Tense Montclair BOE Meeting: Disagreement On PreK and DACA Resolution; Concerns About Renaissance Raised


Montclair Board of Education president Laura Herzog tried to smooth things over, but there were instances of tension between board members at Wednesday night’s BOE meeting regarding two resolutions — one that would have the district look into providing publicly-funded Pre-K options for three and four-year-olds; the other, a resolution regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Dream Act, and the legal protections for students covered under that legislation. The board is expected to vote on both resolutions at their next meeting on Feb. 20.

The meeting started off with news the Board was one step closer to hiring a permanent superintendent with the announcement of a candidate’s forum. The event, which would be open to the public, would offer the chance for the Board to introduce finalists for the superintendent position. The forum will be held on Monday, February 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Montclair High School’s main auditorium. Parents can either leave questions for the candidates at a box in their child’s school or email them to supersearch@montclair.k12.nj.us.

Thomas Santagato, the new director of special services for the district, spoke at length about familiarizing himself with students with special needs in the district through review. Santagato remarked the district had a fairly high number of students classified as autistic — around 145 spread over 11 schools. He spoke of the success of a program at Bradford for students with autism and that another class would be opening soon to meet the needs of those students.

Thomas Santagato, the new director of special services for the district,

Santagato added that 28 students who came into the district in August were classified and that the district is seeing more students with school refusal and anxiety than ever before. He also said the number of classified students in the Montclair school district was above the state average, so officials are looking into a way to move students into the least restrictive environment and offer them a great education.

Regarding the importance of paraprofessionals, Santagato stated he was looking at creative ways to use paras more effectively for the benefit of the student, adding that “every out-of-district student is equal to three paras,” so the paraprofessionals are essential to keeping students in district.

Santagato’s analysis of the district’s special services will help inform program development. “I never want to bring a student back [into the district] that I couldn’t educate at a higher level than the placement they are in,” says Santagato.

Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak returned to last month’s discussion of suspensions in the district.

“While there is still work to do, there is movement in the right direction,” said Pinsak of the decrease in the number of suspensions in the last school year. “There will always be suspensions, as some acts by law require removal from school.”

Pinsak added that positive behavioral programs and developing tools for dealing with conflict were helping reduce suspension and that there was a focus on restoration and exploring alternatives to out-of-district suspensions. She cited a partnership with Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. which offers a place for students who would otherwise be unattended while suspended, but she added that although parents are urged to take advantage of the program, it can’t be mandated.

Pinsak said a school administrator had recently engaged in restorative justice training and the feedback was very positive.

Pre-K Exploration Raises Questions

During discussion of a resolution exploring options for public preschool/primary units in the Montclair School District, BOE members disagreed.

Rev. Jevon Caldwell-Gross questioned whether it would be prudent to postpone the process until the new incoming superintendent was in place, wondering if the Board needed another item on its plate at this time. “It’s not a philosophical question, but a pragmatic one,” Caldwell Gross added.

According to Pinsak, the process had already begun with the start of a committee and Asst. Superintendent Kendra Johnson starting an ongoing dialogue with local pre-k and kindergarten providers. Pinsak added that it was good to step up to the plate and get work done, but that the process did seem a little disconnected from the superintendent search.

Jessica de Koninck responded by saying “if we are going to seriously address the issue of institutional racism in Montclair, we have to start at the earliest point. Why wouldn’t we be looking at pre-school and it sounds like we are.”

“Show me the money,” Joe Kavesh said of the pre-K resolution, adding, “I do not believe we can afford this right now.”

“The intent of this is to explore how our district could be prepared and ready to write to the state department of education to apply for those preschool funds once we become eligible. Right now we are not on the list which gives us the flexibility and time to see what public preschool could mean for our district, said Eve Robinson, adding that Montclair was the model for public pre-K programs in the state when it was the first town in the state to offer it in the early 1970s. When the town could no longer afford to pay for public pre-K, it went to a sliding scale, with no one turned away if they could not pay.

