The Montclair Board of Education mostly covered issues of procedure and planning at its July 16 meeting, as Superintendent Kendra Johnson presented findings and conclusions from the various listening sessions she conducted after beginning her tenure as Montclair’s first permanent superintendent in three years.
Superintendent Johnson said she found communication itself to be a vital tool going forward in the 2018-19 school year and beyond. She said more dialogue between the office staff and the principals and teachers in each school needed to be improved in order to more effective. She also said more needed to be done to involve parents and communicate more with them, adding that district-parent communication has decreased over time. Superintendent Johnson found this to be especially necessary with regard to special education and harassment, recommending that the district relay more information to parents on both issues. Parents have requested more information on harassment issues in particular. Teachers, Superintendent Johnson found, are eager to improve their instruction abilities but also seek more professional development in dealing with and reaching students who learn differently or have a disability, requesting a larger “tool kit.” The greatest emphasis, she said, belonged in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, where students who challenge teachers or need to be challenged can be detected early, before they reach higher elementary-school grades or middle school.
Superintendent Johnson cited five basic goals for the Montclair school district to pursue, each with an array of steps and points to purse and consider. They are:
- Ensuring that students have access to a world-class education, through initiatives such as pathways to post-high school endeavors, robust academic and arts programs, and a district-approved curriculum;
- Cultivate a safe and healthy environment through initiatives such as positive behavioral interventions, safe schools, anti-racist and anti-homophobia training, and mental health programs;
- Establish effective communications to everyone through e-mails and newsletters, public handbooks, and better Web site standards, with the district Web site expected to be updated by September 1;
- Re-imagine the district office as a “service-oriented team through optimizing district resources, recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, and;
- Engage and involve parents, school action teams, strategic partnerships and parent engagement programs.
The board reacted warmly to Superintendent Johnson’s presentation, and board member Joseph Kavesh expressed special interest in building security. Superintendent Johnson said she and her staff have had meetings with the police and gone over the basic security measures for each building. She added that every facility in the district should have a safety plan before the start of the school year, and Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea informed Kavesh and the board that he will look at what is necessary to implement security improvements throughout the district. The school budget added $50,000 to security, with $500,000 allotted in the capital budget for upgrades.
Board President Laura Hertzog was encouraged by Superintendent Johnson’s work, and she, in turn, encouraged her to set goals along the way for each initiative based on priorities and resources. “We want to support you,” she told the superintendent, “but we don’t want you to make promises you can’t keep.”
The board also discussed the value of monthly public workshops, which were implemented in 2015. At issue was whether workshops, committee meetings, or a hybrid of both, which the board uses now, would be beneficial toward making progress on the issues. Board member Franklin Turner preferred that the board pursue its goals through committee meetings, which he found to be a more effective use of time, while board member Anne Mernin said either committees or workshops could work, provided a higher standard of communication was involved. Board member Jessica de Koninck came out strongly for the current hybrid model, saying that the Wednesday workshops held each month offered the board a chance to share its ideas with the public while the committees allowed the board to function effectively.
Board President Hertzog took all of the comments offered into account, and she suggested that a reform of the committee structure – perhaps paring down the number of committees to make the process more efficient – was in order. She said she would send board members their committee assignments for review prior to the board retreat scheduled for July 23 at the Bullock School, where a possible revamp of the committees may be discussed.
Public comment mostly centered on an issue not entertained by the board. Concerns have been raised over the re-assignment of Renaissance School student assistance counselor Gerard Citro, who received a letter transferring him to Glenfield Middle School. Renaissance teacher Susan Thomas feared that Citro’s re-assignment would have a detrimental effect on Renaissance, calling him the school’s heart and soul and saying he was prepared to do almost anything for Renaissance students. Thomas asked the board to reconsider, saying that Citro deserved some respect, and resident Christine McGoey, whose son graduated from Renaissance, said the school itself was an important part of the district that needed to be strengthened. Neither the board members nor Superintendent Johnson directly addressed the issue with a response.
The board also approved, 6-0 (Eve Robinson was absent) an authorization for the dirstrict to solicit bids for new turf at Fortunato Field. D’Andrea said any bids received would be reviewed for all the necessary concerns regarding athletic safety and environmental impact, and his hope was that the project could be started in late October or early November and finished in the time before winter set in, depending on whether or not there would be a dry late-autumn period.
The board also welcomed new member Latifah Jannah, who replaces Jevon Caldwell-Gross. Jannah said she was glad to serve the community and looked forward to working with her new colleagues into the new school year.