Updated: Board Approves Montclair School Budget

Montclair School BudgetThree detailed presentations at the Montclair Board of Education’s March 17 meeting in Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack’s monthly report — including a final budget presentation from Chief Operating Officer Brian Fleischer —  and a report from Montclair High School from its faculty led to another long meeting. The Montclair School budget was finally approved on the morning of March 18, at 12:12 am, with only board member David Cummings voting against it, as he had done with the preliminary budget on March 6.

Budget Approved
The budget includes a 4.41 percent increase to the school tax levy, from $97.5 million to $101.8 million, the first increase for Montclair homeowners in four years.  The impact on the property taxes translates into a yearly increase of $379.12 in property taxes for the one-year period beginning July 1.

Fleischer’s final budget presentation included a blueprint for kindergarten class size reduction, in which he showed three kindergarten teachers (and three kindergarten aides) will allow three additional kindergarten classes: one at Bullock and two at Nishuane. Those additional kindergarten classes would bring the total number of kindergarten classes to four at Bullock and nine at Nishuane. And 21 students per class is the targeted average kindergarten class size across the district. The nine Nishuane kindergarten class sizes would actually be held at around 19 students per class to ensure that the class sizes as those kids move up into seven Grade 1 and seven Grade 2 classes will stay at around 24. The budget does not add staffing in the superintendent’s office or in human resources but does add to the pupil support staff a Universal Design for Learning  (UDL) coach for students with general educational disabilities and a coordinator to help preschoolers transfer to kindergarten.

Montclair High School Teacher Presentation
Montclair High School teachers, meanwhile, presented their report on what was and was not working.

They reported that was working was making a teacher available for after-school tutoring three days a week, a strong guidance counselor staff, and helpful supervisors giving teachers guidance of their own with implementing the Common Core standards.

They had a long list of what wasn’t working: dated and broken computers, not enough laboratories available for extracurricular science work, and their attempts at implementing the quarterly tests  that have been unpopular throughout the district. They also highlighted  bad relationship with high school staff and the central office that was reported to be “strained at best . . . so much so, that it has led to climate of fear and reprisal.”

Board member David Deutsch asked for clarification on that last point, and the teachers explained that there was a fear of being reprimanded for speaking out about the many concerns held by the teachers, a concern that was repeated over and over by high school staff. Some teachers had even balked at mentioning the problem.

The general distrust of the central office unsettled Chief Academic Officer Gail Clarke.

“It pains me to hear that teachers feel uncomfortable,” she said, “because if there’s anything, a decision that I’ve made that has caused anyone to feel uncomfortable, I would ask them to please contact me. I’m very open and available to meet, formally and informally, to help people feel more comfortable, because I certainly would never want to do or say anything to be offensive, either overtly  or covertly.”

Deutsch agreed that more communication was essential.

“Adults do not talk to each other,” he said. “It’s one of these things that you just kind of have to go through and have that conversation,” he said. “We need to talk to each other.”

Board member Shelly Lombard noted that she has served on the board since 2006, and in all that time, the high school has had such problems, particularly with regards to technology in the classroom, so patience is needed in addressing  them. She was pleased, though, that the district was giving schools the opportunity to provide feedback in such a format, which had not been the case in her earlier time on the board, and she encouraged the teachers to continue doing so.

Chief Academic Officer’s Presentations on Language Immersion and Mathematics
Also, Clarke hosted presentations on language immersion and mathematics, presented, respectively, by E.J. Howard, who led a volunteer group to look at language immersion, and Mathematics Director Dana Rubin. Howard proposed teaching more K-5 subjects in foreign languages to get the students immersed in them, which he said would help boost overall student achievement and be more cost-effective than traditional language instruction, as one teacher would be teaching a foreign language and math, social studies, or another subject simultaneously. Howard said it would develop a positive relationship between mental flexibility and verbal intelligence and lift student aptitude overall. The program would be completely optional and be implemented according to how principals would best see fit for their schools.

Rubin recommended enVision Math, meanwhile, as the standard textbook for K-5, finding it rigorously compatible with Common Core standards and offering resources such as handbooks, access to videos, and access to other digital tools.

“Math is not an easy subject,” Rubin said.  “We’ve got a lot of terrific teachers, and we need the resources to help support  them.”

Public Comments
Among the public comments offered comments from resident Mara Novak, who believed that the assessments were too much for the students, and student Alana Scheiber, who called for adding student representatives to the school board to foster communication between the board and the students.

Resident Laurie Orosz said that Mayor Robert Jackson had wanted to host a public educational forum in the high school auditorium, only to be turned down by Dr. MacCormack.