“Public preschool has always been part of the municipal budget. Your tax dollars Joe, have been paying for public pre-K for 20 years,” Robinson added.

“Thank you for the history lesson,” Kavesh replied to Robinson with an angry tone. “I, of course, grew up in this township. I went to Bradford, I went to Nishuane, I went to Hillside, I went to Glenfield, so do not ever lecture me about the township. I will forget more about Montclair than you will ever know. I stand by my concerns, fiscal concerns, they are valid and I stand by them.”

BOE members also had a difference of opinion regarding a resolution in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the immigrants the law was designed to protect.

Hertzog questioned whether this was in the BOE’s “lane,” adding that while she personally agreed with the resolution, she wasn’t entirely sure if it was something the BOE should be doing.

Kavesh said the resolution was symbolic and the BOE should not become political. Robinson said advocating for children was the BOE’s role and she saw the resolution as an extension of that advocacy and for her, politics is personal and her politics inform her decisions.

Public Comment

Numerous speakers during the public comment period raised concerns about Renaissance at Rand. Brynn Heathman spoke of a shift in the culture at Renaissance from a place of warmth, creativity and inclusion to a focus on rules, discipline and not making waves. Christa Rappaport asked the board to embrace the original vision of Renaissance, as a unique school that nurtured quirky kids. She asked the board to not think about losing Renaissance or folding it into other schools.

Another parent and co-president of Renaissance PTA shared feedback from families who want the school to preserve its strong service-oriented model and unique field study element. “Eliminating it would be like closing labs at Buzz Aldrin or shuttering the stage at Glenfield.”

Another parent, described how Renaissance once was a gem, but added that there was a hole in the school, citing a missing language arts teacher and issues of leadership and classroom management problems. She added that her son asked her to transfer, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be prepared for high school.

Two parents, Jen Grisafi and Amy Freitag, raised concerns that a beloved Watchung teacher had her character called into question both in public forums and at the January 22 BOE meeting. Both came to state their support for the teacher and the teaching staff as a whole at Watchung.

MEA Vice President Tom Manos, accompanied by some 50 MEA members, said school climate and morale are still low and spoke of a lack of direction in the district. Manos implored the Board to make a promise to involve the MEA in the superintendent selection and asked for the candidates forum to be a true public discourse with no pre-screened questions, adding that the process must be transparent. Manos also asked again for the MEA and PTA to have a place on the BOE agenda as it once had.

MEA President Petal Robertson also called out the board for allowing members of the public to make accusations of discrimination against teachers in the district at the January 22 meeting.

Stephanie Fitzgerald, director of the Montclair Community Pre-K, also urged the board to consider the importance of preschool in Montclair and spoke of the need to better advertise and inform families who are not taking advantage of pre-K. “We have seats not being used. It costs $280,000 to support the pre-K and yet every seat isn’t filled. The best way to close the achievement gap is with our youngest learners,” said Fitzgerald, adding that some students show up not speaking a word.

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  1. “Public preschool has always been part of the municipal budget. Your tax dollars Joe, have been paying for public pre-K for 20 years,” Robinson added.”

    Huh? Once again – and to be brutally honest – this BoE, like previous BoE’s, is just plain ignorant when it comes to school finances. It is painful to watch.

  2. As we come into this budget season and ask ourselves how we have to make the hard choices once again to allocate funding, the issue of kindergarten class size is an excellent example.

    In setting the 2014/15 budget, Dr Mac Cormack decreased kindergarten class sizes from 24 to 21 at a cost of $420K funded from non-recurring revenue. We would still continue to target 24 per class for grades 1-5.

    The following year’s budget crunch – exacerbated by a drop in non-recurring revenue – led us to the hard, but agreed upon decision to revert back to 24 students/class. Supposedly saving us $420K.

