Montclair BOE: Salary Snafus and A Payroll Mess Plus Concerns About Isolation Closets and Lack of Teachers

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Bro, what’s going on in Montclair?

That sentiment, expressed during public comment by MHS teacher Anthony Dalbo, pretty much sums up the reaction of anyone watching the Montclair Board of Education meeting Monday night.

The evening started with the swearing in of a new board member, Sergio Gonzalez. Gonzalez was then seated at the dais with the rest of the BOE members and for his first meeting, bore witness to one of the most volatile and concerning BOE meetings to date, in large part due to a huge salary snafu that resulted in Montclair Education staff not receiving their proper pay — and instead, getting paid at the rates from 2017-2018.

Teachers and staff, as well as many parents, attended the crowded meeting, which started with an update from MHS Principal Anthony Grosso.

Grosso shared positive news about the completion of the stair project at the high school, slated to be done by mid-October.

Grosso also explored a new organization structure at MHS that would better serve students and said the all-school lunch has been successful. Dustin Bayer, head of guidance at MHS, detailed a new program, MHS 101, which strives to promote social and emotional learning and support students starting freshman year.

Then, one after another, staff spoke about shock of receiving a paycheck that did not reflect their promised salary increase, and instead, was the salary rate they were paid during the 2017-2018 school year.

Teachers spoke about not being able to pay bills or take care of other financial obligations. They also spoke of how frustrated they were that no date had been given to them indicating when they would be paid their proper salaries and receive the missing compensation.

Teachers also questioned whether the district is hiring qualified and certified people for positions, and that since they are required to prove their own certification and be held accountable, they expected the BOE to do the same with regards to this huge error. A letter addressing staff first explaining the salary snafu was signed by Yesenia Budhu-Howell, Personnel Manager and Emidio D’Andrea, Business Manager. A meeting with these two individuals as well as Interim Superintendent was described by staff who attended as raising more questions than it answered.

Paraprofessionals also expressed how they were overworked and under appreciated and that they were not receiving monies promised to them or benefits afforded to other professionals in the district.

MEA Vice President Tom Manos detailed a timeline of the contract settlement which started in May and end with MEA ratification prior to the end of the school year, giving personnel the entire summer to take care of the salary increases for staff.

Manos said the district’s personnel manager sent out employment contracts two weeks later than promised. Manos said many of the contracts, according to MEA members, were riddled with errors and missing stipends.

“Montclair High School lost stairs and MEA members lost their steps,” said Manos. “They have a 2017 salary with 2019 bills.”

Gina Testa, a guidance counselor hired for the 2019-2020 school year at Montclair High School after working at the school as a maternity replacement, described an even more alarming error during public comment. Testa was offered the position and a salary which she accepted. However, when she was hired and her salary was approved officially at a BOE meeting, it was seven steps lower than the salary she had been originally offered.

Parents also expressed concerns.

Nicole Farjani questioned whether children were being isolated or involuntarily confined in seclusion closets at Charles Bullock School and explained how damaging and traumatic this practice has been proven to be. Citing the district’s policy, Farjani said this practice should only be used in emergency situations and said she had been denied data, requested through OPRA, shwoing how often seclusion is being used in the district.

Other parents lamented teachers missing from Montclair High School classes and students working in class on worksheets without even a substitute to teach the classes. They also raised concerns about students being forced into taking one or more study halls rather than electives or other classes due to the new schedule at the high school.

Interim superintendent Dr. Nathan Parker tried to address some of the concerns raised by staff during a statement at the end of the BOE meeting. Parker said he was prepared to recommend a person who has the capacity to fix the problem with the salaries and is looking to hire an Interim Director of Personnel — someone with a background in education. Parker added that it was highly unusual for someone to be hired without an education background. He also added that MEA president Petal Robertson, along with BOE members and some Montclair Schools principals, were invited to meet with the candidate he is planning to recommend.

Parker added that in five years, the district has had six different superintendents. He acknowledged that trust had been broken and said it was critical for the organization to be stable to be able to recruit a new superintendent.

