Education

World Languages Added into Budget, Three Lead Traces Found at Two Schools, 3.99% Tax Levy, Says Montclair School Officials

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MONTCLAIR, NJ - During the meeting of the Montclair Board of Education on Monday, tensions ran high as the Board discussed the alleged data breach of MEA computers, tax levy increase, World Language insertion into the new budget and traces of lead found in three places at two schools.

With all board members present (as compared to the disappointment of the last meeting in which Superintendent Ronald Bolandi was absent) and a packed atrium, could the District Board of Education “spring ahead” or would they fall back on old issues?

With the MEA having a commanding appearance at the meeting prior to public comment, Board Vice President Anne Mernin announced that the board has formed a committee to look into investigation regarding the availability of assessment information (sometimes referred to as “assessment-gate”) in 2013> Mernin attempted to assure the members of the audience and public that the Board takes the issue very seriously but has no final report to offer.

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It was confirmed that the Wierner Lesniak law firm, which represents the interests of the Board of Education and David Cummings, was engaged by the board prior to the MEA raising concerns that MEA owned computers were mirrored rather than monitored. To clarify the point of contention- mirroring as defined by Wikipedia is “Mirroring is a technique to allow a system to automatically maintain multiple copies of data so that in the event of a disk hardware failure a system can continue to process or quickly recover data.” 

As opposed to monitoring which is defined as by PC magazine is, “Recording a user's activity on the computer. Computer monitoring programs are used to determine how much time an employee spends on various tasks as well as possible illicit activities. Programs can record keystrokes, chat and instant messaging conversations, links to Web sites and even take screen dumps and Webcam pictures, all of which can be stored locally or transmitted elsewhere.” 

While the MEA believes that the Board allowed the MEA computers to be mirrored and violating civil rights and/or privacy rights the Board continues to vehemently deny any wrong doing. In response to these allegations the Board made it clear that the KROLL Advisory Services, a third-party company that specializes in data breach risk analysis, had advised the Board that only district owned computers were looked at.

The Board is looking to confirm that there was no review of MEA computers but until that occurs will continue to be as transparent as possible in reporting on the total cost of the assessment leak and data breach investigation.

In preface to the lengthy and spirited public comments portion of Monday night’s meeting, Superintendent Bolandi made a few brief announcements:

-School tours started yesterday; [Bolandi] wants to get to each school and speak with parents to, “get a better handle on parents’ concerns”. Bolandi then went on to thank his secretary for her assistance with the virtual tours.

-There will be adjustments to the workshop meeting schedule which was not announced or otherwise explained at the meeting, rather parents were instructed to check the District’s website.

-The Board will address K-5 Literacy, Math, STEM committees and their presentations at the next Board meeting.

-There will be an expansion of the “Undoing Racism” program. Bolandi has spoken to the institute which hosts this program and hopes to establish 3 meeting dates to hold the program before the end of this school year. The funding for the additional dates will come from a Title II funding adjustment. The additional dates will allow another 150-200 district staff members to participate. This is in addition to the 50 staff and administration that attended the initial seminar held last month.

- The Monday Board of Education meeting included a vote on the budget which will go to the Board of School Estimates. There will be public hearings on March 28 and March 30 with a final vote taking place on April 4, 2016.

-Bolandi has posted an “extensive presentation” on the District website regarding the budget(s) as well as “tweaks” made to the current proposed budget.

-Without any presentation or discussion Bolandi announced that the World Languages Immersion Program would be added into the budget and the Montclair Community Pre- K would receive funds to start the Mandarin immersion pilot program next school year. Additionally, a consultant will be brought in to review the World Languages program in its entirety.

-In a “proactive” approach to any questions regarding lead in the Montclair school’s water, in light of the recent news about the lead contaminated water found in the Newark Public School system, the Board has had all of the schools tested for lead. With every building tested (ie. Testing was done on sinks and/or unfiltered/filtered water fountains.), based on the State’s Action level of 15 parts per Billion (ppB) only 3 tests came back with any detectable amount of lead. The detectable amounts were found at: Hillside (3.7 ppB), George Innes Annex (5.8ppB and 2.8ppB) all other came with undetectable traces of lead. Fleischer promised that the George Innex Annex would be treated/ remediation.