Dr. MacCormack said that neither the Mayor nor anyone else had specific proposals of what would be discussed in the forum, despite reaching out to them, and that she had the responsibility to get details on such a meeting before she could allow it in school property she had custody over. Cummings objected, saying that, as the highest elected official in Montclair, Mayor Jackson deserved more respect.

Barista Kids reached out to Mayor Jackson for confirmation and comment.

“I am not hosting a forum,” he replied and added, “A citizen group asked me to participate and I agreed. I was also asked to inquire if MHS could be used. Dr. MacCormack advised me that MHS was not available.”

Board member Shelley Lombard contacted Barista Kids to offer more clarification on the issue. Lombard said that when Mayor Jackson inquired if a group could hold meeting at the high school, he didn’t have any specifics on who exactly the group was and what the forum would be about, other than it would be on education. “It was an odd request, given there were no specifics,” Lombard says. She added it is akin to “Penny inquiring about holding a meeting on snow removal at town hall and being unclear about who would be speaking at the forum or if the mayor or town manager would be included”

Lombard also noted that Mayor Jackson has been very supportive of Dr. MacCormack and the Board, so Lombard says she believes that the issue can be worked out.

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  1. Once again, I have to praise the teachers for a very honest and brave presentation. Not easy discussing such issues as fear of reprisals and overall dissatisfaction. The teachers commented that their morale was as low as it’s even been. Like the teachers who spoke before them they spoke to how the assessments were not working. They would like to reinstate the midterms and finals, citing those as much more productive and necessary for AP students. But what really struck me was their honesty on acknowledging they wer in fact having to “teach to the test”. Not sure how many more schools need to speak against the assessments, parents and students before the message is heard. Mara Novak referenced next year’s PAARC exams as being a contributor in making the quarterly assessments too much. The PAARCS are longer than current standardized tests. She said the HS students would be required to do 10 hours of testing. That is a lot of test time.

  2. Teaching to the test is not a bad thing– it depends on the test! Just reiterating this tired expression fails to acknowledge that IF a test tests concepts, practices and critical thinking– how can teaching those things be bad.

    The SAT has changed to reflect a more “useful” (my word) examination of what a student should know. If you didn’t read the NYTimes Mag article, check it out: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/the-story-behind-the-sat-overhaul.html

    The scariest part of this story was that a Board member has been on the Board since 2006 “… and in all that time, the high school has had such problems, particularly with regards to technology in the classroom, so patience is needed in addressing them.”

    8 years. 2 entire cohorts of graduates. And yet, more time and patiences is needed? But from this, it’s probably more about the environment at the HS, than anything else. Which, I put at the HS Principal. It’s his or her job to be that buffer between the school and CO, to create an atmosphere where teachers feel values and safe enough to speak.

    That teachers are scared of CO, begs the question: Where’s the HS Principal in all this?

  3. Professor, to be more specific, the teachers are saying they are teaching to tests they do not consider to be good or of value. The expression indicates that a teacher is only teaching what is on a particular text and not teaching what is not covered on that test. So for example, many schools around the country are not longer teaching social studies because it isn’t tested. Thus, the curriculum is being narrowed to focus only what is being tested.

    Also, I want to clarify that it is not just the HS teachers who fear reprisal. There was much discussion on the topic last night and it is teachers from the entire district that are feeling this way.

  4. Professor, did not mean to ignore the SAT story. I had read a little about it and will read the article when I have more time. I do know there is some controversy surrounding the changes. But also some controversy surrounding the usefulness of the test at all.

  5. nycmontclair, a quick google search confirms my suspicion– your idea about Social studies is wrong. There are Common Core standards for Social Studies. But please link to something that supports your claim.

    Forgive me if I don’t feel too much sympathy for those with tenure– a job for life- fearing reprisals. I’ve had this discussion with many folks with tenure, I ask: “What are they going to do to you?” And I usually get a dumb look. Nothing. Nothing can be done. What “reprisals”? Lunch duty? Certainly not firing, pay or any real discipline for what, talking? Please. (This says more about the person who fears, than any perception of a threat.)

    But your SAT comment is the best: I didn’t read the article, but I have any opinion about it!! Just like you heard that schools “around the country” are no longer teaching social studies– that sounds wrong just writing it– sometimes you need to do your own research.

    But I look forward to a link showing I’m wrong.

