The Montclair Board of Education had another interminable meeting on April 7, lasting beyond midnight, but this was partly due to a suspension of the meeting in deference to the Board of School Estimate, which met to vote on a budget for the 2014-15 school year. The Board of School Estimate (BoSE) voted 5-0 to approve the budget mostly as proposed by the Board of Education, albeit at a 4.08 percent tax levy rather than a 4.41 percent one.
Board of Education President Robin Kulwin explained that the only changes made in the budget were savings in transportation operating costs and teachers filing for retirements, which she felt could allow for further cuts.
“It doesn’t mean they’re retiring today or tomorrow, they’ve just given formal notice that they are and filing papers,” she explained. Nine teachers have put in for retirement, allowing the savings from their salaries to be passed on to the taxpayers in terms of a slightly smaller tax increase. The school tax levy for 2014-15 totals $101,492,086.
Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller won applause from the audience in the Montclair High School auditorium for proposing a resolution that “implored” the New Jersey Department of Education to adequately fund technology improvements and other unfunded mandates. Montclair Board of Education Chief Operating Officer Brian Fleischer drafted the resolution on the spot, and it passed unanimously.
Kulwin was pleased with the outcome of the budget, and she expected the district to continue moving forward. “We have a good team,” she told reporters. “I believe in them. They’ll do fine.”
Mayor Jackson tells Barista Kids he is, “pleased that the Kindergarten class-size and World Language initiatives will move forward and that the property tax increase was moderated.”
Glenfield Middle School Teacher’s Report
Teachers from Glenfield Middle School took their turn to report what “was and wasn’t working at their school.” Their overall assessment of the school was that it worked as well as it did, because of the devotion of teachers to their students and the school’s unique “house” system that ensures that a student is taught by no more than five teachers throughout his or her entire three-year tenure, allowing for stability in a student’s development and a better transition into high school. The Glenfield faculty faulted the district, though, for not paying enough attention to special education teachers and not including them in the planning of these changes. Later in the night, Chief Academic Officer Gail Clarke admitted that this had been a problem and that her office was working to remedy it.
The teachers also cited the aging of the building itself, the environmental hazards of the basement (staff members who worked there have died prematurely, leaving the faculty to call for an environmental study) a lack of textbooks and rehearsal space for performing arts classes, and a lack of security, among other concerns, as examples of what wasn’t working. Teacher Margaret Whitsett, focusing on the academic agenda, blasted the quarterly assessments, stating that midterms and finals were a better way to gauge a student’s progress.
The Glenfield teachers left the auditorium when the Board of Education stepped aside for the Board of School Estimate’s one-hour meeting (the whole night lasted more than five hours) and did not come back. Montclair Education Association (MEA) president Gayl Shepard tried to take questions on their behalf, with board member Anne Mernin asking most of the questions.
On the issue of security and the teachers’ discomfort with changes in the academic agenda, Shepard conceded that it would be more appropriate to ask Glenfield faculty directly, possibly through e-mails. On the lack of communication between the school and the central office, though, Shepard was to the point.
“My understanding is that there continues to be a feeling this year that we’re not getting enough written communication administratively,” Shepard said. “Very often, communication that we receive, sometimes it’s not consistent. We might get two or three different communiqués that say different things, or we’re left trying to decipher which one to follow.”
Two technological presentations were made during the part of the Board of Education meeting that followed the BoSE meeting. New Technology Director Barry Haines, who comes to the district after serving as the Director of Technology at Parsippany-Troy Hills school district, said he was undergoing a study of the technological amenities the district has on hand to develop a two-year plan to spend the money allotted for improvements to its computer network. Haines plans to consult with the PTA and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) to formulate a strategy, which he plans to present by the end of June.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Marshall has been working toward a plan to revamp Montclair High School’s own website, which hasn’t had an overall since it first went online in 2004. Marshall’s objective is to work with students and faculty on what the high school needs for an interactive site that students can use as an online high school paper, use to provide class-oriented content. A vendor is currently being sought, with hopes for a launch by the beginning of the next school year.
Kulwin asked if such a site could be replicated for the middle schools, but Fleischer, who has been working on the high school site issue with Marshall, said he wasn’t ready to commit to that yet. He said the focus now is on revamping the high school site, but the middle schools could get their own sites based on the success of the high school’s Web site.
Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell’s report
Also, in a report she gave to the school board, Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell said she has been aiming to help more students get after-school tutoring and reach out to families of students caught in the achievement gap, many of whom are minorities. Russell said she is working with the community to address systemic problems and is collaborating with the Montclair Civil Rights Commission. She also said that she is continuing her efforts to draw high-caliber teachers into the district, hoping to ensure a hiring process that will guarantee “the highest- quality candidates” for openings.