MONTAGUE — School officials here have failed to explain why tonight's 6 o’clock hearing on the Board of Education's proposed $9.6 million budget for the 2020-21 school year was the subject of a notice on the message board in front of the Montague Elementary School over the weekend stating that the meeting had been "cancelled" when it really wasn't.


The false cancellation notice was removed late Saturday, but not before being seen by dozens of residents who were falsely led to believe the meeting would not be taking place, raising the possibility that the board could now risk running afoul of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by proceeding with the meeting as planned.


Board of Education President Glen Plotsky, after being asked by the New Jersey Herald what happened, replied with a brief text message late Sunday saying he had no knowledge of the situation.


Officials also have failed to explain why, after Superintendent Timothy Capone slammed several board members on social media for not agreeing to his original budget request in March for a 6.78% tax increase, they refused a request by board member Paul Brislin to have the school's $80,000-a-year business administrator, Erkan Gumustekin, who seldom attends board meetings, come to tonight's meeting to answer questions about the budget.


Officials have further failed to account for why, even though tonight's meeting will be streamed live to the public, the board is meeting at a physical location at the school despite a bulletin from the state Division of Local Government Services advising school boards and other public bodies that they should avoid doing so in order to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order limiting public and private gatherings during the COVID-19 state of emergency.


Following the signing of the governor's executive order on March 21, board member Danielle Christmann specifically asked to be allowed to attend the April 13 board meeting remotely or by phone but was denied, even though public bodies routinely grant the same accommodation to members who are out of town on business or are vacationing.


Christmann confirmed to the Herald Monday that "I did not attend the last meeting because they were not able to include me remotely. I very much wanted to be there."


The Herald has also learned that several people, who attempted to comment during the public portion of the April 16 board meeting, claimed they were prevented from doing so due to inadequate call-in instructions that failed to specify the multiple prompts that had to be followed after calling the school’s main number in order for them to get through to the meeting and be heard.


Phone and email messages to Superintendent Timothy Capone regarding these matters remained unanswered at the time this article went to publication Monday evening.


The board, meanwhile, is expected tonight to receive public comment and hold a final vote on the proposed 2020-21 budget, which — because it failed to receive a majority vote when Capone presented it to the board on March 16 — ended up being reviewed by the office of Executive County Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte, where officials trimmed Capone's request for a 6.78% tax increase to 2%.


The board will still have an opportunity to make last-minute changes to the proposed budget before taking a final vote on it, but doing so will almost certainly require overriding the wishes of Capone, who failed to hold a single budget meeting with members of his board — something normally done multiple times prior to a public school budget's legally required introduction in March — before presenting it to them on March 16.


Capone, after failing to receive the preliminary 4 out of 7 votes needed at that time to send the budget to a final hearing, later took to social media where he accused his board, on the school district's official Facebook page, of "abdicating their responsibility" as board members because of their failure to give preliminary approval to the budget, which failed on a 3-3 tie vote.


At the time of the budget's introduction, Plotsky along with board members Charlie Teufert and Jennifer Caramucci voted in favor of it. Brislin, Christmann and board member Dale Bouma voted against it. Board member Billy Underwood was absent from that meeting.


Brislin, however, questioned at the time why members of the board were handed a budget — whose numbers had been substituted on the agenda prior to the meeting with X's underneath the various columns — that they were being asked to vote on that same night. Brislin subsequently requested the presence of the business administrator to answer questions at tonight's meeting, which was denied.


Several members of the public have criticized Capone for, in their view, expecting the board to rubber-stamp the proposed budget without their having an opportunity to digest it.


One of them, John Mannion, questioned Capone’s original request for a 6.78% tax increase and cited the salary breakage achieved by replacing several former experienced teachers at the top of the salary guide with new hires at lower salaries. Mannion also questioned the pay increase given to Capone last year and the additional money that was spent converting the former school library into an executive suite.


"How much did that cost the taxpayers, and why was that necessary?" Mannion asked.


Barbara Holstein, a former board member, also faulted Capone for not including the most rudimentary budgetary information on the meeting agenda prior to its introduction. She said it was not the first time that important matters had been omitted by Capone from the agenda.


"At least put in the agenda that's advertised what you're going to be discussing, so board members can make sure we're not writing a blank check when we should be tightening the budget," she said.


Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.