Montclair Board Meeting: Achievement Gap, Budget, and Contract Negotiations

Montclair Board Meeting: Budget Talk, Achievement Gap, and Contract NegotiationsSeveral Montclair residents braved the sudden snow and slippery conditions on March 18 to attend the monthly Montclair Board of Education meeting.  The discussion largely centered around the budget and Montclair’s plan of action for improving student aptitude in under-performing schools under a waiver granted to New Jersey by the federal Department of Education regarding academic accountability standards.

Closing the Achievement Gap
The waiver granted to New Jersey in February 2012 allows New Jersey’s schools to be exempted from the Elementary and Secondary  Educational Act (ESEA) of 1965 (revised under the slogan “No Child Left Behind” in 2001) to give under-performing schools more time to get their standards up.   In her presentation, Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack explained that the waiver gives the state the ability to eliminate accountability standard and identify and support the schools that perform the lowest and have the greatest number of achievement gaps among the students, as well as implement the Common Core standards and improve teacher effectiveness.

In Montclair, when broken down in racial and ethnic subgroups, non-Hispanic white and Asian students met their 2012 goals of 90 percent proficiency in mathematics and 90 percent (white) and 88.2 percent (Asian) in language arts while black and Hispanic students fell short in both categories, causing the student body en masse to fail overall goals in language arts (79.5 percent proficiency versus a targeted 82.5 percent) and in mathematics (82.2 percent versus a target of 85 percent).

Two Montclair schools, Glenfield Middle School and Bullock Elementary School, have already been classified as “Focus” cases –schools with a low graduation rate, large gaps between the ethnic subgroups, or lowest subgroup performance.  But four schools—Hillside Elementary School, Northeast Elementary School, Mount Hebron Middle School, and Renaissance at Rand Middle School—were singled out for not meeting their progress targets.  Dr. MacCormack has formulated plans in her report titled, “Raising Student Achievement, Closing Achievement Gaps,” to get these schools up to speed by identifying and addressing student weaknesses and allowing teachers to plan together and share data, and assigning staff to target students’ needs. The details of the overall report and the plans for the schools are available on the Montclair school district website here.

See the Action Plans for Hillside, Mt. Hebron, Northeast and Renaissance Schools here.

“This work, as always, would be done with teachers, teachers helping us to design both the curriculum and the assessments,” said Dr. MacCormack, noting that these initiatives would be spread through the district to support student achievement.  “Our plan, actually, is to have those assessments handed out to all teachers in the beginning of the school year so we can get input and make those assessments as high-quality as possible.”

Dr. MacCormack warned though, that the plan would only be a first step.

“Having resources and having assessments doesn’t close gaps,” she said.  You’ve got to have time for the teachers to plan together and to use that data productively together to inform instruction.”

In 2013-2014 the district will be transitioning to Common Core and by 2015, will start using the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment, a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math anchored in what it takes to be ready for college and careers.

Board member Leslie Larson stated, “I’m shocked because we were very clearly told last year that the gap was narrowing and we were as close as we’ve ever been.” In October 2011, former Superintendent Frank Alvarez reported, “the district is making great strides in raising achievement levels for all students. Our efforts to close achievement gaps among the various No Child Left Behind identified sub-groups are being realized.”

Larson asked if the “Focus schools” referred to earlier were still being addressed.  Dr. MacCormack replied that they were in fact working toward achieving their goals with help from the state, but she singled out the staffs at Glenfield and Bullock for their extra effort.

School Budget
Earlier in the meeting, Board President Robin Kulwin announced that the 2013-14 school budget had been submitted to and approved by Essex County and was ready to go before the Board of School Estimate, a group of three Township Council members and two Board of Education members.   Kulwin noted the extra effort in making the budget easier to contrast with the 2012-13 budget by showing comparisons on an line-by-line basis.

“This is the first school budget with year-to year comparisons,” she said. “The Board is pleased to note that it is indeed possible to produce the budget in this format.” She noted that the 2013-14 budget uses actual spending figures from the previous budget rather than estimates as a guideline.

The new budget focuses increased resources for K-3 literacy skills and a reorganization of the district office to better recruit and retain teachers.  There are not decreases in teachers’ salaries and benefits, and many increases for special education and basic skills teachers, with salary estimates totaling $72 million based on what the district expects to negotiate with the Montclair Education Association (MEA).  Health care benefits will be increased to $18.9 million – the budget’s largest single line item increase.

BoE and MEA Contract Negotiations
Regarding the talk about the budget and the district, Kulwin added in speaking for herself that many of the comments were fair and thoughtful, while others were “not quite as respectful and often seemed to rely on conjecture, rather than on facts.”  On  the current negotiations between the BoE and MEA, Kulwin said, “We believe the offer put forward by the Board is fair.”  A mediator has been hired to work with the groups. Kulwin added, “There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help from a mediator.”

For her part, MEA leader Gayl Shepard told the board acknowledged the difficulty of finalizing a contract between her members and the district.

“We recognize that labor negotiations are simply part of the process.  We also recognize that negotiations will be challenging at times, Shepard said in her MEA report to the board.

“I’m confident that we will ratify a contract—a fair contract that reflects the principles, strength and character of our town,” she added.

