MONTCLAIR, NJ - Shortly after learning of the resignation of Superintendent Penny MacCormack Wednesday, Montclair Public Schools' parents and staff learned of another shakeup in the school district. Assistant to the Superintendent, Matthew Frankel resigned just two days later, on Friday.
Frankel, a resident of Montclair for little over a decade and experienced in the communications field, offered his explanation for why he stepped up to take on such an important role, why he decided to leave the position and what's on the horizon.
The response below is unedited.
Why did you take the job of Assistant to the Superintendent?
"As a parent with a child in the school system, I was frustrated at the lack of communication and engagement we witnessed from Central Services in our District. Our son is in a great school in the District, with a great teacher and principal that both update parents proactively all the time, but we never really heard from Central Services. I remember receiving Central Service's newsletter every six weeks or so, they were long, not very viewer friendly and I felt the District could be do more in engaging the community, informing parents and celebrating the town.
From my many conversations with Penny, I learned the poor communication and engagement was not deliberate. With one of the smallest central staffs in the area, the District did not have the staff to address this issue. Central Services was set up to address communication for the early 1990s, not to maximize the various forms for communication all of have grown accustomed. She and the Board made communications a top priority of their Strategic Plan and I thought it was great that there was now the desire to improve in this area and wanted to be supportive. All of us have strength and weaknesses. I certainly have my fair share of weaknesses. In this case I saw our Superintendent challenging herself to address a weakness. Rather than just complain, I wanted to help and be part of a solution. My wife and I have lived in Montclair for over ten years and the opportunity was really a great honor."
What did you actually do in your position?
"Thank you for asking this question and letting me address this. I am a founding Board member of the Montclair Film Festival, Board member of the Adult School, a volunteer at the Montclair United Way, I used to work at Montclair State University, and we have lived here for ten years. I think, if anything, I tried to take those experiences and provide ideas that could help Central Services better serve parents.
The first thing I did, when I was an informal advisor, was advocate to Penny and David Deutsch that we must end the investigation on Assessment gate. The whole investigation needed to stop, it was doing nothing for our kids or our community and really hurting our discourse. After a few conversations with them, at the next Board meeting, they passed a resolution to do so. That was an important step.
Another example, there also was some unsubstantiated talk in the community that both Penny and David were supportive of Charter schools in Montclair, something most of us in the community deeply disagree with. I knew both Penny and David did not agree with this idea either and that debate on this issue was taking away from other more important issues, so I suggested David write an oped in the Montclair Times to put the issue to rest.
As mentioned before, we also worked specifically on maximizing technologies to better inform parents. I worked with our Television Public Access to find out specifically why we were not broadcasting our Board of Ed meetings live to the community. I found a solution and fixed that issue. In addition, we completely revamped how the District communicated to parents. We got rid of the old Newsletter I mentioned and created eight niche oriented newsletters which we put out every week, which I hope better communicated and celebrated what was going on in our schools. We started holding more open forums around town, which we now broadcasted on Public Access as well, so parents who were working, commuting or raising their kids could now see these events on television or online and be better engaged in the community.
We started publicizing some of the great community events Central Services organizes. I served as an advisor to most of the Principals, worked with Central Staff - including Penny - of a variety of initiatives and also worked to find ways we could be more proactive with sharing information and responsive to issues that come up on a daily basis. We worked on introducing Penny to key members of the Montclair community. We also worked in building valuable partnerships. We created better relationships with local organizations like MFEE and the Montclair Film Festival.
The week before Penny resigned, I set up an amazing meeting with some District teachers and the Liberty Science Center to discuss ways we could work together. I did the same with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. We are also moving forward in the same capacity with Montclair State University now. There are so many great resources around Montclair that have not been fully maximized."
What did you hope to accomplish while in your position? Do you feel that you accomplish those goals?
