Last night the Montclair Board of Education altered the agenda order for its meetings, implementing two important changes. First, the public portion of the meeting was split into two—one 30-minute section for comment on agenda items, prior to those items being taken up, and an unlimited section at the end of the meeting for non-agenda items (in both circumstances, each speaker is limited to three minutes). Second, we moved the MEA and the PTA Council from time unconstrained slots to immediately before the first three-minute slots in both public comment sections.
We made this change to address two issues. The first issue is one of timing. A meeting of the Board of Education is a meeting of the Board to conduct its business, in public. The Montclair School District has over 1,000 employees and a budget exceeding $110 million. For the Board to conduct effective oversight, its members need the time and energy to ask questions, debate and decide how to vote on the myriad of financial, legal, personnel and policy issues that arise from such a large, complex organization. Since the Board meeting takes place in the evening and many members work during the day, changing the format enables the board to address the items requiring a vote earlier in the evening.
The second issue relates to the creation of a climate hostile to free expression. Over the last 18 months, I have received increasing complaints that the behavior of the MEA at BOE meetings is intimidating to non-MEA members; that parents are uncomfortable to speak at BOE meetings; and that parents are worried to speak in favor of positions opposed by the MEA. And, indeed, last night when a few parents expressed the fact that yes, it was intimidating to speak at the meeting, they were heckled.
The Board wants to hear from all the constituencies in Montclair. Under the new format, the MEA has the first speaking slots in both public comment sections; its members have unlimited time to speak in the non-agenda public comment portion of the meeting. Any contention that their voices are stifled is nonsense. However, it is our hope and desire that the change in format will enable Montclair parents and Montclair residents to express themselves once again without fear of harassment, intimidation or retaliation.
I am particularly distressed by Gayl Shepard’s attempts to wrap the cloak of desegregation and race relations around what is a labor issue. Behind every demonstration at a BOE meeting over the last 18 months is one fact: Teachers in Montclair are worried. They are worried because the State of New Jersey has instituted a more robust evaluation system; they are worried because the State of New Jersey has significantly weakened tenure laws. Combine that with significant change resulting from the implementation of a new curriculum aligned to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards and it is no surprise members of the MEA are agitated. However, Ms. Shepard’s attempt to suggest the change in Board format is any way analogous to the fight for desegregation is disingenuous and her claim that the Board is failing to honor the democratic process because “not all parties are heard and represented” is simply not the case.
We recognize the importance of our teachers to our schools. As the point of contact with our students, the success of our schools lies in their hands. We also sympathize with their concerns regarding new evaluation systems and weaker tenure protection. Recognizing how much change the Common Core State Standards would require of our teachers, the Superintendent pushed hard to give our teachers a raise (2.8%), which was 25% higher than the state average. We wanted to send a strong message to our teachers: we need you and we appreciate you. At the same time, we don’t have the luxury of delaying our new curriculum and we’re confident that as this year progresses, the positive effects on our students of the new curriculum will please both teachers and parents alike.
We want to hold BoE meetings not only where the business of the Board can be accomplished, but where parents, MEA members, and the community at large can freely express their opinions and concerns without being heckled. We firmly believe that with the support and cooperation of the MEA leadership this can happen.