The Board of School Estimate will work on the budget on Thursday, March 21 at a 7:00 pm meeting at the George Inness Annex of Montclair High School and on March 28 at an 8 PM meeting at Glenfield Middle School’s auditorium. A final adoption is scheduled for April 4.

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  1. Dear Board Member Larson,

    Board member Leslie Larson stated, “I’m shocked because we were very clearly told last year that the gap was narrowing and we were as close as we’ve ever been.”

    You’re part of the checks and balances system. Don’t take everything you hear from a superintendent as fact. You’re supposed to ask the tough questions. It’s not that hard to do a little of your own homework:;d=3310

    Now it’s even more important to not be fooled by your own hire. Because anyone will spin you if you show yourself to be naive.

  2. Let’s think of quality union labor and effective management and administration and take in the following sentence again:

    “The waiver granted to New Jersey in February 2012 allows New Jersey’s schools to be exempted from the Elementary and Secondary Educational Act (ESEA) of 1965 (revised under the slogan “No Child Left Behind” in 2001) to give under-performing schools more time to get their standards up.”

  3. Let’s think of the facile and shallow mind that routinely makes such beside-the-point observations.

  4. willjames,

    at least he is observing a part of the article, unlike your unnecessary personal attack! I hope they remove your waste of a comment…

  5. My post is expressed in a way that directly mirrors ROC’s original. S/he directs us to “think of” the implications of something expressed in the sentence s/he quotes. The implication s/he’s striving to express is that union labor is substandard “quality”. That implication itself implies evidence of facile, lazy, and substandard thinking about an important and complex issue. So, if you’d like, I can reframe my statement so that it is about the *thinking* rather than the *mind*:

    “Let’s think of the quality of thinking that routinely produces such beside-the-point observations.”

    If “they” remove my comment because it’s a personal attack, then perhaps “they” should also consider how often the comments from ROC and others here are “personal attacks” on the character and work-ethic of our public servants. Those personal attacks, directed at whole classes of people, are more poisonous to public discourse than mocking jabs directed toward a single person who is frequently prone to making those generalized attacks.

  6. What immediately popped into my head when I read the implication that Alvarez misled the board by telling them that the achievement gap was narrowing was another instance of Alvarez telling the board something that was in dispute; namely, whether he gave the former asst. principal at Mt. Hebron his verbal permission to enroll her kids in Montclair schools for free, even though she lives in Little Falls.

  7. There is a home part of the equation that the schools cannot address. The BOE and superintendent don’t touch on that. How much of students’ performance is outside the realm of the school?

  8. There’s no evidence that Dr. Alvarez misled the BOE.

    The performance gap was showing signs of narrowing when Dr. Alvarez made his last report. The performance gap nonetheless persists, and it’s large. These two sentences can both be true without contradiction. They’re not mutually exclusive.

  9. How to tell if your School District is Infected by the Broad Virus
    Schools in your district are suddenly closed.
    Even top-performing schools, alternative schools, schools for the gifted, are inexplicably and suddenly targeted for closure or mergers.
    Repetition of the phrases “the achievement gap” and “closing the achievement gap” in district documents and public statements.
    Repeated use of the terms “excellence” and “best practices” and “data-driven decisions.” (Coupled with a noted absence of any of the above.)
    The production of “data” that is false or cherry-picked, and then used to justify reforms.
    Power is centralized.
    Decision-making is top down.
    Local autonomy of schools is taken away.
    Principals are treated like pawns by the superintendent, relocated, rewarded and punished at will.
    Culture of fear of reprisal develops in which teachers, principals, staff, even parents feel afraid to speak up against the policies of the district or the superintendent.
    Ballooning of the central office at the same time superintendent makes painful cuts to schools and classrooms.
    Sudden increase in number of paid outside consultants.
    Increase in the number of public schools turned into privately-run charters.
    Weak math text adopted (most likely Everyday Math). Possibly weak language arts too, or Writer’s Workshop. District pushes to standard the curriculum.
    Superintendent attempts to sidestep labor laws and union contracts.
    Teachers are no longer referred to as people, educators, colleagues, staff, or even “human resources,” but as “human capital.”
    A (self-anointed, politically connected) group called NCTQ comes to town a few months before your teachers’ contract is up for negotiation and writes a Mad Libs evaluation of your districts’ teachers (for about $14,000) that reaches the predetermined conclusion that teachers are lazy and need merit pay. [“The (NAME OF CITY) School District has too many (NEGATIVE ADJ) teachers. Therefore they need a new (POSITIVE ADJ.) data-based evaluation system tied to test scores…”]
    The district leadership declares that the single most significant problem in the district is suddenly: teachers!

  10. I know that this is very late, but…

    The district has made both this year’s and last year’s report available. While willjames is correct in his statement that things can be both bad and improving, I think that there is some evidence of misleading, if only by omission.

    For example, both reports compare economically disadvantaged and not in 8th grade LAL. As of Dr. Alvarez’s final report, this gap was down to 16%. Missing from Dr. Alvarez’s report was a comparison of 5th grade LAL. That was 34% as of that report’s time, and it shows an increase over the prior year.

    This suggests that the particular data sets displayed – and a comparison of the two reports shows a remarkable scarcity of reported data sets in Dr. Alvarez’s final report – were chosen in a fashion that could be construed as misleading.