the City Council Members in the Municipal Alliance but didn’t get cooperation.
Bassford asked Mr. Shehata to provide information on what each incremental increase of the budget would mean. Shehata stated that a 2% increase would mean 18 new positions plus 9 paraprofessionals being made full-time with benefits. A 3% increase would mean 21 new staff members and 15 paraprofessionals being made full-time with benefits, and 4% means 29 new staff members with 18 paraprofessionals being made full time. The Board passed the preliminary budget.
Commissioner Bassford stated she wished that more people would come to the meetings to be heard by the Board of Education. “Tell us what you need.” If classrooms are falling apart, we have maintenance reserves and those are supposed to be used to fix them.
She also reminded people that the deadline to submit their candidacy to run for the school board is July 31, 2023, and the election will be on November 7, 2023. Click HERE for the candidates’ kit; all you need is to be a US citizen and a Clifton resident and to gather ten signatures from registered Clifton voters.
The next Board of Education meeting will be on Thursday, April 6th at 7 pm at the Board of Education Building at 745 Clifton Avenue. The entrance is in the back and the meeting room is downstairs.
You can watch the full meeting HERE.