The current status of balanced representation on the Montclair Board of Education and possible skewed student classifications were among the topics discussed with Mayor Robert Jackson during the Montclair NAACP education committee meeting held at Wally Choice Field House at Glenfield Park Thursday.
James Harris, vice-president of the NAACP, moderated the meeting and Jackson, as a special guest, fielded questions from several dozen attendees. Also on hand was Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, and Latifah Janna, a current BOE member. William Scott, chair of the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee, also attended.
Jackson was asked several questions, regarding the criteria he uses to appoint members to the board of education. Jacksons said he usually receives recommendations from people in the community about individuals who would best serve on the board, and looks for someone who would “be well grounded with the community.” He added that he also determines if they possess a certain skill set such as a business or finance person, or an attorney.
“I look for a certain track record,” he explained, adding he also looks at race and gender for a potential appointee but doesn’t feel it’s necessarily a “quota system.” He said there is currently a vacancy on the board, but he will not be rushing to fill it.
“I’ll be mindful going into the process and someone should be appointed this summer,” he noted.
Harris added that while most board of education members in other communities are elected and few districts have appointed members, an appointed board has served Montclair “very well” because it has represented the diversity in the community accordingly.
Development and Montclair Schools
Jackson was also asked what he thought about the impact of the residential development on Montclair schools. He responded that for every 100 units added, there are six students who attend the schools, according to data and that the number was consistent with the other townships. He added that over the past few decades, the township saw student population numbers decrease in town.
“In 2004, it had been the the highest it’s been,” he noted. “It’s now one of the lowest numbers we’ve seen recently.”
Harris followed up with another question dealing with how the town would respond if school enrollment required additional space in the district. Jackson replied he was aware there was enough space in the school if the enrollment spiked for an additional 50 students.
Another issue raised during the meeting was the impact of new residential development on parking for school employees and students. Jackson said there were designated areas around the high school for people to park and that system has worked well for decades. He explained that there is a permit system in place for students and that the school population currently was at an all time low.
Board members who serve but send their children to schools out of district was another topic for discussion. Jackson responded that he felt it was a valid point. He said he had previously appointed individuals who did have children in the district but that they had graduated out.
“There’s a little bit of catching up to do and it’s one of the things I’m looking into,” Jackson said.
The amount of classifications the district conducts was another issue focused on; many parents voiced concerns throughout the evening about the ongoing trend of students of color, particularly African-American boys, being more likely to be classified into special education. Jackson was quick to point out that he relies on board members to address the issue due to the fact that state law has a separation of political and education affairs. He said he could be brought up on ethics charges if he were to get involved with Board of Education affairs. However, he believes the board members “have their hearts in the right place.”
“I have a fundamental confidence in their desire to do the right thing,” he emphasized. “We want to be careful that there’s not a vehicle to establish segregation or put young African American men in certain cycles, but I am confident in our board.”
Carol Alford, a local resident, who also is a teacher in Paterson, warned about the potential for some teachers sending students to be classified because they are concerned about test scores.
“As a resource teacher and current sixth grade math teacher, I know teachers have so many responsibilities in making sure data is up to date,” she stressed. ” These teachers are not necessarily classifying to segregate, but because they are concerned about their test scores, which impacts their careers. So that’s something people need to be aware of.”
Alford suggested a system of checks and balances be placed to track and know which teachers are doing this.
“It is wrong and it is happening because of their concern with scoring,” she added.
June Raegner questioned whether Jackson was aware of BOE members’ attendance and abstentions during voting.
Jackson said he can bring up concerns with board members, just like any other resident, but that he is unable to directly manage the Board of Education. Harris highlighted that under state statute Title 18A, there was a definite separation of the responsibility of the Board of Education and the Mayor of the town. Jackson added that appointing those who can best represent the township’s diversity was one way he felt he can impact the school district indirectly and expect certain results.