  6. There’s a disconnect between what the HS teachers are saying and what the BoE members are hearing. A lack of communication can breed frustration, but it tends not to breed fear. The threat of negative consiquences brings the fear. The teachers didn’t say that their concerns are falling on deaf ears, which is often the complaint. The teachers are telling all of us publicly that they fear being reprimanded for speaking out about their educational concerns. That means that they are receiving the message, either directly or indirectly, that the district administration does not like what they have to say.

    The BoE thinks that it’s just a matter of communication and that adults just need to talk more. It seems to me that the teachers are very willing to communicate, and they have gotten back a very clear communication from front office that they should be quiet.

  7. I wonder prof, if there was no tenure, would these teachers be willing to say anything critical?

  8. There are many upsetting statements from the mtg but the most surprising is that Shelly Lombard, a board member, stated that she’s been hearing about problems with technology in the classrooms since 2006 – 8 years – and we still need patience in addressing them. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? We don’t need patience – we need action!

  9. “A commitment to support technology has been made by the Montclair Board of Education and the Montclair Board of School Estimate. Dr. Alvarez has selected Technology as one of his three prioritized goals for his new administration as Superintendent of Schools. Careful budgeting and planning on an annual basis allows the purchase, upgrade, and maintenance of hardware, software, networking electronics and professional development.

    Our efforts must align with, the NJ State Core Curriculum Content Standards for Technological Literacy (approved April 2004), International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) National Educational Technology Standards for Students, Teachers and Administrators, the National Educational Technology Goals presented December 15, 2000 and the recent “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation.”

    source: District-Wide Integrated Technology Plan, 6/1/2004

    We all ignored a lot of things over the last decade. Why so upset now?

  10. Professor, I did not give an opinion of the SAT changes, I simply said I heard there was some controversy. I have no opinion yet. I do have a an almost 14 month old baby who needed my attention and so that is why I haven’t read the article yet. I will not apologize for putting her needs first. Once I have more than a few minutes here and there I will read the article.

    As for tenure, I believe you have a misconception on it being a job for life. This link describes the misconception well https://dianeravitch.net/2012/04/28/the-bizarre-editorial-in-the-new-republic-against-teacher-tenure/

    Forgive me, but baby is teething today so my break time is over for now.

  11. @ State Street Pete, I’m confused. They are so fearful, yet speak out? Which is it? As for tenure, your “what if” is a game, THEY DO. And because they have tenure, they are free to say whatever they want without fear of retribution (moreover, since they would claim they are speaking under the umbrella of Union activity, they have even MORE protection against retribution).

    Also, your link makes no sense. Under NJ Law it takes a tremendous effort to fire a tenured teacher (not impossible, but hard unless they break a serious law). (Even in NYC where they have those famous “rubber rooms” for bad teachers).

    Here’s the relevant NJ law:

    Generally, conduct unbecoming (inappropriate acts towards a kid, or some other GROSS overstep); Just cause (cheating, lying, stealing, etc.) and insubordination (which usually comes after a continued disregard of a policy). So— speaking out at a BOE meeting is surely NEVER going to get any tenured teacher fired.

    As I said, “What are they so scared of?”

    @nycmontclair, give me a break. C’mon….. Though– I remember 14 months like it was yesterday (hell, you had me go back and watch some videos). But no one said anything that should have you fly so hard off the handle. If you are going to make statements, I only ask offer a source, that way we all can learn and talk with the same facts. 14 months……. And now we’re touring Middle Schools…..

    (I’ll wait for next break for a reply– but then again, I gotta pick up the little prof, hit Pokemon, figure out, and make dinner, then science fair stuff…….. It doesn’t get easier….. Just different.)

  12. I may not have made my points as clearly as I’d planned, it was nearly midnight by the time I got to the mike.

    I was glad to hear the suggestion from the MHS teachers that the quarterly assessments be reworked, and (at least in the HS) return to a midyear/finals testing structure, with some modifications to make the tests less high stakes. One point they made was that midterms and finals are what nearly all college-bound students will experience when they get to university, so it make sense to prepare them for that.

    I had just finished reading that the Bernards Township BoE decided to stop administering quarterly assessments now that students have to take the PARCC. They felt that there were just too many hours of testing. One board member said the tests will be so extensive that the district will need maximum scheduling flexibility, and having a quarterly schedule every nine weeks makes that difficult.

    I think we need to think about making this change as well.

    The NJASK required 4-5 mornings to administer @ 60-90 minutes per test, for a total of 4-7.5 hours, depending on grade level.

    The HSPA was 3 days of testing @ 2-2.5 hours per test, for a total of 6-7.5 hours.

