The Montclair Board of Education spent its January 11 workshop meeting looking back and looking forward. Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi gave a presentation of the district’s accomplishments in pursuing various initiatives and goals in recent years.
Among the accomplishments he cited were developing a tutorial program in each school with after-school services and available busing for said services, initiatives to work with local clergy to bring tutoring to the neediest students, the development of an elementary-level literacy and math program with input from parents and staff, extensive training in the district’s “Undoing Racism” initiative, and developing a training program with the teachers’ union that employed full-day training as opposed to half-day sessions, which Superintendent Bolandi called counterproductive. He was particularly proud of the program to work with Montclair State University to assist the district with tutorial and staff development programs. The superintendent noted the involvement of Montclair State educational students in the program, and he credited Dr. Debbie Evans, the interim director of elementary education, for her efforts.
Superintendent Bolandi also cited the development of disciplinary codes in the middle schools and the high school, noting that the lowering of suspension levels is still not where he wants it to be. “We really got to look at some of the issues of why minority students are still being suspended . . . not at the high rate we did have, but I still think it’s too high.” On the review of algebra placements in the middle schools, Superintendent Bolandi said that the district, having taken a look at Glenfield and Buzz Aldrin, must understand that reviews of Renaissance School are very important.
“Renaissance philosophy does not allow us to do what we do in Buzz and Glenfield,” he said. “We have to talk about that, that’s something we promised parents we’d talk about. He said that the issue of whether to review the algebra placements at Renaissance would be on the agenda, and the question was having Renaissance use the same review process so the students don’t enter high school with a disadvantage.
With Superintended Bolandi’s time growing short, he looked at future initiatives that the board and his successor might hope to pursue going into the 2017 calendar year and beyond. Among them were improving language instruction, which the superintend found imperative, improving high school schedules and the quality of hirings for technicians, and reviewing and recommending improvements in the climate systems in each building. He also said that the achievement gap among students was more of an attitude gap among teachers, saying that minority students shouldn’t be expected to underperform compared to their white counterparts.
Board member Eve Robinson responded to Superintendent Bolandi’s challenge to the school district to have third-graders reading at or above the standard level and fifth-graders reading and writing above said level, with all eighth-graders well-prepared for the rigors of high school. She said it caused her to consider the K-2 level very closely, and that any deficiencies in those grades and in Pre-kindergarten education should be addressed. She said children should be able to learn to read and improve at their own pace. “That’s where you’re going to get your success,” she said.
Board member Anne Mernin asked about remediation for students falling behind, and how remedial action would be fit into a child’s learning path. Superintendent Bolandi said those children are in Response To Intervention (RTI) classes, which in some cases are supplemented with regular instruction in order to get them up to speed. He said Dr. Evans would offer a more detailed explanation of the issue in the future.
Business administrator Steve DiGeronimo explained the intricacies of formulating a budget for the 2017-18 school year. Looking at the revenues, he said they are decreasing and there is only a 2 percent tax increase allowable. With the loss of the fund balance, it puts the budget in deficit. Taking all of the expenditures into account, DeGeromino said there is only 8 percent that is discretionary. Reduced revenues with increased mandatory expenditures would put the district at 3.6 million over budget. DeGeromino said it would force the budget to make choices without the benefit of surplus money. He called it a culture shift.” He hoped to have a budget tentatively approved by February. Superintendent Bolandi said he hoped to meet with principals before the end of the month and include their recommendations for consideration.
Among the many things Superintendent Bolandi also hoped to see improvement in is the quality of school lunches, which he frankly admitted was substandard. In public comment, resident Abraham Dickerson reiterated his advocacy for healthier foods and a menu that got away from food laden with sugars and chemicals, which he said caused a form of addiction perpetrated by brain signals that had affect on learning. His daughter Alexis spoke up for a similarly ambitious proposal – renaming Hillside School after outgoing President Barack Obama. She said that seeing a black male principal in charge of Hillside School at the time President Obama assumed office was inspiring to her, as was the President’s own assumption of his job. She has started a petition to have Hillside School renamed for him.