The Montclair Board of Education discussed special education and capital improvement projects at its December 6 workshop meeting, and it also heard from Director of Operations and School Support Services Felice Harrison-Crawford on the progress of the summer camp initiative, which completed its second year after a long absence.
The board looked at a proposed resolution for conducting a comprehensive assessment of the district’s special-education program, and the debate centered on the wording of the revised version that Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak preferred to the original version. The original version states that analysis of the needs of special-ed students should focus on the number of students in each special-ed category, the grade levels when the needs were so identified, how they were identified, including whether caregivers provided outside evaluations of the students and whether the district had contracted for outside evaluators, and the nature and the quantity of such evaluations. The original wording also called for the inclusion of date “on legal resources engaged by caregivers, including when legal resources engaged and what outcomes resulted. Superintendent Pinsak redlined these clauses in an effort to simplify the language – she would not refer to the redlined matter as “redundancies” – and concentrated on language indicating that the analysis should focus on programs, processes, communication structures, personnel resources, organizations, and an understanding of out-of-district placements.
Some members of the board preferred to see an acknowledgment of the need to collect data per the original wording, and board member Eve Robinson said it was important to look forward and get a comprehensive analysis done. Board member Anne Mernin advocated for a holistic approach to understanding what is needed in special education, the word “holistic” itself redlined from the original wording. The debate prompted reaction from members of the public, including Dr. Geoff Zylstra, an advocate for special education and a frequent critic of the district’s handling of it. Dr. Zylstra said the resolution offered no nexus point to see how special-ed programs intersected, and he saw nothing in it allowing him to see where a child with special-ed needs would be at 18 years of age. The board has not finalized the wording of the resolution yet, but it is expecting to vote on the matter as early as the next meeting on December 18.
The board also heard from District Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea on capital improvement projects, a topic of great concern and interest at the special Board of School Estimate meeting the previous week. D’Andrea reported that he and his accounting supervisor Melissa Beattie met with building officials to get an overview of the projects most in need of funding. Together with the Parette Somjen architectural firm, the district came up with a list of projects envisioned to cost 65.7 million over three to five years; at least $20.9 million would be slated toward top priority projects. The projects cover everything from partial roof replacements and door and door-lock replacements at some of the elementary schools to new auditorium seats and elevator cars at the high school, as well as a replacement of the turf at Fortunato Field. That project alone is tagged at 1.14 million.
D’Andrea said the properties are focused on safety and the well-being of students and teachers alike, and the list can evolve and change from year to year as building administrators re-prioritize their projects. The one school building that is not slated for priority spending is the Charles Bullock School, which opened in 2010 and has none of the architectural or infrastructural problems associated with age. D’Andrea instead pointed to Facilities Director John Aschmann’s recommendation that the district earmark $121,000 over the next few years for routine maintenance to prevent Bullock from needing any major repairs. The business office will continue to have conversations with the board’s Facilities and Finance Subcommittee, chaired by Joseph Kavesh. Resident Brian Anderson said he was pleased to see that priority was being given to the ventilation in Watchung Elementary School, which his children attend.
Dr. Harrison-Crawford briefed the board on the progress of the summer-camp initiative, which resumed in 2016 following a seven-year hiatus. She cited comparisons between the 2015 vendor program, which served over six hundred children and had a 55-member staff, and the in-house handling of the 2016 and 2017 programs. There were 36 instructors in 2016, a sharp drop from the year before, but 43 instructors for 2017, and over seven hundred children served in both years – 776 in 2016, 740 in 2017 – an indication of being able to serve more children with fewer staffers. The number of programs remained roughly the same, 10 for 2016 and 12 for 2017, but seven more programs in 2017 were cancelled mainly for lack of interest. This was all a far cry from the 29 programs, 118 staffers, and over two thousand children involved in 2008, the last year before 2015 that the district offered a summer camp program, though the summer of 2008 was, coincidentally, the last summer before the great financial crisis.
Expenditures for the 2016 program amounted to $210,340 with a loss of $31,284, but the 2017 program saw expenditures increase to $313,398 with only a loss of $1,534, an indication of Dr. Harrison-Crawford’s objective to streamline costs. Budget-based program operations and the lack of a 35 percent administration fee allowed the district to lower costs and pass the savings onto parents, who were overwhelmingly pleased with the educational programs and activities offered to the children. Dr. Harrison-Crawford said the camp program was moving in the right direction with regard to budgeting, and Board President Laura Hertzog said she and more parents were pleased with the activity choices.
Hertzog said the search team looking for a permanent superintendent would offer a list of people under consideration for the job after the first of the year. The board hopes to meet on January 8 to decide who will make it to the initial round of candidates and then go over a slate of candidates in meetings during the weekend of January 20 and 21 before considering the semifinalists on January 27. A public forum with all of the finalists for the position is expected in early February.