Three 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.
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.”
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.