Public comment:

Margret Whitsett- impressed upon the board that “Children are the end game”. She expressed how educators are outrage by the [Board’s] lack of transparency. She believed there are two issues at play. 1stIssue- Breach of Quarterly assessments information which was found online in 2013 and the resulting invasive and costly investigation/ lawsuit. She found this to be “…demeaning to noble educators”; and the 2nd issue -Computer monitoring/mirroring of any computer could have be followed by an Information Technology (IT) employee. Whitsett’s comment were meat with applause from an audience mostly comprised of MEA members.

Alicia Wells- A Technology teacher at Mt. Hebron and Stevens Technical Institute graduate with a degree in Computer Science, went on to explain mirroring vs. monitoring. Wells went on to asset that “Mirroring” in this instance was for the use of extracting evidence and is outrageous. She was also outraged that this was done when the District has staff in place to monitor why was a 3rd party company brought in to complete mirroring and not monitoring when monitoring could have been completed by IT staff. Leading questions which were asked included: Was I on the list of computers mirrored? Were my co-workers mirrored? What was the criteria used by a forensics firm? How was/is the information being used? How do we know the 3rd party will not use the information for their own purposes? These questions would be echoed through almost all of the remaining public comments.

Serita Carrington-  was the victim of what she called a “legal attack” in 2013; Carrington emotional but composed further explained, “After 25 years a board attorney attacked me during the 2013 Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays... Only after I sought counsel did the board’s attorney back off”.

Carrington went on to explain to the shock and awe of the audience how the Board’s attorney harassed her to find out who [leaked the assessment information]? The Board’s attorney also wanted his subpoena to be served in her classroom.

Miranda rights would later be read to Carrington during a lunch break in her classroom. Only after Carrington’s attorney pushed back on the Board’s counsel did she receive some relief. The ordeal caused Carrington to take an early retirement as she now suffers from panic attacks and other health issues as a result of the harassing behavior of the Board’s attorney. 

Furthermore, Carrington explained that all of what she was saying was documented and asked for a formal apology from the current Board.

Gail Robinson- A 30+ years resident, parent, and educator for 27 years- was concerned about the recent news regarding the assessment leak. Robinson made the analogy that the Board and the public are in a relationship, “a relationship with the common goal of the best education to student and their families…Much has been done to move forward…”, but that was not enough.

She has requested that the Board tell the public who told KROLL to conduct the investigation and to tell the public who was/is complicate in the past or present? Lastly, Robinson asked the Board to give the individuals affected by the investigation a formal apology. She concluded with a plea for the Board to,“Show who you are and continue to build our relationship to place of integrity, honest, and trust so that we are all stronger and able to accomplish the important work that matter”.

Tom Manos- beginning his comments with reference to the McCarthy hearings and Watergate investigation, Manos compared the Board’s actions to that of a bully, claiming “A bully can’t tell the bully to get over it and simply move on- it is an extension of the bullying.” Manos continued to explain his belief how reconciliation can only come from truth. Manos went on to question the board, “Was this leak a manufactured crisis used to give the appearance of probable cause to justify mirroring computers? Were any employees targeted for speaking out publically including at Board of Education meetings?.... I can’t believe I have to stand here and ask these questions of the Board of Education after being an employee of this district for 17 years. Manos plead for the Board to “Stop prolonging this, rip the band aid off, and answer the questions asked honestly and completely.” These comments were met with audience applause.

Peddle Robertson- Complicate, as defined by Robertson, “is any individual to be considered to be complicate must have been aware of a questionable act and had the ability and responsibility to do something about it yet chose not to.” While she appreciates that there will be a committee formed, she wants to know if there are any past or present board members complicate in the monitoring or mirror mentioned.

Jeff Zylstra- Reiterated his request for better IEPs and Dyslexia education. He promised her will continue to speak until this matter is addressed. Zylstra believes the IEPs do not use the word Dyslexia  rather the term “specific learning disorder” is used instead. He went on to compare this problem to a car making a funny noise versus a mechanic diagnosing a specified problem. It is his belief there is , “no reason why distract cannot specifically discuss dyslexia but does not want to.”

Karen Trepuco- Saddened to ask why Board wants Gale Shepard to have a 3rd party examine her computer regarding mirroring? Did the Board pay Kroll for same? ; Did Kroll advisory solutions give detailed explanation of service; and more poignantly- “Was I on the list?”

Gayle Shepard- Isabella Mochado, the Board’s current attorney asked KROLL to have signed a sworn affidavit stating that they have not mirrored computers which the Board requested and is believed to not have been completed.  Shepard’s understanding is the KROLL refused the request in January. De Koninck promised that Mrs. Mochado will be following up on the request to KROLL for a sworn affidavit.

