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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.