Montclair BoE Celebrates Teacher Awards and Discusses Resolution For Achievement Gap

The Montclair Board of Education touched on numerous topics at its May 16 meeting, the achievement gap being foremost in its agenda.

The Montclair Board of Education

Superintendent Kendra Johnson led a discussion on a resolution that board member Anne Mernin had helped craft, which would clearly explain a plan going forward to reduce the gap between white and minority students.  The goal is to create a “shared language” between Superintendent Johnson and the board members to convey what is to be done going forward, explain what a classroom with the achievement gap eliminated should look like, and offer clearly delineated metrics to see if the gap is being closed in the plan that the district pursues.

Board member Eve Robinson suggested language referring to a result of a 2015 study on the achievement gap to stress that the district is aware of the gap and has taken steps in the past to correct it, demonstrating an ongoing effort to deal with the situation.    She also said the language should reflect various efforts and closing the racial, ethnic and economic divide over the past few decades, and Board President Laura Hertzog – just elected to a second term in her current office – said that baseline data points to monitor progress should be included.  Otherwise, Mernin was confident with the wording of the resolution, having had what she called a great talk with Superintendent Johnson on the matter.

In her first superintendent’s report at a regular, as opposed to a workshop, school board meeting, Superintendent Johnson addressed the canceled assembly at Montclair High School scheduled for May 8 that would have included an appearance from Montclair resident Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Eleventh House District.  She said she was informed of the assembly two days earlier and contacted Principal James Earle and the board’s attorney on the matter, choosing to cancel the event per state law and board policy prohibiting events that favor or promote a candidacy for public office on the board attorney’s advice.  Board member Joseph Kavesh was quick to point out that Superintendent Johnson received an e-mail complaining about the assembly after she had already canceled it, the inference being that she did not bow to partisan political pressure.

Robinson offered the only committee report, from the School Culture and Climate Committee (SCCC).  A subcommittee of the SCCC looked at student, discipline district-to-student and district-to-family and communications, and the need to create a nurturing environment for the students.  The committee looked at various programs and decided to turn over decision-making about how to implement these programs to Superintendent Johnson for her to decide, with two schools, Bradford and Nishuane, chosen for pilot programs.  She said that Superintendent Johnson will start to look at the programs and is eager to see what direction she will take.

In public comment, Paula White said she was impressed with school board efforts to address the achievement gap, and she added she was sorry that the district couldn’t get baseline data from the current school year.  One of Montclair’s teachers, however, brought up a more personal issue.  Donna Zdanowicz, a teacher of language arts at Renaissance, said she took an extended leave during the 2016-17 school year to raise her newborn son, and she planned to take a second extended leave when her second son was born in January 2018, but the extended-leave policy had changed and that she would not be allowed the second leave and forced to resign if she wanted to stay home to raise her second son.  She said the staff was never notified of the policy change and added that she expected better from a progressive district like Montclair.  Zdanowicz declared she was prepared to resign if she has to because her family comes first.

Also, Watchung School teacher Birdean Clinton received a special honor from Watchung principal Anthony Grosso for saving a first-grader from choking in the cafeteria by performing the Heimlich maneuver on him.  She said she was still shaking from the experience, but was glad to have been there at the right moment to save Evan, the first grade boy, who later joined Clinton at the podium.  Watchung students also opened the meeting, as the choral group form that school serenaded the audience with renditions of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and “(They Say the Neon Lights Are Bright) On Broadway,”  recorded by the Drifters and by George Benson.

Watchung Elementary School principal Anthony Grosso with Watchung teacher Birdean Clinton, who saved a first-grader from choking in the cafeteria

The Governor’s Educator of the Year award recipients from Montclair were also announced. They are: Laurie Durber, Bradford; Jennifer Woschinko, Bullock; Smita Dharsi, Edgemont; Bonnie Schotzman, Hillside; Tara Wentzell, Nishaune; Cheryl Starr, Northeast; Marissa Donovan, Watchung; Tracey Belsky and Lora Orta, Buzz Aldrin; Elizabeth Mealey Flack, Glenfield; Mark Stulbaum, Renaissance; and, Jacqueline Lubitz, Montclair High School.  Nurse Christine Langton of Bullock, Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant Maureen O’Connell of Nishuane, school psychologist Janet Leon of Renaissance and guidance counselor Tracie Morrison of Montclair High also received honors.

Also, board member Franklin Turner made a statement regarding an inquiry from a Montclair Times reporter asking whether he currently lives in Montclair. Turner says that he does, in fact, live in town (If Turner did not live in Montclair, he could not serve on the school board).  Turner said he asked if he provided his address, would the Montclair Times not run a story about his address. When the reporter could not guarantee this, Turner said he refused to discuss it further.

In public comment, MEA president Petal Robertson acknowledged Turner’s right to not disclose his address, but added that the same right was not afforded to students, and in her experience, predominantly students of color, who have historically have had their Montclair residency questioned and have had to prove residency in order to attend Montclair schools. Robertson said she never approved of the practice and yet it continues.

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  1. i think it is the insight and sensibility that Eve Robinsons brings to the table regarding the achievement gap and the districts continued efforts that have failed. This is not anything new here. The procedures, policy data, survey’s and statistical research is the same time and time again, for years and so far back as to when I first moved to Montclair 24 years ago! I’ve got news for everyone, The achievement gap between black and white will never be closed no matter how far down the scale you drag the curriculum while trying to cater to the less fortunate, a lot of whom just frankly do not care and have a distinct disadvantage with little or no family support! It is a national statistic that children coming from lesser socio-economic backgrounds and fractured families, do poorly in school. Always has been this way and always will. Sometime no matter how much we force our will for changing reality, it just hasn’t been proven to work. This seems to be the case in this town and i am not afraid to say it.