The current Personnel Manager was hired during Dr. Kendra Johnson’s tenure; Montclair previously had a position and job description for a Director of Personnel.
 
The district’s prior Personnel Director, Lamonica Mciver, who was also hired under Dr. Johnson, resigned last fall.

BOE member Jessica de Koninck apologized for the payroll problems.

“I dropped the ball, I assumed payments would be made. I hold myself to a higher standard,” she said, adding that she wrongfully assumed that the job was going to get done over the summer.


The next meeting of the Montclair Board of Education is Wednesday, October 2, 7:30 p.m.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Funny how everyone other than the person ultimately responsible for the “salary gate” has been rolled out here to take the fall as teachers (rightfully) complain. That person issues a no comment, and is let to carry on as if nothing happened. Laura Hertzog, Robin Kulwin, and David Deutsch would like a word.

  2. “BOE member Jessica de Koninck apologized … ‘I dropped the ball …'”

    Congratulations Mayor. This is your Board, your mess.

  3. No Johnlayne. You are mistakenly trying to redirect and point people away from who the real actors and offenders are today.

    It’s coming out now that our former Superintendent, Kendra Johnson, hired this individual who created the teachers payment controversy — as Manager of Personnel. But this “Manager” was apparently uncertified and lacked proper education credentials required by State law. Still, this individual was being paid over $140,000 per year after being hired by the former Superintendent.

    Did this “Manager” have needed experience to really do her job? It seems not. She use to be a secretary; an administrative assistant and supposedly worked with the previous Superintendent in Trenton. She was reportedly the prior Super’s friend. But it appears the “Manager” never worked as a Director of Personnel in education anywhere. And she didn’t have the proper certifications legally required.

    Supposedly, the new interim Superintendent has been informed of these facts? If so, let’s see what he does now to clean up this mess?

    Because it appears that past Superintendent Johnson also changed the Personnel “Manager’s” job title to be able to give her a job here. To call her “Manager” of Personnel. Then, when someone began to investigate, our now departed Superintendent (who left just as this and the BOE started to implode) apparently claimed the County Education Department gave its approval for a revised job description/title change. So Kendra Johnson could hire this individual. But that too now appears to be a fabrication.

    And the past Personnel Director which Superintendent Johnson hired before that — who was also reportedly a friend — also seemingly did not have proper legal certifications for the job. So she resigned when this started to come out.

    All this is about to be exposed I suspect.

    At the same time, let’s remember there are now two staff discrimination lawsuits filed which also fell under this Personnel Department administrative review. So one has to ask why these same claims were not addressed before when the problems first came up over the past year — as required by law. Why the past Superintendent and past Board in majority under Laura Hertzog until spring didn’t do anything about them? Until it all went south and blew up legally today.

    Is it any wonder Kendra Johnson and former Board President Hertzog took a powder? Why others are now off the board?

    Who was in charge under Kendra Johnson and had the majority vote at the BOE, which allowed this unqualified staff hiring to go on — is really the issue today. You can see the results of that incompetence now. Even if these people are off the BOE today, or quit and ran for the hills.

  4. Right from wrong may not know fact from fiction. Ms Howel does have relevant previous experience beyond secretarial:

    Yesenia Budhu-Howell Business Profile
    Manager, Compensation at Baltimore City Public Schools
    Location: 200 East North Ave. Room 407-B, Baltimore, Maryland, United States
    Company: Baltimore City Public Schools
    https://www.zoominfo.com/p/Yesenia-Budhu–howell/-1255545585

    The bad news is that her experience was in Baltimore; not exactly a model for municipal efficiency.

  5. Pretty strong accusations. Too many appears/apparently/reportedly/seems for me – for now. Maybe it is more shock at the scope of mess. A $150MM operation. Whatever wrongs and wrongdoing are found, this falls on the current leadership.