Shepard asked that, “in the spirit of true transparency – I would like to be a member of the committee reviewing Kroll documentation.” Anne Mernin confirmed that the request for a sworn affidavit has been made and will be followed up on. Mernin continued to state that, “the only computers looked at were at the central office and district owned”. Mernin asked to receive a copy of the MEA’s report showing something in confirmation or contradiction as the information provided thus far has not satisfied the Board or the MEA in order making people feel better. As Shepard continued to voice her Hertzog apologetically interrupted her to say, “No, what they do Mrs. Shepard is give an invoice, showing the specific computers, because they have to be paid for their work.  I apologize for interrupting but I have been sitting her listening to people very distressed asking if their computers were mirrored and asking to look at the invoices, we looked at the invoices. We looked at the invoices.

When computer companies do work they want to be paid so they submit invoices, we looked at those invoices, and those invoices listed the computers that they accessed. In the entirety there were 4 computers in located in the central office and used by administrators, no teachers, no members of the public, no private citizens, within reason as Mrs. Mernin said we have offered to pay for somebody to scan it. The only person who has said that computers were by the MEA were mirrored is you.

Members of the MEA we don’t have the ability based on the files to see or to show that that is true. If the MEA has some other ability to show that this happened we will look at it but we cannot show you something that we don’t have. We have the bills, and the bills say, 4 central office computers- that’s all we have.” Shepard went on to discuss document she received at home requesting codes and access to the school’s computers.

Shannon Stein- a teacher of 17 year, married to a fellow educator, commented that in order to move forward & continue to do the “work” that needs to be done we need reconciliation. Stein echoed many of the previously asked questions regard cost, was the Board of Education informed, and “was I on the list?” Stein plead with the Board, “The town need to heal, please give us the truth!”.

Jonathan Myer- Thanked Superintendent Bolandi for his hard work and compared the issues as hand to the 2008 Obama administration- coming in to clean up someone else’s mess. Myer questioned, “How many times does a question need to be asked before a sufficient answer is provided?” As a new resident of Montclair, with a baby on board, and no plans on leaving Myer assured the Board he is not going anywhere.

David Harron- approached the podium playing “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen and carrying large snow shovel as to demonstrate his call to battle. Harron asked that Bolandi not take the comments personal as they are not about him. “The truth will set you free” was the basis for which Harron accused the Board of potentially breaching 1st and or 4th Amendment rights.

As someone who has no connection to the District, Harron demands answers to why he is No. 4 on the list of people investigated. After calling our Board Members Brian Fleischer and Robin Kulwin, Harron went on to proclaim, “If you haven’t found it, then you haven’t dug deep enough or you need a bigger shovel- well I’ve got the shovel”.

Margaret Saraco- Sat in on Carrington’s Miranda rights meeting; The BOE made members of the MEA criminals and made members of the MEA “guilty by association”. Saraco requests that the Board provide the line items which show the Board’s payment to KROLL. Saraco also explained how she and her spouse Alex Powler, both private citizens were on the investigation list.

Mark Egan- came right out of the gate saying “Shame on you all!” As a parent of 3 he believes the cover up is almost always worse than the crime. Egan went on to seek a public apology, answers to questions, and accountings.

Latifah Jannah- a private citizen and retired educator- was singled out by the Board’s attorney.  She believes the only reason this could be was related to her recent speaking out at that time (2013) against Core Curriculum. Shannon concluded with the prose, “What is done in the dark will surely come to light”.

Rachel Quinn Egan- on of those named by the Board’s attorney- someone who also opposed PARCC/Common Core and questioned by the Board would bring in an assessment that the nation disapproved of. Egan went on to cite past Board of Education member’s intimidation and called for the resignation of Brian Fleischer, Robin Kulwin, and others asking, “If you knew- please resign!”

Stephanie Fitzgerald- President of Montclair Community Pre- K- Thanked the Board for approving the Pre-K World Languages Immersion Pilot Program and related consultant. Fitzgerald then requested that the Board include teachers, parents, and the community in the evaluation and implementation process. This appreciation and approval was echoed in comments provided by Selma Avdicevic, a District parent who praised what the immersion program has done for her daughter.

Budget-

The resolution to adopt the proposed budget was approved 5-2 with Cummings and Deutsch not approving. The capital budget was approved 7-0 and will include the World Languages program adjusting the estimated tax levy impact to 3.99% which translates to $73 per $100,000 in assessed value. Bolandi will have additional budget information published on the District website Tuesday.

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