    What i want to hear just once, just once after a BOE meeting, is the discussion, plan and program to examine how we are going to maintain and strengthen academic excellence in our school. How are we going to raise the bar and challenge the BEST! How are we going to protect the intelligence levels and insure that they are given the challenges for growth and creating our worlds future, for it is these students, black and white, that are what matters.

  2. Let me get this straight. A member of the BoE reads a statement into the record refuting allegations, made outside this meeting, that he is ineligible to serve.

    And then what happened? We are all left hanging!

    I suspect neither the Board President or Vice-President acknowledged Mr Turner’s statement or the allegation he himself raised to the board (as it would have been included above). So, I just have to wonder what the President & VP were thinking at the time. Maybe they did not hear the statement. Maybe Mr Turner is a close colleague and they decided to suspend their job responsibilities until the next agenda item came up. I assume they moved the meeting along.

    I’m not surprised. I do appreciate the Board’s new & innovative approaches to undermining public confidence.

  3. It’s maddening how Board and sup vow and re-vow to tackle the achievement gap here as if its uniquely Montclair problem. Its like vowing to solve “Montclair’s” male-female longevity gap.

    I wondered if Franklin opposed MT revealing his address, which I understand, or did he oppose a story confirming, without revealing, his address, which I don’t get. Must be a lawyer thing.

  4. Frank,

    Not sure what your point is regarding the Turner residency issue.

    A litigious resident, who has never hesitated to sue and/or threaten to sue the District, made allegations as to Turner’s residency, without offering any “proof”. When contacted by the media, Turner avowed that he lives in Montclair.

    What, exactly, did you expect the President and VP to say? Should they have demanded that Turner affix his drivers license to his name plate?

    Moreover, why focus on the President and VP’s non-response? Since you have noted the “divided” nature of this Board in past posts here, surely you saw that Hertzog and Kavesh were each elected unanimously, with no opposition (unlike the prior 2 reorganizations).

    Maybe, just maybe, the Board said nothing because it prefers to focus on – wait for it – kids. Imagine that?

    There’s no there there, Frank.

  5. Johnlayne,

    Let’s look at this as a hypothetical case with a different governing body, e.g. the Council.
    A councilor makes a statement in a council meeting that he received an inquiry from a newspaper about circumstances that made the councilor unfit to continue serving. The councilor says he is fit and can prove it to the paper but won’t in public session and also they can’t publish his proof. For many in the audience and watching, this is the first they have heard about it. Further, the subsequent meeting minutes include that a statement on the subject was made, but minutes do not, by design, act as a transcript of the statement. They only show the subject and any subsequent actions. So, the “there” for the taxpayers is what the hell is going on? Should we just take the councilor at his word and that’s it? I expect the Montclair Times has to now run a story on who made the oringal allegation, the facts they can uncover, and the councilor’s statement rejecting the allegation. The newspapers goes to the Mayor and the other members of the Council for comment. Now the whole issue is being acted out in the media, but the Council’s public record indicates nothing. Other media outlets now have to report on this. Again, everyone is speaking to the media, but the public record is silent. The Council can handle it this way, but they should have an expectation that public confidence in how they manage their affairs will be eroded. That’s the there here.

  6. And johnlayne, let’s layer in the Mayor’s contribution to public doubt on the Board’s makeup. His unusual, if not exceptional decision to name a replacement for the next board opening. Now, the next opening is not due until a year from now. As many non-Republicans believe these days about Trump & his administration, where there is smoke, there is likely fire. Maybe there isn’t. But, leaving it up to the public to come to their own conclusions does create problems, don’t you agree?

  7. Frank,

    We do not disagree on your latter point (i.e., the “unusual” nature of the Mayor’s year-in-advance announcement). That’s been discussed and debated in these parts ad nauseum.

    On the first point, however, I think you’re still missing the basic concept of burden of proof. To refresh: a resident who has a history of suing the District – and who occasionally posts here – alleged that a current Board member is not a Montclair resident. This was raised at at least 2 BOE meetings prior to this week’s meeting. Perhaps you did not attend and/or watch those meetings. There was no proof offered in support of the allegations, at least not at the meetings. The Board member, Turner, denied the allegations.

    Unless I’m missing something, it seems the burden would be on the accuser, in the first instance, to show that (Turner) does not reside in Montclair. Again, unless I’m missing something, no such evidence has been offered.

  8. johnlayne,

    I agree I should walk back my comments to reflect more accurately what I heard listening today to Mr Herron’s public comment.

    First, he said he had not received a satisfactory answer to a “concern” about a member’s residency he previously raised to the BoE.

    I’m sorry to all I characterized this as an allegation.

    Second, the public has a right to raise concerns in the form of statements or questions, but making an allegation is a whole other matter. I originally only took note of it because of a several posts to a Bnet article on that meeting. I didn’t think his concern warranted any comment. I felt the BoE would take it up directly with Mr Herron. Just like the Council often does with the public that ask prickly questions.

    Third, that it was re-raised by Mr Turner, and his focus on the Montclair Times inquiry, now made it newsworthy again. Did Mr Herron ever publicly name Mr Turner specifically? If Mr Turner felt the concern had to be formally addressed again, the Board should have addressed it in closed executive session as a personnel issue and then a Board officer should have made a statement it was reviewed in closed session and that the Board has found all members meet the residency requirement. Done. Move on.

    Again, I sincerely apologize to Mr Turner and the Board for using the allegation term and elevating Mr Herron’s concern above the level it deserves.

    Lastly, thank you johnlayne for pushing back on my comments.

Comments are closed.