The Montclair Board of Education held a forum at the Charles Bullock Elementary School on May 8 that was designed to explain to the public how board members go about their job and its relationship with the district’s central office and with Superintendent Kendra Johnson. The board couldn’t avoid business as usual, however, and the subject of the staircases at Montclair High School inevitably came up, with several students expressing concerns about efforts to work around the issue until the reconstruction project is completed, the reconstruction project itself, and the effect it has all been having on school morale.
Superintendent Johnson announced she would recommend to the board that the high school keep the main building open through graduation, instead of utilizing the May 20 transition plan. She said that the plan had been developed over six months after speaking with various stakeholders and received a lot of feedback. When the district went back to the plan with that feedback, it got new information, and she decided that based on a revised timeline, the district can get the repairs done in the summer. If there are any issues, Johnson said there is both a plan A and a Plan B. A timeline for the repairs will be released at the board’s May 16 meeting.
Johnson also said the contract for the staircase repairs cannot be extended, but she was confident that the repairs would be done in time. The fire marshal is expected to come in and talk about whether there can be three staircases available to provide full access to the second floor and partial access to the third floor, so by the end of the school year, Plan A and Plan B can both be clearly mapped out.
Also, Superintendent Johnson addressed an issue from the previous day, May 7, when people at the high school learned that a possible threat to the school was circulating on social media. There is an investigation underway, and the involved student and the student’s family are cooperating with the authorities. Superintendent Johnson said that she will always move to close any school in the district when she feels a threat against it is credible, and expanding on the interest of prioritizing safety, she urged students not to spread information of a threat originating on social media when it may not be true. No further information on the May 7 threat is available as yet.
At the start of the forum, Board President Laura Hertzog explained the role of the Board of Education by saying that it formulates policy for the district and then defers to the administration to implement said policy. She said the board discusses various issues and goes over numerous reports from the committees, which meet regularly, and provides oversight of the district’s central office rather than managing it. The various members of the board explained the roles of the different committees.
Eve Robinson, who chairs the personnel committee, said her committee oversees the comings and goings of staff and offers input on any issue it takes a vote on. The personnel committee does not hire or interview potential staff, but it lays out a vision to guide the process in selecting staffers. Priscilla Church, who chairs the policy committee, said the district’s “vision statement” is created by the board, with her committee dealing with governance and creating rules and a framework around that vision. Recommendations come from Superintendent Johnson and other board members, and resolutions on policy go before the board in an open process where they are voted on at meetings. There are two readings on the public agenda, and a resolution can always be pulled if the board feels a need to work on it further.
Anne Mernin handled information on both the communications committee, which she chairs, and the facilities, finance and technology committee, which was chaired by outgoing member Joseph Kavesh, who was not present. Mernin explained that the communications committee focuses on contact between the superintendent’s office and the board, in which Superintendent Johnson gives regular reports. She said that, under Kavesh, the facilities, finance and technology committee has been proactive in ensuring a review of the various school buildings in the district after the staircase collapse in Montclair High School as well as instigating work on Fortunato Field.
Latifah Jannah, who chairs the climate and culture committee, ceded the balance of her time in favor of Edgemont School principal Jeff Freeman and a few of his colleagues in presenting their school’s restorative justice program. Freeman and his colleagues explained that Edgemont’s approach to restorative justice is to facilitate a learning community that engages and nurtures students in an environment that “supports and respects the inherent dignity and work of all.” The program allows for community building and responding to challenging situations through conversations and interactions to restore and repair relationships and using restorative circles to build relationships, create a sense of community, and resolve difficult issues. The Edgemont PTA has been very supportive of this program.
Also, Jannah presented a handout of procedures of investigating harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) issues. Any school employee or contracted service provider who witnesses HIB incidents must report any such incidents immediately to the principal, which allows the principal to investigate through anti-bullying specialists and inform the parents of alleged victims and offenders of the incident. A report is to be submitted within 10 school days; intervention services, discipline or counseling may be recommended in response. A report is to be made to the school board, and parents are provided with written information on the incident. The school board holds a hearing and votes to affirm, reject, or modify the decision from the investigation.
Several Montclair High School students took the time to express their frustration with the glacial pace of the staircase reconstruction and the effect it has had on their school year. Matthew Cerbone said the situation has had a psychologically catastrophic effect on him and other students, and he feared that the staircase reconstruction project would never go as planned, given the fact that many construction projects get stymied by delays. Loren Johnson said the situation was stressful, and that the district should communicate more with the students. Some students expressed appreciation of Superintendent Johnson’s commitment to their safety.
Board President Hertzog said asbestos removal was paramount in rebuilding the stairs, saying that no one knows how much asbestos will have to be removed before work could begin on rebuilding the stairs. She did, though, vow that the asbestos removal phase would be done in time for the new school year, even if the staircases are not fully completed. She said the district is doing everything it can to mitigate the problem and that board members would do their best to get it taken care of.