    Regardless, the inability of Montclair Public Schools to succeed for so many years, if not decades, is not a case for switching to elected school boards. Nor a case to change the BoE selection by the Mayor. Either/both these changes will just be another flavor of the same ice cream.

    New taxpayers will just have to do what taxpayers back in the ’70’s, 80’s & ’90s did – lower your expectations and ride it out, bite the bullet and go private, or move. It might get even worse, maybe less worse, maybe a good year every seven. You have to look at the whole, overall K-12 experience as a package.

  6. “Too many appears/apparently/reportedly/seems …” in Right from wrong’s (slanted) take. You nailed it, Frank. By my count, 8 uses of those very words by Right from wrong.

    That, in contrast with BOE member de Koninck’s own admission that she “dropped the ball.” No use of a qualifying ‘seemingly’ or ‘apparently’ by her.

    Spin.

  7. Right From Wrong is exactly right. The Hertzog board was a bull-in-a-China-shop power play operation from the beginning. It has led to this mess, from which she stepped away, complaining about the “toxic” environment she and her pals created.

  8. Let’s be clear. Ms. Hertzog didn’t create it. She furthered it. She was brought in because it was toxic…and dysfunctional…for a very long time. And the toxicity extends well beyond the Board to the other key stakeholders. The ever present fiscal insanity is just the manifestation of the culture. The payroll debacle is just the latest debacle and it will get settled…and another one will surface next year…and the next. It starts with an incoherent vision, followed by muddled leadership, a willful disregard of fundamentals and a lack of accountability. Yet, we push forward with new initiatives like universal pre-k. We blame a lack of funding. We will throw a boatload of money to hire the next superintendent. We will restaff a Central Office we cut to the bone and then misallocated the remaining resources. We randomly dabble in oversight and then don’t follow through because, for one reason, we don’t want to subject ourselves to any consistent standards and measure our progress. And when it blows up, as it always does, we blame those that have moved on. So, in the end, we will triage the injuries.

    The key stakeholders are much like the old television show M*A*S*H. Put in your time, get through it knowing your day will come when you can move on.

  9. I think they will be out of money very soon. How much is the new Restorative Justice program costing? How about the hires made just before Dr Johnson left? How about all these lawsuits? How about the amount we are paying for consultations? We need serious oversight and fast! I can’t even imagine what will need to be cut. In the meantime, let’s try and remember there are kids to be educated. The focus of those with an agenda seem to forget all about them. Proof is in the comments.

  10. Beg to differ, Frank R. While it was absolutely toxic during the Penny years, there was at least an attempt to move on in a more constructive way after she departed. That all changed when the Hertzog faction appeared, almost immediately, to where the Mayor had to intervene for a brief period of calm. We know what came next–a hostile takeover and a dubious superintendent “search,” which featured a non-resident board member shielded, presumably for the purpose of protecting a decisive vote. That super–seemingly the least qualified of the final candidates– hung around for a year and appears to have left behind a chaotic CO the new/old board must clean up. At least Ms. de Koninck has apologized and taken responsibility for the current payroll debacle–unlike past presidents and members, who, when criticized, counter-attacked or typically hid behind the refrain: we’re just volunteers.

  11. You should have been around before “Penny” showed up.

    Post-“Penny”, I don’t give out stars for counting the Summer vacation as being constructive. As we know, the BoE is on vacation during the Summer. When nothing happens, it is considered constructive. When something happens, it is not.

    PS: OPRA. Separation agreements.

  12. lacamina – what someone puts on their resume may easily be modified to enhance reality. You know that.

    Education advocate David Herron confirmed on the watercooler thread on this topic that our now ‘Manager of Personnel’, Yesenia Budhu-Howell, did NOT have the required experience and certifications required legally for her job. Herron laid out the facts in black and white. And he says he has docs to prove it….maybe coming?

    So we can dance around to explain all we want and even look at who was worse….Penny or Kenda? Doesn’t matter. Some of the same resident supporters were behind both of these leaders — but for different reasons.

