Montclair Board of Education members started their meeting Monday evening by officially announcing the resignation of Dr. Kendra Johnson, Montclair Schools Superintendent, who has accepted a position as community superintendent in Maryland’s Howard County school district.
Montclair BOE president Eve Robinson elaborated on sentiments expressed in a previously released statement, saying how much she had enjoyed working with Johnson, especially recently, as they had worked more closely together since Robinson became president. She cited the progress they were able to make together in that short time. She also thanked Johnson for being a full participant in the board’s committee meetings.
Robinson said families will be informed of all steps taken to bring new leadership to the district and news would be released as soon as there was something to report.
Dr. Johnson reiterated that an employee wellness initiative in the district helped her realize she was not putting her personal wellness first.
“Allow me to be the author of my narrative,” said Dr. Johnson, regarding her decision to leave Montclair. “Personal happiness is going to make professional happiness that much better.” She encouraged everyone to “find their happy place” and to be “mindful that when we take care of ourselves, everything else falls into place.”
Dr. Johnson, twice during the meeting, pointed to her partner, seated with the public, as one of the reasons for her decision to move, citing their long distance relationship. She recognized principals in attendance at the meeting and lauded them as “co-conspirators” in the work to pursue equity, access and social justice in the district. Dr. Johnson also thanked MEA president and vice-president Petal Robertson and Tom Manos, as well as the MFEE and PTA council leaders.
Jared’s Fund Wellness Garden
The parents of Jared Zimmerman, a 2013 graduate of Montclair High School who died at age 20 in 2016, were joined by two recent MHS graduates, Misty Avinger and Marley Pradieu. Avinger and Pradiue were engaged in paid summer fellowships in honor of Zimmerman to address the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.
Avinger and Pradieu shared plans for a memorial wellness garden, that with approval from the district, would be planted near the freshman building at Montclair High School and offer a meditative place — both for students and community members. They also cited research that gardening helps boost self esteem and improves mood and added that they had started a Jared’s Fund club at the high school to continue related work and initiatives to recognize and support students affected by mental illness.
MHS Stairs Update and New Facilities Concerns
Dr. Johnson gave an update on the stair construction project at Montclair High School, saying the project was “100 percent on target and construction was underway.” Dr. Johnson said there would be an update with a progress report to the community at the August BOE meeting, but once all the staircases are abated, there would also be tours of the project the first week of August with BOE members and possibly members of the Board of School Estimate.
BOE member Jessica de Koninck reported that the facilities committee had some news about the district’s other buildings. Following the stair collapse at Montclair High School, Superintendent Johnson had requested an evaluation of all the buildings in the district, many of which are 100 years old or more.
The evaluation found necessary structural repairs at a number of district buildings. Business Manager Emidio D’Andrea said an addition $2 million would be needed above and beyond what was allocated to bring the buildings up to standard.
Board members discussed the imminent need to make structural repairs and agreed that the Watchung Field project would have to be put on hold, given that the field, according to D’Andrea, was not in the worse condition of all the fields and had another year before it needed to be replaced. The money for the field would instead go toward the masonry and other structural repairs. One possibility was discussed — keeping the field as is (and not expanding it for varsity use), but instead replacing the carpet and regrading the gravel under it (a repair that would cost $600,000), but the board agreed to put any decision about Watchung Field on hold, until speaking with members of Team Montclair.
Jennifer Goforth, director of K-12 STEM, gave a report on equity in math. GoForth reported the purchase of GoMath!, a personalized math trainer tool, and said it was yielding positive results. Goforth said student enrollment in upper level math classes had increased and the majority of students were passing middle school math courses, but she noted that Glenfield math scores continued to be lower than the other two middle schools. The math problem at Glenfield was raised again by parent Sarah Blaine, during public comment, who asked why the discrepancy of scores has not been investigated and addressed. Blaine wanted more transparency and data.
“I’m asking the Board to dig in and provide consistent leadership. There needs to be ongoing accountability and this report raises more questions than it answers. When Glenfield scores are significantly lower than other schools, we need to see numbers,” said Blaine, who also asked why the measure of success had been changed from 85% to 75% and wanted to see the numbers that make up the averages. She also said she had heard that some scores at Glenfield had been curved, which called the numbers into question even more.
Dr. Johnson commended Blaine for her questions and said she would get the data and make it available to the board.
Nicole Farjani raised concerns about the all school lunch at Montclair High School proposed for the fall, as a result of the new block schedule. She asked the board to abandon the plan, questioning how 2200 students would be able to all have lunch at the same time safely.
Numerous paraprofessionals came to the podium to ask why their pay in the summer was not the same rate as they receive during the year, adding that they were receiving a 30% reduction in pay, despite having the same work load and responsibilities.
Dr. Johnson later addressed their concerns, saying there had been a good faith offer to increase compensation, an offer also mentioned by MEA vice president Tom Manos in his public comments. Dr. Johnson added that for newer paras, the summer rate is actually an increase, but for more seasoned paras, it is a cut. The flat rate was necessitated by previous years where the summer program continuously went over budget, because it was hard to predict which individuals would apply to work and at what rate they would be paid.
Justin Thompson, a member of the National Independent Black Parents Association, was disappointed by the loss of Dr. Johnson, adding that she was responsive to the systemic problems affecting African-American children in the district. Thompson said he was worried that her replacement would not be and said that under Johnson’s leadership, black parents have seen what it’s like to have a leader who recognizes institutional racism.