Members of the Montclair Board of Education and attorney Mark Tabakin, who has been investigating the leak of the planned assessments for students in the Montclair school district, met with the Montclair Township Council on December 10 in a closed session. The meeting prompted local education activists to address the council in the public comment section of the council meeting, in which many of them accused the school board of issuing subpoenas to residents opposed to the assessments to squelch dissent.
Resident Luis Delgado cited the debate over the reforms that has caused so much controversy over the past year and how it had been healthy for the township, but said that recent reports of the board’s investigation left him concerned about a lack of common sense in the direction its investigation is taking.
“It is our right to speak freely, without threat of reprisal,” Delgado said. “While I am not privy to the information that would lead the board attorney to issue the subpoenas—nor do I want to be—I believe there exists a possibility that they were simply issued to those who offered a dissenting voice. He hoped that the council would take steps to ensure freedom of expression on local matters.
Resident Dave Herron, another active voice in local education, lamented that the board never took the time to consider whether the assessments were a good or bad idea, accusing the board of looking for a scapegoat among opponents to the tests. He himself got a request for information about the leak, which he says he doesn’t know about.
“That’s ridiculous, folks, simply ridiculous,” Herron said. ”We go after the ones we think know something, those ones who are active, and [say] ‘Let’s see what they know.’” Herron said that the council had to take a position on what he believed was the suppression of free speech.
Ira Shor of North Mountain Avenue spoke on behalf of Montclair Cares About Schools, a parents’ group formed to oppose recent reform efforts in the district. While he attacked the school board for suggesting a criminal act in leaking the tests without any evidence and dismissing its subpoenas as “irresponsible,” he sought to raise attention to the council about the district’s finances and for money wastefully. His complaints about the costs of the investigation—$240 an hour for attorney’s fees—but also about $625,000 bonded for the board in May for “technology improvements,” with only $104,000 for money outlaid for improved wiring in Montclair High School’s computer room. Shor said he could not get an answer from the school board regarding the remaining $521,000. He also wanted to know why $4 million left over from the bonding of the Bullock school was not re-invested for capital spending and $2.9 million was bonded by the board with a debt service of twice that amount, and $12.8 million in cash at the end of the year, which could be spent on schoolchildren. Shor pleaded for the council to use its influence with bonding and through the Board of School Estimate to get more money spent on the students.
“We’re very concerned that the board is wasting our precious tax dollars and not spending it on things that count,” he said.
Mayor Robert Jackson sought to answer the question regarding the Bullock School question, saying that $1.8 million of the money was in cash and used to reduce debt, while the rest was never bonded and thus canceled.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the New Jersey ACLU and a Montclair resident, used the public comment section to brief the council on her representation of “Assessmentgate,” the anonymous critic of the tests. She explained that the ACLU of New Jersey had filed a lawsuit to protect the anonymous commenter’s identity, a move she was disappointed with after having avoided suits in similar cases in other districts. She cited the board’s attempt to subpoena Barista Kids for the identities of four online critics of the tests, including “Assessmentgate.”
“We became concerned that the first subpoena was not merely misguided, but that the board was casting a wider net in attempting to identify anonymous critics,” she said. She said that the school board was entitled to investigate the release of its proprietary information, but not without reasonable cause or belief that the anonymous critics it goes after are guilty of wrongdoing.
A temporary restraining order has been issued against the school board to halt the subpoena against “Assessmentgate.” School board president Robin Kulwin told Barista Kids she was unable to comment on any of what was said in the executive session with the council.