    Regardless, the recent Hertzog Board clearly hired an experienced Superintendent who couldn’t run the district. She then hired friends for jobs they were not qualified for under the watch of this Hertzog board. Things went south after and blew up around them, which they couldn’t handle. And then Ms. Hertzog and Ms. Johnson ran for the hills. Others left, either being pushed out..or retreated to other pastures.

    Now there is a big mess to clean up.

  13. “Education advocate”? Versus the kabillion, myself included, that aren’t advocates of eduction?

    The thing to remember is everyone has one vote and, yes, one voice. Now I understand that BoE and you don’t know a decimal place from a period, but the BoSE does. And they approved the 2018-19 budget. No ones cares about the approved 2019-20 budget.

    So, where was the Mayor in all this? Where were the members of the BoSE?
    RfW, you’re spinning out of control.

    Just accept the mediocrity. There is some circumstantial evidence that female leadership is worse, but I think over time this will average out. Mediocrity knows all genders and all races. We truly have achieved diversity. What is the downside here? Is there one?

  14. RFW, I think you meant “inexperienced”. Because we all see the mess Dr Johnson left after her very short stint here. Funny thing is, turns out she wasn’t a very smart cookie either since she left quite an interesting paper trail. For someone who claimed to be a lawyer, she wasn’t very good at legal dealings. Lots to come. Then we will all want to hear from Ms. Hertzog.

  15. You are right Pardonmyfrench — “inexperienced”. Sorry, it was a typo.

    Clearly Kendra Johnson was not ready for prime-time administratively. How could she be since she never really ran a district before? And yet, they hired her. However, she also had the wrong philosophy for this community.

    Equity and race are still issues to be addressed, but not to refocus the entire Montclair education system around. Which was the direction she and her board backers operated from. And now, they are all out.

    Joseph Kavesh pushed out in a big huff by the Mayor and Council — intentionally. Turner, chased out of town by David Herron. The Minister, off to attend a different flock in the mid-West and Laura Hertzog, running for the hills along with Kendra Johnson, once they saw the game was over.

    What is also interesting today is to watch her public supporters — here Mr. Bonsteel and Johnlayne — first trying to spin the teachers payment debacle against the three remaining school board members, with Eve Robinson now President. Including her, the other two who were the original minority opposition to Johnson and Ms. Hertzog. Johnson’s supporters first tried to point how today’s blow ups were instead the Mayor’s fault for keeping those three on and for others newly appointed under his reconstituted Board.

    Didn’t work. It blew back at them. What the Johnson-Hertzog resident supporters didn’t figure was all the hard facts coming out now aka David Herron. The cronyism hiregate details he posted. How the Personnel Department blowing up of staff discrimination suits also not addressed under Kendra Johnson’s and her unqualified appointees rein, and how all these issues link back to Hertzog and the others.

    So now, we have hiregate, staff discrimination suits, stairgate, the parent angering musical chairs of principals and school schedules and a confrontation mindset resulting for engagement. All from which residents can see cannot just get shut down with more finger-pointing ‘white privilege’ and racism — to close up debate.

  16. C’mon! Blaming Ms Johnson for Stairgate? Seriously? Back in 2010 we had some bright and experienced residents recommend outsourcing building maintenance to save $130K or so. We have had the parents getting playing field upgrades prioritized over school building safety. We have been moving principals around laterally for decades (just ask Renaissance School parents).

    But, if you want to truly understand the organizational dysfunction of the Montclair Public School District, you only have to look at each year’s, single-sheet organizational charts of the Central Office from 2012 to 2019. These charts are transmitted to the entire organization and the Council-driven Board of School Estimate.

    Every year the MPSD publicly publishes a user-friendly budget that includes the central office staff details by name and title.

    There is no accountability. There hasn’t been for a long time. We don’t address it. Why should we care now?

  17. Rubacky your macro, down from the clouds analytics and overviews are needed sometimes. But for parents with kids in the schools — when the Superintendent and system can’t manage even a building repair…then can’t work a schedule out with the community to accommodate…etc etc. — Huston we do have a problem.

