Montclair BOE: Protests Against More Staff Cuts; Discussion of Proposed Solar Panels For High School

The Montclair Board of Education’s June 19 meeting had a light agenda, and the threat of storms no doubt kept many people away – an electrical blackout caused the proceedings to be taped rather than broadcast live on TV34 – but those that did show up were very vocal in their support for retaining teachers who could be affected by budget cuts.  This time it was Glenfield Middle School math teacher Faisal Sheikh.

Glenfield Middle School students at the June 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting protest the potential firing of math teacher Faisal Sheikh for budget reasons.

A bunch of Glenfield students sat up front to show their support for Sheikh, and Board of Education President Laura Hertzog took it upon herself to explain the procedures of the meeting before it began should any of them want to contribute to public comment.   A few of them did, with Noah Fishman telling the board Sheikh has made learning math fun and with Joanne Keyser calling him “amazing.”  Several adults spoke up on Sheikh’s behalf as well, with Evan Cutler saying the teacher has made math his daughter’s favorite subject after she started sixth grade hating it, while Scott Richards said Sheikh helped his own child come a long way in getting his math grades up. Sara Mosle, herself an educator and an education reporter, opined that to hire talented teachers and then not retain them would make it difficult to attract new teachers.

Other residents brought up additional concerns in public comment.  Christine McGoey and her husband Michael, were worried about rumors of advanced mathematics students at Renaissance School being placed in a separate class, violating the Renaissance credo that all students should learn together.  Abraham Dickerson and his daughter Alexis complained about the school lunch program, with Mr. Dickerson calling for shared services with other districts to increase Montclair’s buying power and get healthier meals, while his daughter said the food served in school cafeterias should have its ingredients posted so students can make informed decisions about what they are eating.   Local NAACP leader James Harris acknowledged sending a letter to the board and to Mayor Robert Jackson asking for a study of providing universal pre-kindergarten to Montclair toddlers, and he encouraged increasing the racial diversity of both the office and school staff.  Meanwhile, Rachael Quinn Egan lamented the loss of so many paraprofessionals, including one whose help for a special-needs student allowed the student to progress tremendously.

Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak addressed as many of these topics as she could.  Regarding paraprofessionals, she explained that when district officials looked at the number of paraprofessionals matching individualized education programs (IEPs), they were overstaffed in part because the schools didn’t schedule special-education students first, in violation of best practice.  When the special-ed students were finally scheduled, she added, they were placed in many different classes, necessitating the need of extra paraprofessional hires.  Superintendent Pinsak said the district is looking at every IEP and trying to match a paraprofessional to each one, allowing possibly seven paraprofessionals to be called back.

Superintendent Pinsak also said advanced geometry classes being considered for Renaissance School are to offer the same opportunities that are offered at the other middle schools, responding to the McGoeys’ questions.  She explained the district was figuring out a way to do so while still giving the students the opportunity to learn together.

The meeting was also highlighted by three Montclair High School students who gave a presentation on acquiring solar panels for the high school through a project in the school’s Center for Social Justice program.  Jeff Freeman, a lead teacher for the program, introduced sophomores Gabbi Carson, Victoria De La Rosa, and Noa Putman, who proceeded to explain how solar panels for Montclair High School would work.   They said that solar panels have been very successful in New Jersey, and given the high cost of purchasing or renting them, they proposed a power purchasing agreement (PPA), which is an agreement where a developer agrees to financing and installing the panels.   Under the PPA, the developer would receive the income and the tax reduction from the solar panels.  The school, however, would receive a reduced energy bill, with possible reductions of 70 percent.  The developer, not the school district, would be responsible for their maintenance.  The sophomores cited the Bullock School as evidence of the possible savings with solar panels, noting that the school enabled the Montclair school district to trade 99 Solar Renewable Energy Certificates at $530 each, generating $52.470 in revenue.  The sophomores circulated a petition for such a project, gaining a couple hundred signatures, and they also spoke to Montclair High principal James Earle and Montclair Sustainability Office Gray Russell about the idea.

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