The Montclair school-year budget process may be over, but there is still a lot of work to be done by the Montclair Board of Education, as evidenced by the huge crowd of teachers, parents and students, at the board’s April 15 meeting. Members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) were there in full force to protest the lack of a contract between the union and the district, having worked 288 days without a proper agreement. The aisles between the seats were all but impassable, parking spaces in the George Inness Annex lot and on adjacent streets were full, and WNBC-TV even sent a cameraman to document the proceedings. Public comment was usually followed by supportive, often thunderous applause.
Most of the meeting was relegated to public comment, and there was plenty of it, raising issues of the deteriorating quality of the school system ranging from the plan to replace the staircases in the main Montclair High School building to cutbacks in maternity leave to the food available in the free/reduced meal program.
MEA’s leaders, President Petal Robertson and Vice President Tom Manos, were among the last speakers of the night, but they re-iterated many of the members of the public that preceded them. President Robertson said the gathering was meant to show that the MEA demanded to be heard. Vice President Manos was even more emphatic, saying that the last decade had been one of struggle for MEA members. Among his specific grievances were less take-home pay for teachers, cutbacks in maternity leave that go from generous one-year absences to the bare minimum of leave set by state law, and diminished health benefits.
Several staffers and volunteers had their own stories to tell. One teacher said she had to provide food to her students when the food vendor offered nothing other than tiny red velvet cupcakes as breakfast. Guidance counselor Lauren Csuka said the lack of time to bond with her newborn child left her tired and frustrated; she said she’d been told at eight months pregnant that she needed to return to work after only five months with her newborn. Watchung teacher Drury Thorp, who was able to take more time off for a year after having her child, underscored the importance of having expanded maternity leave by noting that other districts were expanding their leave policies even as Montclair was pulling back on its own.
Other residents complained that special-education students were being treated as an afterthought, which James Harris of the Montclair NAACP touched on in his comments. He declared that special-education students were being treated as if their individualized education programs (IEPs) were sentences, as in prison sentences, and that they were not given the support they needed to get beyond their IEP files. Colleen Martinez, addressing the issue of persistent racial segregation in the schools, said she requested information on students in the free/reduced lunch to pinpoint the racial divides in the schools but said she was told that this information was unavailable.
Resident Andrew Gideon took aim at the proposed transition period at the high school beginning May 20, when work is scheduled to begin on the staircases in the main Montclair High School building and students have to be moved out so abatement of the asbestos content can proceed. He said Montclair High School parents have only recently learned of a plan for the last 24 days of the current school year. Each class will met only six times in that period, he said, instead of 24 times, with 540 minutes of instruction instead of the 904 minutes that most classes would have, the 952 minutes that biology classes in particular would have, and the 928 minutes that physics and chemistry in particular would have. Gideon noted that these numbers mean 40 percent less time for instruction overall, a loss of 10 days over two weeks of instruction. Gideon said that the board should try to find more instruction time and less study hall time, with a more manageable lunch schedule, with 24 days of double shifts for the staircase repair crews.
“Now, this will add to the cost of the project, no question,” Gideon conceded. “But let’s consider priorities. Is it right to save this money at the expense of our students’ education?”
Bryan Harmon echoed opposition to the high school’s transition plan.
“To have our children sitting in study halls and lunch for five hours a day is not an education. They come to this school to learn, they don’t want to sit in a gym with 800 other kids, with no air conditioning, with no programming other than what Mr. Grosso calls ‘opportunities.’ That is not an education and we are failing our kids,” said Harmon. “Extend the school day, use the zero period, cancel study hall, put temporary classrooms on the football field, make sure our kids get the education they deserve.”
Superintendent Johnson faced an angry rebuke from parent Mark Haefele, who claimed he was evicted from a public sports field, where he went to see his daughter play Booster Club softball. Haefele said he believed it was because of emails allegedly sent by Haefele that Johnson determined to be violent and threatening to four Booster Club parents. Haefele denied ever sending e-mails and said security has asked him to leave school property on another occasion at the high school. Haefele said he has been critical of Johnson and her hiring in public, but claims he’s never been disrespectful.
Meanwhile, Montclair High School junior Mirit Skeen accused a teacher she declined to name of making students feel uncomfortable based on their economic statuses and showing no regard for their feelings, describing a class atmosphere not conducive to learning.
“The time we missed because of this teacher, we cannot get back. We have not been given the education we need,” said Skeen, asking that the matter be looked into and that the school remedy what has been happening in her classroom.
Watchung School parents also raised the issue of being left out of a process until the last minute that would affect the Watchung School playground, reducing its size in order to expand the adjacent sports field. Watchung School parents said the current plans would give Watchung School the smallest play space of the town’s six elementary schools, with a problematic “L” shaped layout.
Superintendent Johnson did not address those two particular issues, but she did try to provide some answers to other concerns. She said she was still looking into the plan for the May 20 transition but said that the district was not at a definitive point. She said she would talk to the food-service vendor about the lack of proper meals, but she added that information on those who sign up for free and reduced meals was restricted and could not be shared publicly.
At the end of the meeting – the only time any other board members spoke – board member Eve Robinson suggested comparing the present demographics of Montclair with demographics from earlier years to assess the problem of families being priced out of town. Superintendent Johnson said in response that, while the number of student on free and/or reduced meals is down to 15.9 percent from a previous rate of 16.8 percent, not enough families who qualify are signing up, and that they should be encouraged to do so. She said that the numbers don’t tell the full story.