The Montclair Board of Education received a long-awaited presentation on developing a world language program at its three-hour regular meeting on December 12. Jessica Lasusa, the district’s world-language consultant, gave an extensive overview that included a slide program, which is expected to be available on the district’s Web site on December 13.
Lasusa explained that acquisition of a second language, applied linguistics, and ideas for teaching, should ideally blend into a seamless fashion in instructing world languages. But in reality only teaching ideas by themselves works in the classroom. She recommended a strategy for allotting time once or twice a year through grades K-8 for language articulation with a unified program between teachers in different schools at the same level of course, something teachers themselves told her was of primary importance. The collaborative effort would include proficiency targets and benchmark assessments to gauge student’s progress, along with professional development sessions for both teachers and administrators, and special emphasis on code-switching – alternating between English and another language with a single sentence – to help the students immerse themselves in the other language. Lasusa said that promoting culture, communications, comparisons, communities and connections to the world languages – the “5 Cs” – are more important than grammar in getting high school students up to fluency in said languages.
Lasusa said that everyone in the district has to work together to bring world languages into sync across the district, and that maximum exposure to other languages is the best way to success. She advocated emphasis on Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese. She also said that the best way to build literacy in both English and other languages is to teach with a 50-50 ratio between English and the second language.
Reaction to the presentation from the school board was generally positive though Board President Jessica de Koninck noted that allotting time for world languages could impinge on other subjects, like math and science, and she rhetorically asked what topics might be curtailed to allow world-language immersion. Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi said he and Lasusa would meet and try to develop a strategy for how to include world languages into the program.
The board also heard from Raymond Sarinelli of the Mount Arlington accounting firm Nisivoccia, LLP, who provided the district’s comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR). Sarinelli reported that the district’s once-considerable fund balance had leveled off for the 2015-16 year after dropping sharply in previous years, and that its $.7 million excess surplus from 2012-13 has steadily been reduced to zero. He spoke of a glide path that had been targeted for the district to get from one school year, and that the district was now slightly below its trajectory because the teachers’ contract had been higher than budgeted for. Part of the decline was the lack of state aid and that the 2016-17 year is also expected to be tight. He said the full report should be finalized soon, allowing the district to formulate a corrective action plan when they adopt the audit.
Superintendent Bolandi touched on one component of the district’s spending plans, Schools Development Authority (SDA) grants and reimbursement of available funds from outstanding from those grants. A school board would normally approve a grant with a 60/40 split, with the district funding and bonding the project for 60 percent and drawing down 40 percent from the state on a monthly basis. That way, they would never be shortfalled and still have money in the budget, but in Montclair, SDA grants were executed differently – the district got all of the money from the township, but the taxpayers lost out.
“Since the township has the debt, they’ve got to give us 100 percent of the money,” he said. “And even though it’s our grant, remember, it’s not the township’s grant, it’s our grant, and the township gives us 100 percent of the money. We’re now whole as a school district. We didn’t lose anything, but the taxpayers lost 40 percent, which has to go back to the town.” He said that whoever made this decision lost a lot of taxpayer dollars. An audit that attempts to recoup money from SDA grants is possible.
Superintendent Bolandi also spoke to the need for capital improvements, putting together a list of safety-based projects with Business Administrator Steve DiGeromino. He said he acted as if he did not have to go to the school board and came up with a hypothetical capital project referendum with a list of things to bring each building up to par with an architect he consulted. He said that, as he is unable to present such a referendum in the Montclair district, he would like to present the document as a blueprint for what the district should do when considering capital projects. He cited cracked staircases and loose cornices and parapets as examples of what needs to be rebuilt and repair throughout the district’s schools. Superintendent Bolandi said that the project list, which totals anywhere between $45 million and $50 million, should serve as a guide for how the board should proceed. His list will be available in January.
The board also passed a resolution adopting the Strauss Esmay database system of bylaws, policies and regulations that was discussed in the board’s November 2 workshop. Dr. Felice Harrison-Crawford is currently reviewing a list of regulations and rules specific to Montclair that will be inserted into the database, which will likely be reviewed in February.