Clocking in at 304 days without a new contract, some 100 members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) made their presence known at Wednesday’s Montclair Board of Education meeting, which was also International Workers’ Day. Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson and Board President Laura Hertzog addressed the main business at hand – the M20 plan for finishing the 2018-19 high school session between May 20, when work on reconstructing the staircases at Montclair High School is scheduled to begin, and the end of the school year. If it begins in May, all four staircases should be done by September; if it begins the day after the last day of school in June, only two staircases might be done by then.
Hertzog apologized to residents for not having communicated effectively about the handling of the staircases at the high school, saying that the board should have done a better job. In the meantime, the board has been trying to reconcile its efforts over its planning for the reconstruction projects in the past six months with some of the ideas being considered for a daily schedule preferable to the study halls announced in the M20 plan. Superintendent Johnson elaborated on that, saying that, based on ideas submitted to the school board, there are new plans to allow students to pursue electives during the periods disrupted by the beginning of the staircase repairs to keep them busy. A new series of elective opportunities, from tutoring, scholastic aptitude test (SAT) preparation, chemistry prep, organic grading, and even video game design have been proposed to replace the study halls originally considered. There would still be three hours of daily instruction instead of six hours, a sore point with many teachers and parents.
Both Hertzog and Johnson said that a final decision would be made with regards to a May 20 by Tuesday, May 7, and that parents of high school students and rising freshmen would receive an email regarding the decision to either start work in May or wait until the end of June.
Hertzog also gave an update on the Watchung School playground, saying that the board had decided to reject a bid for reconstruction of that facility due to error on the part of the bidder. She said that more time is needed to come up with a comprehensive plan for the playground, and the board is reaching out to parents in an effort to involve them in the process. In public comment, resident Jonathan Bellack thanked the school board for its attention to the issue and added that Watchung parents looked forward to working with District Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea and District Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann in formulating a plan, Bellack said the project could not be rushed, adding that a a long-term design needed to be pursued and that there may be a drainage study needed.
In that spirit, the group Team Up Montclair presented themselves to the school board members and said they were ready to work in a partnership with them to improve athletic facilities and programming. The goal of Team Up Montclair, whose leadership includes volunteers Mitch Heissler, Linda Bowers, Selma Avdicevic and Kevin Murphy, was formed to promote recreational opportunities for children and adults and to raise funds for upkeep of the school facilities.
Superintendent Johnson also focused attention on the quality of life in the district’s schools, announcing a new Social Emotional Learning Imitative. The program is intended to reach students in kindergarten and in third, fifth, sixth and ninth grades, and it is aimed at promoting conflict resolution and interpersonal skills while also teaching coping skills and helping children understand how to get the best out of social media while recognizing its less healthy by-products. Meanwhile, Dr. Felice Harrison-Crawford reported on student safety by presenting the latest statistics on various issues such as violence, vandalism, weapons, drug and alcohol use, and harassment and bullying. Dr. Harrison–Crawford said the report was compiled per regulations from the New Jersey Department of Education and that the state had altered its requirements for reportage. The changes no longer require burglary and vandalism offenses; combines robbery and extortion into one category; and separates substance abuse into confirmed and suspected incidents, as well separating sex offenses into categories of contact and assault. Investigations into bullying, expulsions for disciplinary reasons, and offender arrests have been added.
The resulting numbers show a relatively low occurrence of incidents in most of the schools during 2017-18 and 2018-19 but found large numbers of violence and bullying in the middle schools – 11 incidents of violence and 17 bullying incidents at Glenfield Middle School, 18 incidents of violence and 10 bullying incidents at Renaissance School, and 11 bullying incidents at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. Of the 12 substance abuse incidents report, all but one of them were at the high school, the other one at Renaissance.
Board member Anne Mernin suspected that changes to reporting of substance abuse may have left many of them unrepresented in these statistics, and she said examining the root causes of such incidents could make greater progress in unearthing and reducing such incidents. Board member Joseph Kavesh was glad to see vandalism and weapon usage decrease in 2018-19 from the previous school year, but he expressed concern about the sharp rise in bullying. Dr. Harrison-Crawford’s slide show presentation will be available online on the district’s Web site.
The bullying issue hit home during public comment when Natalie Hackett, a parent, addressed the school board, expressing anger and frustration at the ongoing harassment and abuse her daughter has reported as a Buzz Aldrin student on the basis of her race. Hackett described how her daughter had been called vicious epithets and received constant cyber-bullying. Hackett, holding a stack of emails about the issue to school officials, demanded that the board take greater action and resolve the issue immediately.
Public comment continued with concerns about the M20 schedule. Nicole Farjani wanted to know if the state approved the M20 plan as presented and if it this was the final plan. She could not understand why approval from the state was not needed, as President Hertzog had said earlier in the meeting, and she wanted to know what meetings with Interim Essex County Schools Superintendent Joseph Zarra – who said it was not the final plan – were for. Farjani said parents have been able to come up better plans for the transition and she criticized the board’s approach to the situation, saying that only 10 percent of high school students would be afforded the elective opportunities that Superintendent Johnson described.
“I send my kid to school to learn, not do SAT prep,” Farjani added.
Also, teacher after teacher demanded that the school board agree to a fair and an equitable contract with the MEA. Teacher Brian Ford said he was “hustling backwards” to stretch his funds and had to ration his medications, in order to afford the basics of life with a reduced salary. MEA Vice President Tom Manos, who used some interesting metrics to demonstrate how long teachers had gone without contract (304 days, he said, is enough time to fight the Spanish-American War of 1898 thrice or walk from New York City to Topeka), demanded that the district stop letting the teachers be ”vilified” and that the time for an equitable contract had come.
Superintendent Johnson reiterated that the staircase project at the high school does not require state approval, and she added that she met with Superintendent Zarra in part because Montclair parents and community members are reaching out to him, and he wants to get information about the high school directly from Superintendent Johnson. Hertzog spoke regarding the the teachers’ contract, saying that the district has met with the teachers 20 times and that negotiations are likely to go to mediation in three weeks. She was confident that the dispute would soon be settled with an intermediary helping out, and she also noted that parental leave had been extended into 2018-19 out of the eventually realized fear that negotiations would take too long, and better to try and spare teachers of further hardship.
This meeting was also the last meeting for board member Kavesh, who steps down from the Montclair Board of Education after a single-three-year term. He told members of the audience that maintaining school infrastructure would remain an important issue, and he expressed pride in having helped ensure that the choice of a new permanent superintendent was the right one.