Monday night’s Montclair Board of Education meeting wrapped up in about three hours or so, adjourning before 11 pm. And the loudest noise at the meeting was not during the public comment but the sound of the audio system going haywire, producing an electronic noise similar to that of the over-sized amp connected to Marty McFly’s guitar in the first Back To the Future movie, much to everyone’s shock and amusement.
Northeast School Teachers’ Report
The meeting continued a series of “what’s working, what’s not working” progress reports from the district’s schools, with the Northeast School’s teachers taking their turn. They reported that what was working, among other things, were teachers creatively using available teaching materials and sharing strategies to create the best learning environment o the students, their paraprofessionals’ dedication to special needs and at-risk students, and volunteer groups helping to rework the curriculum in accordance with the Common Core standards, particularly involving language arts.
“We’re encouraged that there will be a district-wide shift to balance the literacy approach,” said Northeast’s Greg March, “which will integrate reading, writing, spelling and grammar.” March also thanked Northeast’s PTA for donating books to support their reading workshop program and help their library.
What was not working, Northeast staff reported, was yet another experience with testing, which they said took away time from going over with students subjects that needed extra attention, and lack of adequate training for paraprofessionals. There was also the surreal dilemma of 75 first-grade students having to read the same book individually (“Tigers” by Helen Frost) with only one copy available, as well as having to share a librarian with Bradford School and teachers having to do double duty as school librarians. The Marshall Rubric particularly came under fire, insisting that all categories in the evaluation system did not apply to all teachers, such as arts instructors, and that ten fifteen-minute observations were hardly sufficient to judge a teacher’s effectiveness.
Board member David Deutsch said his understanding was that these teachers’ observations were taking place at the same time in the lesson, but that it might give a better sense of teacher performance if they were spread out over ten periods. Teachers replied that it depended on the subject matter; with a subject like social studies, for example, one may get a sense of how a teacher operates but may not get a sense of what the children are learning.
One other complaint Northeast faculty had was the proposed change from Horizon to Cigna as the district’s health insurance plan and the lack of communication with central services. Montclair Education Association (MEA) President Gayl Shepard said she was unconvinced that Cigna was comparable to Horizon despite assurances from district health insurance providers Brown & Brown that it was. She said that MEA members were never given a choice and added that the MEA members had asked for side-by-side comparisons between Horizon, Cigna and Aetna to see how the data stacked up and did not get the data until a meeting on April 30 to review the matter. She said that the district needs to ask the staff if they are willing to absorb increased Horizon costs or go with an alternative and provide a cost analysis of the $1.5 million increase in costs. Shepard also expressed concern that 70 percent of doctors used by MEA members thorough Horizon accept Cigna.
“We’d like a clear understanding on this, and we’re asking you to consider the relationship between a doctor and a patient, which often supersedes the monetary [issue],” she said.
Technology director Barry Haines presented an overview of what the district needs in terms of technology, saying that its student/staff population is larger than some businesses and that, given the need to teach a variety of subjects to children of different ages, the need for better technology is greater, and that the need to access it on a round-the-clock basis was more immediate. Based on the consulting firm Marinus Partners’ assessment of the Montclair district’s computer system and the need for improved performance security, Haines said that its Internet service provider needed an increase from 100 megabytes per second to one gigabyte (1000 megabytes) per second, necessitating a $500,000 bond ordinance for technology upgrades.
Much of the public comment on the plans laid out by Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack and the board remained skeptical.
Fran Moccio saw Haines’ comparison of the district’s size to businesses treated the students and staff as “customers” in a private-enterprise mentality affecting the board’s mindset. Laurie Orosz cited other states were reacting negatively to Common Core State Standards, with Tennessee repealing a law evaluating teachers by test scores and Indiana withdrawing from Common Core standards altogether, as evidence that Montclair should not go forward with its school reforms.
However, residents such as Amy Freitag and Jon Rosenberg praised Dr. MacCormack and the board for taking bold steps to improve and enhance Montclair’s “progressive” legacy of education and to address the achievement gap.
Montclair High School teacher Anne Baney brought up the recent issue concerning MEA President Shepard, where documents published by a blog called Montclair Schools Watch states that Shepard had been delinquent in paying taxes in both New York and New Jersey, which Baney said was an attempt to smear Shepard. Board President Robin Kulwin expressed agreement over the incident, saying that the Board did not condone such smear tactics and that Shepard was undeserving of such treatment.
Changing Board Members
The meeting was the last one for outgoing board member Norman Rosenblum, who received accolades from his colleagues. Leslie Larson called him “intelligent and thoughtful and caring to a fault, and has the best interest of every child at heart,” and David Cummings thanked him for helping him learn the ropes of the board when he joined.
For his part, Rosenblum said it had been an intense but great three-year term, having appreciated the opportunity to work with people “who inspire you every day by their dedication.
His designated replacement, former township councilor Jessica de Koninck, attended the meeting and spoke with her colleagues-to-be during the meeting’s five-minute break.