"I felt - and still believe - we need to change the discourse of our community. Words matter. How we talk to each is important. For those of us who disagree over an issue, I hoped with more personal connection we could see each other as neighbors first. There have been times when I watched general comment during a Board of Ed meeting and thought - this is not how we treat each other my street.
There might be disagreement on some issues, in fact there should be, but we cannot find positive solutions without looking each other in the eye and having real conversations. Disagreement does not mean that someone is bad or even wrong, we can always learn from each other. By talking to Penny and learning more about her, I found out she is a teacher, a mom, she has a partner who she loves, and she is really doing what she thinks is best for our kids. I learned that the folks in Central Services work extremely hard in extremely difficult situations to serve us as parents. I learned the Board of Education are volunteers who do the best job they can, while balancing many responsibilities. I also learned that most of the things that people get upset about do not always occur because of an 'agenda' or a 'conspiracy'.
If every member of the community got to know these folks the way I have, it would be really hard to assume the worst in them. We need to make a number of bold decisions regarding Montclair, but we can't do it by assuming the worst in each other. Our community can stand united around the fact that we all care about our education system. Hopefully we can start there. Hopefully we can celebrate this passion, respect any differences we have, treat each other better and work to find common ground, because the status quo in not going to address the Achievement Gap, modernize our classrooms or ensure our kids can complete in a global economy. We are not going to find solutions by yelling and blaming each other. I do not know if more communication and engagement from Central Services has helped the discourse. I really hoped it would help."
Some community members have criticized the timeliness of your departure and wondered why you would leave now instead of stay on to see the district through this transitional period?
"There are a few reasons I left now. Most of all, we are in tough budget situation and every dollar counts. I was hired by Penny and with her departure much of the work I outlined really could not or should not be addressed now until a new Superintendent is brought on. Most important, anyone who knows me, knows I am active in the community and that I am available informally anytime. I actually assisted Penny with communication and engagement ideas for four months without getting paid before I was brought on formally in September. If the Board needs me, if Penny needs me, I will always make myself available informally. Frankly, if the next Superintendent looks to fill this open position, I may even look to return."
Do you have any regrets?
"I am not going to deny there are parts of the job that have not been tough. I have spent long hours going through my emails to address OPRA requests that come in from the community. When this has happened I would ask myself, am I really being of service to the community? People in the community, who I had never met before have said some terrible things to me, thinks I would not want printed for fear that my kids may read it some day. Even though I have worked on a number of Democratic political campaigns, worked in Congress for almost ten years, have served some very tough CEOs in New York City, I had a very naive approach to this position.
I did not think people who live in the same community would automatically assume the worst in me without talking or getting to know me first or publicly state half truths about me in public meetings or in the newspaper. I have had some of the most thick skin jobs of anyone I know, but it is all different when its coming from your home town, or when you are scrolling a Facebook newsfeed with your kids and seeing a nameless faceless person personally attack you. It does hurt. I did not think Montclair was like that, but unfortunately that is the discourse we are all contending with and all of us need to take responsibility for it, myself included. Even though people warned me before I took the job, it did not sink in, I did not think I was signing on to that. I was wrong to think otherwise. I should have better prepared myself. So I think my biggest regret was being so naive."
What's next for Matthew Frankel? Do you have any offers lined up?
"About four years ago I went through an important transition. I had lost my Father to cancer and we just adopted our beautiful boy from Ethiopia. I was finally a Father, but was miserable. I started reflecting and thinking about what I could do to make myself happier. I realized I hated working in NYC, hated working the long hours of corporate American, and hated the soul crushing commute. So I changed my professional life. I realized being closer to home, doing something of real substance, and being of some service to a community was much more important that any glossy title or salary. Since I realized that I have been happier than I ever had been and am so grateful. I am not sure what exactly I am going to do next, and it has been a journey to find the right long term position that meets these new ideals, but I am going to stick with trying to follow this path."
Update: An earlier version stated that Frankel was the Public Relations representative for the district. However, his official title is Assistant to the Superintendent.