    Guess what? In 2017/18, we are back down to the 21 students/class that Dr. Mac Cormack wanted. So, that $420K has crept back into our costs, not to mention it absorbs 2 resource spaces from somewhere else in the system. Mr Bolandi had indicated before he left that the district was close, if not at the limit of its physical capacity.

    Maybe this “it just happened” increased funding on this early learning stage with reduced kindergarten class size is an essential part of reducing the achievement gap. Has it made a difference yet? Now the achievement gap discussion is to reduce kindergarten class size and layering in the space and cost requirements of bringing back Pre-K…with non-recurring funding.

    A big part of our district’s ongoing fiscal problem is a basic lack of discipline. Discipline to fund core priorities with recurring revenue. Discipline to stay an agreed upon course, implement a culture of fiscal responsibility, and to have the transparency in the analysis and reconciliation when we – or our non-recurring funding deviate.

  3. You asked if the change in class size had affected the achievement gap. My first question was what information would you offer to use to evaluate that? Standardized testing is not valid in Montclair as per the last interim Super. What would YOU use to determine progress? My “PS” refers to the historical characteristics of the district and BoSE. When have they last shown financial discipline? MacCormack tried to implement changes, and we saw how that worked out. It’s broken, and the responsibility lies with the person who appoints the Board.

  4. I don’t believe class size differences on the order of 3 to 5 students impacts the achievement gap in a major way. I don’t believe the district believed it either or 1) they wouldn’t have reversed themselves in the example I gave, or 2) they did believe this to be true, which I doubt, then their actions directly contradicted what they were espousing, or 3) they knew the kindergarten population trend was decreasing and cut enough to show a budget reduction, but not the savings they said would be realized.

    As to metrics, this BoE recently said they need to find a new set of metrics to measure achievement. I personally don’t care which metrics they use. But all the stakeholders need to come to some consensus on metrics that we can use to measure points in time and change over time. I do think the early years metrics are most important as per my above belief…and the BoE has said the remedies are fewer and less effective for the middle schools and MHS.

    Parental engagement is a key driver of educational quality. Hence, in Montclair, it creates a built-in, powerful lobby that all others pale in comparison. It’s part of our social compact. The Mayor is just the instrument of that lobby. No other institution I know of can justify 3-10% annual operating increases, decade in, decade out.

    I really hope the Governor eliminates the school budget cap. I doubt he will. But if he does, and sweetens school aid levels, our district costs will go up 6-8% annually.

  5. Rubacky – you once suggested pre-k for all early on but apart from a union BOE run type school program. That could be done with vouchers for existing non-profit and private schools, it could be done on a sliding scale as income based scholarships. Either way we will likely need more state dollars and more local taxes to pay for it. Is that what you are suggesting?

    Is it worth it? Do you think the achievement gap would be reduced long term and benefits proven or even savings generated from less expenditures down the road? How about less special ed or reduced truancy, less disaplinary incidents or suspensions in later years to show for it?

    What say you? Others?

  6. Frank, You say “you believe”. You also say you think “they believe”. Finally, you say they are “looking for new metrics”. No shit. There needs to be a consensus on metrics, but there is not one now. Without any data to drive the discussion other than what people “feel” it is a fools errand that continues to flounder about. Your statement about the early years being most important was clearly described in the AGAP report. That was based on real study and experience from other districts. It’s not news. The Mayor is NOT just an instrument of the parental lobby. That is the most foolish statement ever made on these pages. The Mayor chose his board members based upon political inputs independent of the parent lobby. When has he last held or participated in any forum where he discussed education with his constituents? He chooses Board members knowing full well what the resulting majority will be and what direction they will take it. The position we are in now is primarily his choice and he should be held accountable for the constant rising operating increases under his watch. JB

  7. Let’s separate the program from the funding.

    I believe in Universal Pre-K and have no doubts about the benefits. I also believe in Universal K-12 education. Would Pre-K reduce the AGAP? Theoretically, I would think so. But, our MPS kindergarten program has proven it limits to specifically close it.

