Public comment turned to mostly public outrage at Monday night’s BOE meeting as educators, parents and tax payers approached the podium and demanded answers. Stating an investigation into leaked assessments in 2013 by the Montclair BOE was both unnecessary and harassing to employees and private citizens, many speakers referred to an “enemies” list of staff as well as private citizens and asked what criteria was used to create the list. Some called the investigation a witch hunt, many asked “Was I on the list?” while others called for the resignation of BOE members who were on the board during the investigation.
Interim Superintendent Ron Bolandi started the meeting by announcing that school tours had begun and he plans to attend to see tours himself and speak to parents. He also announced teacher-generated committees would be presenting at upcoming meetings and they would be expanding undoing racism workshops, with three more for staff before the year is over. Additionally Bolandi announced BOE would talk about capital projects and vote on a budget that would go to Board of School Estimate, including an immersion pilot program in Mandarin at Nishuane School. He then mentioned that after news of lead in Newark school buildings, the district took a proactive step to test all its school buildings for lead. Business Administrator Brian Fleischer reported the EPA action standards is at 15 parts per billion, and the vast majority of samples taken in Montclair had no detectable amounts of lead. But there were three that had some detectable lead well below the standard — kitchen sinks in Hillside, George Inness Annex and the Montclair High School. Fleischer said district plumbers would replace fixtures in those sinks over the next week and retest water from them to see if the lead has been eliminated.
BOE Offers Committee’s Initial Findings
Before public comment began, BOE president Jessica deKoninck turned the microphone over to board vice president Anne Mernin to report on the committee formed to look at an investigation that resulted from the availability of the assessments online. “The committee has taken this work very seriously and is not ready to report out in a final way. At this point we can say a firm was engaged by board’s prior legal counsel [Weiner Lesniak] to assist with the technical side of investigation and that firm, Kroll, looked at several computers. The MEA raised concerns that an MEA computer had been looked at. Kroll advised board that only district owned computers were looked at,” said Mernin, adding the committee was continuing to look into the investigation and would share more, including an accounting of the total cost of investigation.
Then, one by one, speakers came to the podium with more specific details about what transpired during the investigation and with more questions about what the board knew.
Margaret Whitsett, a parent and educator, spoke of how she had been present when news that the assessments were found online and asserted the documents had been posted without password protection by the Central Office. “The board authorized a wide net investigation into who leaked the test. Colleagues were subpoenaed and their integrity questioned,” said Whitsett, adding that there was no teacher wrong doing uncovered and no apology. “Where is the truth?”
Alicia Wells, a technology teacher at Mount Hebron stated computer mirroring or imaging makes an exact copy of the data on a single device that can then be used at another location. “The district tech coordinator had the ability to monitor district employees, so why was an outside forensics firm asked to do this,” said Wells, asking what criteria was used for identifying individuals to be investigated and how does the district know how the data extracted from computers by the investigation was used.
Syreeta Carrington, who identified herself as the teacher who first alerted the district to the availability of the tests online, read a letter for Casey La Rosa, which described ongoing harassment by the attorney for the BOE during the investigation period, including La Rosa being read her Miranda Rights during a class break and repeated harassing emails and phone calls which resulted in her experiencing panic attacks.
Montclair High School teacher Tom Manos referenced McCarthy hearings and Watergate and said “in a civil society there cannot be progress without open, honest discourse and you cannot have reconciliation without truth.” Manos asked if the “costly and unnecessary investigation” was the result of a “manufactured crisis to justify mirroring of computers.” He then asked if his name appeared on the list and were any employees targeted for speaking publicly, especially at BOE meetings. “I can’t believe what Montclair has become. In the name of decency, transparency and civility, stop waiting two weeks to deliver a crafted non response. You know the answers. Rip the band-aid off, answer the questions honestly and completely.”
Petal Roberston reiterated her previous question to the board, asking who among them were complicit — aware of questionable acts (monitoring/mirroring) and had ability and responsibility to do something but chose not to.
Gayle Shepard asked whether the board had received a sworn affidavit that Kroll did not mirror any of the MEA computers, something that Mernin confirmed had been requested, but still not received. Shepard also asked to be on the committee reviewing the investigation.
Laura Herzog also spoke to Shepard, responding to public comment, by saying the committee looked at the invoices which detailed the specific computers, which shows four computers housed in the Central office and used by administrators.
Shepard then mentioned knowledge of emails stating that members of the monitoring team were allowed to access the high school and Mount Hebron [where her office is located] after work during evening hours to search computers.
David Herron, who came to the podium playing Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” and carrying a shovel, proceeded to tell Bolandi that the following comments did not apply to him. He then said “We know what you’ve done. My grandmother used to say ‘tell the truth, the truth shall set you free.’ We know what happened, you know what happened, some of you on board, if what’s suggested you did, probably broke first amendment rights, fourth amendment rights.” He then asked why his name appeared on a list of names, when he has no children or relatives in the school system. “Did you have some reason to suspect I did something illegal? We’re talking about private citizens.” Herron, called out both BOE member Robin Kulwin and Brian Fleischer, and gesturing to his shovel said “if you haven’t found it, you haven’t dug deep enough. Well, I’ve got the shovel.”
Mark Egan, a Montclair parent who added he was the husband of Rachel Quinn Egan, likened the use of Kroll, a national cyber security firm, to having “Goldman Sacks count your lunch money.” He referenced a November 4, 2013 email to Mark Tabakin, written by Brian Fleischer that had Flesicher saying “I fear David Cummings was right” regarding the assessments not being leaked at all, but instead available online due to error. [Baristanet did not receive said email in a recent OPRA request because all emails from Mark Tabakin to Montclair schools officials were not released, because of “attorney client privilege.”]
Latifah Jannah, who said she was one of the private citizens singled out, asked why she was placed on the list. “Was it because I spoke before board, or wrote letters to the Montclair Times about Common Core? Do I not have the right to speak?”
Regina Tuma asked “What is the basis for targeting people on the enemies list? Why is my name on the list – when I come here year after year and tell you what I think? It would appear that by November 5th you knew that although teachers needed a password to get into the assessments, the url themselves were not protected. There were township documents also on Gobookee — that should also tell you something.” She then asked if the previous board used the investigation to go after critics.
Chris McGoey echoed Timas remarks about the urls being available and said that on October 26, Alan Benezra said the assessments were never password protected.
Rachel Quinn Egan called for the resignation of BOE members, specifically David Deutsch and Robin Kulwin.
On Monday, Baristanet received a copy of an email (below), dated December 20, 2013, indicating how wide the net was cast by Montclair Schools before they suspended their investigation when OFAC took over. An email from Roy Locke of Weiner Lesniak to Carlos Cordova of Kroll and Mark Tabakin, also of Weiner Lesniak, instructs Cordova, as part of the investigation, to review Montclair School employee Felice Harrison’s computer for a number of items, including any and all emails coming from a list of 28 individuals, some who had been critical of the Superintendent and BOE.
Back in June 2014, the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) of New Jersey had stated when it “completed its investigation into a potential data security breach,” that “the initial “release” of the assessments that allowed posting to a site accessible to the general public could only be accomplished by an individual/s possessing a district-issued user name and password.”
Despite two investigations by the BOE and OFAC, no statement has been released to show any specific findings of foul play or misconduct by Montclair schools staff.