    So again…the issues you dismiss lightly….and as matter of facts, just more on going screw-ups, are not read the same way by concerned parents.

    Parents want a stable, productive system where their kids can succeed. They want to know that those not succeeding can get help.

    Again…who is worse…the Dana Sullivan past mismanagement cost overruns and delayed field projects… or today’s teacher non-pay blow up? That’s just splitting hairs….

    To an extent it comes down to who is better at PR to hide and manage their screw ups. Alvarez and Sullivan were good. They completely hid they had no change in the racial achievement gap here for years. Despite a flurry of activity flashed around fixing that.

    Because at some point, some advocate or group of advocates is finally going to say “enough”…and kick butt in this BOE area.

    Clearly, the last Superintendent and Board behind her were run out of town. But they deserved it, as the David Herron, now Watercooler thread posted facts obviously show.

  18. Thank you for making my point…perfectly.

    The Alvarez/Sullivan regime was pre-2012. We’ve had like 6 interim superintendents since then. And residents are actually surprised that things are even MORE screwed up?

    Clearly, these people are either Giants or Jets fans. And if they are fans of barbaric football, then really, who cares what happens to their children?

    As long as housing prices are not affected, I would think they are fine.

    PS: people are still on Watercooler? That’s the site where you have to justify your presence? I’ve always thought it was a site for those with low self-esteem.

  19. And on a more serious note, you point to the micro parental concerns.

    To be fair and honest, the parents you speak of are only concerned about their kids as they go thru the system. These same parents put the For Sale signs up in the senior year of their last school-age dependent. What happens to the school district is someone else’s problem. Their progeny will not likely further humanity and most likely help expedite this planet’s extinction.

    Yes, I would like to see the district’s ills remedied. However, spare me all the rest of the propaganda about the here and now. Frank Alvarez and Dana Sullivan were the composite images of Montclair’s present-day parents. Nothing has changed since 2010.

  20. “Right”,

    You should refresh you memory about “Jessica’s” CV. She is unquestionably the most skilled and experienced member of the BoE. Look at her financial background. Pretty impressive? The rest of the Board are educational day-trippers in comparison. “Jessica” (what’s her last name?) has forgotten more about NJ education than almost all of us will ever know. So, when as she dropped the ball, it was no minor thing. She knows this was an Education 101 ball. This was a mistake that impacted over 80% of the operating budget! It wasn’t like this was some landscaping account or book purchase. This is what the Board of Education is for. “Jessica” knows how big a screw-up this is by the BoE, even if you don’t.

  21. Rubacky you must be mixing up information. Nothing I said was about “Jessica”.

    Board member Jessica De Koninck was quoted in this story above believing she “dropped the ball”. It seems she did that twice. First, by continuing to allow the past Superintendent’s unqualified hires to stay in their positions without proper credentials and work experience. And second, to also make sure they were doing their work correctly.

    That’s two screw ups by my finger count.

    Yes, you are correct. Over 80% of the operating budget is impacted by this teacher payment shortaging. Let’s see now how much of an additional budget shortfall for this year is created as a result. Because it means they may have also underestimated tax revenue collection needed — unless savings were obtained elsewhere.

  22. I know you didn’t. I was just using your gender-specific format. BTW, it is de Koninck.

    I’ll wait for a fuller explanation and a hindsight report. Also, I can’t type and finger count.

  23. Sorry folks- this is EXACTLY the time to have an elected school board.

    Where else do you pay in the five digits for property taxes and have NO say in who spends your money?

    Where else has there been this many superintendents in less than a decade? Has there been any moves to post this job opening of superintendent?

    Why is there no acountability?

    Why do teachers have to rally for what they are owed? How long would any of you work for the wrong pay, the incorrect raise? How long would you put up with not being paid on time?

    The is a total, unacceptable, untenable situation.

    This is EXACTLY the time to start electing our school board. Sorry Mr. Mayor your choices shouldn’t get another chance.

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