    MPS is absolutely the wrong organization to control/run a Pre-K. Besides the district’s institutionalized issues, they have no incentive to control costs, so they don’t manage their finances well. And an elected school board would not make a positive difference. A full-fledged Universal Pre-K operating costs would run about $3-4MM and if we run true to form, it will go up at least 3-4% annually. That’s just for the 4 yr old cohort. Capital needs would be above and beyond.

    As to funding it, I would think we have learned our lesson many times by now about the reliability of State and Federal funding sources, but we do like to wear our roast-colored glasses.

    A “fee for service model” or hybrid would be likely because, bottomline, this is a ‘like to have’ public benefit versus an essential service. A muni contribution could be done, e.g. like the library and maybe a 1-time capital expenditure.

    The mindset is here is never enough money for education. So, whee does this rank among the Township priorities? Why are we doing Universal Pre-K? For the achievement gap? Would it be, for example, faster and better to spend on elevating our K-3 problem areas or providing additional assistance programs?

    I personally feel our current budget is over-allocated to the older grades, specifically MHS. The magnet system is a big added expense, but aside from tweaking things, it is an untouchable cost.

    I think the whole topic has been at a superficial, soapbox level so far. We need move the discussion to an org or body other than the BoE/MPS. They should be relegated to stakeholder status.

  8. Mr. Bonesteel – what are you suggesting the policy of the Mayor and his appointees should be? And what should he be held accountable for? It’s not very clear from your note above — except that you have a problem with what he’s been doing, or didn’t do.

    What should he have done differently with his Board appointments? What did he do instead? Not everyone follows the Board of Ed politics closely since it’s such a convoluted mind field much of the time. And I for one am just not clear what should have happened before with that last Superintendent…(who did a terrible job communicating and selling her intentions) at the very least. What should have been an educational debate turned into good v. evil.

    So what is it now that should be happening there that you feel is being prevented by parents…or is it the politicians. It’s just not fully clear exactly what you are taking issue within the system.

  9. Jon,

    I agree I have made more than my share of foolish statements, but I can recall a half dozen or so etched in my memory that easily surpass this one. I would clarify that it was not directed at Mayor Jackson specifically, but at the nature of the position and the powers bestowed to it.

    I concur with spot that your position is not clear.

  10. Jon,

    3 sobering points:

    1) To your point about data, I went back and reread the AGAP Report…and yes, it didn’t provide any data on the achievement gap prior to 3rd Grade. None.

    2) Nor is there historical data, qualitative or quantitative, on the first MPS Pre-K program that ended in 1997. The last cohorts of that MPS Pre-K would have graduated MHS in 2009-2010. This is noteworthy because the report indicates the highest recorded gap in 2010 of 40%.

    3) The report’s two recommendation for the private Pre-K schools is to furnish a report card on their graduates to the public school district and that the district should set standards of quality.

  11. I’m curious about how many children don’t attend PreK before entering Montclair Schools.

    When my children were in PreK about 5 years ago, we had a neighbor, a single mother, who qualified to send her child to our PreK, 8am-6pm, for $70 a month. We were paying like $1250. So I’m not sure it’s an affordability issue, if some don’t attend.

    I’m also curious about PreK quality. Are all our PreKs preparing their students. One of my Kindergarten teachers seemed to think they weren’t prepared, including my two. My kids have done fine, but can the district track students to see if there are any trends relating to PreK quality? Or, at the least, can the district show what a prepared student looks like?

    I’ve delivered flyers informing PreK parents about the morning foreign language program for district students. The Montclair PreK network of schools seems pretty strong and professional.

  12. spotontarget,

    Noted you point on “vouchers for existing non-profit and private schools”.

    However, this resolution is for the MPSD TO FILE preliminary paperwork for State funding available for schools districts wanting to start/expand into Pre-K. Our district would control the public Pre-K because it can’t normally transfer funds to an outside private entity. So, the municipal budget would have to fund subsidizing vouchers for private Pre-K. It more complicated, but this is the direction the BoE is going in.

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