Dr. Alfred Davis, Jr. attended his first Montclair Board of Education meeting as its newest member, replacing Joseph Kavesh and keeping at least one male member on the board, but his debut at the May 16 meeting was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell outgoing Board President Laura Hertzog dropped after Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson gave her regular report, which had a bombshell of its own.
Hertzog had been voted out of her leadership position in favor of Eve Robinson, who now takes over as school board president, with Latifah Jannah as vice president. Hertzog told Montclair residents in attendance in a prepared statement that she had received a call from Robinson on May 10 and had been ”blindsided” to learn that Robinson had been working behind the scenes to acquire the votes necessary for her to be elected president and for Jannah to be elected as her second-in-command. “While I was sitting in a circle thinking that we had been open and honest, she and another person in that circle were smiling and looking me in the eye, already knowing that those votes had been secretly gathered without any conversation from me.”
Hertzog said she was proud of what the board had accomplished during her tenure as president, such as bringing in Superintendent Johnson, building a robust budget process, and restoring the committee structure that had once existed, but decided that the ongoing politics were too much for her to bear. “I must accept,” she said, “that the hard work I have done to change things basically meant nothing. I understand that despite my best efforts, I am unable to change the toxicity that I have experienced since I began volunteering on this board.” And with that, she resigned, electing to leave after public comment and without voting on any agenda items. She will write an official resignation letter to both Mayor Robert Jackson and school board business administrator Emidio D’Andrea.
Hertzog’s resignation is the latest turn in a tumultuous road for the Montclair BOE which showed signs of friction back in in April 2018, when at a special meeting, the BOE, with only four of its members in attendance — Hertzog, Rev. Jevon Caldwell-Gross, Joe Kavesh, and Franklin Turner — voted to approve the hiring of new Montclair Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson. Rev. Caldwell-Gross resigned shortly after, moving to a new church in Indianapolis. In September 2018, Turner resigned from the board, not long after being named in a non-residency appeal petition that questioned whether he lived in Montclair.
Hertzog’s resignation took a few board members aback, with Priscilla Church saying after Hertzog left that they had worked on building relationships in their concurrent time on the board. President Robinson said Hertzog’s departure was the result of “misunderstood circumstances.” This all happened after Superintendent Johnson addressed the staircase issue at Montclair High School. She announced that the plan to begin staircase repairs on May 20 and enact a transition plan to accommodate the project had been canceled. The goal had been to have all 515 seniors out of the building for senior option, but many seniors had not been able to find locations, and that there are still up to 150 seniors who do not have places to go outside school, and many special-education students who are on no identifiable support plan. All of this data, Superintendent Johnson explained, changed the equation and necessitated a change of plans. The staircase reconstruction work will now begin on June 26, with communication updates issued every two weeks during the summer.
As expected, students participating in public comment inevitably addressed the staircase issue, and with a good deal of skepticism. Gabe Weintraub summarized students’ frustrations when he told the board that there was a lack of transparency over the staircase reconstruction plan, and that many students felt like they were “in the dark.” Other students complained that too much information about the staircases was being disseminated through social media in a second-hand fashion.
When it came time for the board to vote on rescinding the contract for replacing the stairs and re-advertising the bid for the project, Priscilla Church expressed regret that the May 20 plan had been scuttled and said that the board should have been having discussions about a reconstruction plan sooner. She added that there have to be guarantees that the stairs will be properly replaced, as there is no longer any room for failure. D’Andrea informed the board that the project’s architect plans to communicate with Superintendent Johnson on a regular basis and that the contract for a new construction crew will be clear and concise enough to ensure a smooth completion of the project. And so the board voted 5-1 for the resolutions rescinding the contract for replacing the stairs and re-advertising a new bid for it – with Church the sole dissenter.
Various statements were made in public comment. Sue Weintraub [comment corrected by editor] raised issues affecting the high school including excessive absenteeism and lack of skilled substitutes and concerns that CGI, the best part of her children’s high school experience, may likely not exist next year.
“You can’t just plop 10 different teachers into the Institute and expect students and parents to shrug their shoulders as if it’s no big deal,” Weintraub said, adding that the “CGI teachers cannot simply be “replaced” by another teacher.” Superintendent Johnson stated in a later comment that the CGI program will not be discontinued.
Also, resident David Frey complained that the climate-control system being installed on Watchung School is an eyesore, with inadequate screening, and he worried about the noise it would make and how it would affect the neighborhood. June Raegner, after thanking Hertzog for her service, expressed skepticism about Eve Robinson’s agenda going forward as the new school board president and blasted her for allegedly not having condemned racially and ethnically incendiary comments made by a blogger toward Hertzog as well as former board members Franklin Turner, Jevon Caldwell-Gross and Joseph Kavesh. Meanwhile, various members of the high school field hockey team urged the board to rehire assistant varsity coach Michelle Hagel, calling her an inspiration and an asset to the team.
The meeting began on a somber note, with everyone in attendance taking a moment of silence for a middle-school student who had died. Superintendent Johnson urged parents and counselors to talk to concerned students about the tragedy and said that parents should take the lead in dealing with their children, adding that there are counseling resources on the district’s Web site to help out.
Also, as part of Superintendent Johnson’s report, the district announced that handbooks with information regarding students with disabilities would be available for the new school year. The handbooks cover dyslexia and 504 plans.