    PARCC testing will require significantly more school time. 8 hours (!!) in grade 3, 9 hours 20 min. in grades 4-5, 9 hours 25 minutes in grades 6-8, 9 hours 45 min. in grades 9-10, and 9 hours 55 minutes in grade 11. Testing takes up from at least 5-9 days (depending on the grade), and could take as much as 20 days to administer to all students. The PARCC is administered twice a year (both in the second half of the school year). This means large parts of two weeks of school are lost to testing.

    This increased testing burden will really decrease instructional time. I think the quarterly assessments should be scaled back for all students.

    My favorite quote from Bernards Township BoE member Michael Byrne: “If you want to increase the knowledge of the kids, you don’t test them more and more, you teach them more and more.”

  13. “They are so fearful, yet speak out?” Yes prof, isn’t it commendable? Most teachers are like that.

  14. seems to me that if anyone’s tenure should be questioned it’s Shelley Lombard’s. Does she have a lifetime appointment to this unelected board? and as for fear of reprisals, Prof., let’s take a look at how the board has treated its one member, Mr. Cummings, who has expressed a healthy minority opinion on several of the board’s major initiatives, especially the ill-fated investigation. then tell me the teachers have nothing to be fearful of.

  15. Ah, no Pete. They have NOTHING to fear. That’s the point. The perception of fear is just that: a perception.

    Tenured teachers have little to worry about in terms of retaliation from “speaking out” at a BOE meeting. If they do, that says more about them, than some “fear” they have.

    Speaking up when you have NO protection is brave and admirable. Being scared to speak up when you have nothing to fear makes little sense.

    (Compare this to someone without tenure speaking out. THEY have the world to fear because they can be fired for NO reason. Teachers can’t. Period.)

    So I ask again, “What are they so scared of?” What could happen? Tell me and I’ll be happy to reconsider.

  16. “Does she have a lifetime appointment to this unelected board?”

    Not quite, but time will tell. Mayor Fried reappointed her in 2012 to the BoE and, 3 months later, Mayor Jackson appointed her to the Board of School Estimate.

    As far as the “unelected board”, the MEA really needs to walk away from this. It is killing their credibility.

  17. Professor, my husband came home tonight and told me he knew I had a rough day from my Bkids comments. I thought that was pretty funny.

    Okay, both kids asleep, at least for now. My oldest is almost eight and I would agree not easier, just different. But it’s been almost seven years since my son was a toddler and I am seven years more tired after chasing my daughter around.

    So, I did read through your article and it is rather interesting. Can’t say if I have an opinion on the changes as I am not a fan of standardized tests and it has apparently changed a lot since my own experience with the taking the SATs, so I don’t have much frame of reference there. As I think the article noted, research indicates how a student performs in school is a grater predictor of how a kid will do in college than one test. However, I found the part in the article where they discuss thing to make the test more fair to poorer students interesting. Not sure how involving Khan Institute will really achieve that goal, but I suppose time will tell.

    As for my narrowing curriculum links, did not want to let you down. From fairtest.org https://www.fairtest.org/new-evidence-strengthens-claim-testing-narrows-cur and this link specifically addresses Social Studies https://www.iupui.edu/~geni/documents/whyweneedtosavessarticle.doc

    Yes, they are working on a Common Core Social Studies Standards but they have not yet been implemented. And I believe my feelings on the Common Core are well documented. But to be fair, I have not yet read the Social Studies Standards.

  18. Teachers could not be expressing their opposition to the current regime more strongly, meeting after meeting, yet the band plays on.

  19. Prof,

    The lack of common sense is astounding. And the lack of basic factual accuracy is misleading.

    Tenure does not, nor has it ever guaranteed a job for life. We all know teachers can be fired if administrators did their jobs consistently. They simply need to do them. And after years of complaining about the onerous tenure law, a new one was written making it easier to fire teachers. Tenure only guarantees due process, so stop with the usual misleading talking points, as if the majority of teachers simply use tenure as a means of doing nothing and raising hell, while leading lavish lifestyles on their yachts.

    The lack of common sense comes in when you don’t acknowledge that teachers speak at BOE meetings because, ironically, it is the only place they feel safe because they know a spotlight will be shone on the issue. If reprisal were to take place against those who spoke, it would be obvious, which is why it’s safer there then any other place. Being a “prof”, you are smart enough to realize this, but like the BOE, simply sing the same tune no matter what is said, no matter how many times it is said.

    This is inherently the problem. Shelly Lombard herself said that she has known about some of these issues for the past 6 (!!!!!!) years, but what has been done? Nothing. That’s as damning of an indictment against this BOE’s ability to actually listen to what is being said, than anything that has come before it.

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