Montclair School Board President Shelly Lombard wants to make herself crystal clear.
She told Patch she had no idea the district would wind up sitting on a $5.7 million surplus when formulating the $110 million budget approved earlier this year.
"The board had no idea," she said. "We were all stunned."
Only a year ago, a proposed a long list of cost-cutting measures that included half day kindergarten, reduced course offerings at Montclair High School, and the consolidation of Renaissance with other middle schools.
The school board never had to go that far when hammering out a spending plan but the did make cuts and gave health benefits only to classroom aides who'd been on the job for 20 years or longer.
Since then, school employees such as Jim Zarrilli, an aide for eight years, have stood up at school board meetings, passionately pleading for the return of benefits.
"What did we ever do to be treated with such disrespect?" he said.
But at a the Montclair School District's business administrator Dana Sullivan announced that there was $5.7 million left over from the 2010/2011 operating budget, or nearly double the surplus reported by the district the year before.
Since then, Lombard said she's received angry emails from residents wondering why the board entertained such dramatic spending cuts earlier this year when the district was sitting on such a large surplus.
"I want to be crystal clear and say we had no idea about this surplus," she said. "We started last summer with budget working groups ... people had been complaining about taxes for years.
"Some nights we were talking about school closings until nearly midnight," she said. "Do you think we'd have done that if we'd have known about this surplus?"
So what will the board do with the money now that they know the district has it?
"I believe you have to use it to offset taxes and you can't do things like pay down debt," Lombard said, adding that she will need to investigate the board's options.
"I think the one thing we need to be conscious of is that we can't use the money to hire a bunch of new people because then how will we pay them the next year and the years after?" she said. "You could use it for a recurring expense but then how would you be able to afford it going forward?
"But using the money to buy computers or textbooks or to purchase a one time thing is logical," she added.
Lombard said residents have asked whether benefits will be restored to the aides.
"I do not know what will happen yet as we just got this information," she said. "It's on the table and it's one of the things we'll have to think about."
In the end, Lombard said she feels as though the board was blindsided.
"I would not have spent the kind of time we did on the budget last year if I'd have known this," she said.
In addition to the surplus, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-8) also announced this week that the Montclair school district will receive $9,384 in additional funding.
It's part of $8.2 million in new federal Education Jobs monies made available to New Jersey school districts.
The new funding is comprised of $4 million that was previously allocated to South Carolina plus another $4.2 million from New Jersey's unused portion of what it could have used for administrative costs.