MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Board of Education welcomed a new president and vice president at the most recent meeting on Tuesday and heard the public’s many concerns regarding the district’s recent personnel cuts.
At the May 16 reorganization meeting, Laura Hertzog and Franklin Turner were voted board president and vice president, respectively. Hertzog was voted in unanimously while Turner received all but Jessica de Koninck, Anne Mernin and Eve Robinson’s votes; the three of them voted for Robinson. That decision was not the most talked about part of the meeting though, as the room was with filled with people protesting the decision to let go of Montclair’s athletic director Jeff Gannon.
Athletes, parents and coaches had just heard the news of Gannon’s firing Tuesday before the meeting, they all said, and felt blindsided by the confusing decision.
Besides the confusion over Gannon’s job, the community also expressed frustration with the transparency issue and being blindsided by this decision. Although the students in the crowd were comprised mostly of volleyball players and crew team members, multiple residents and coaches said more teams would be in attendance in support of Gannon if they had known this decision had been made.
Students held signs that read “State champion because of Mr. Gannon” and “We [heart] Mr. Gannon” as they listened to their peers speak to the board at the podium.
Junior volleyball player Ilah Saltzman described Gannon as “involved” and “engaged” and said he cared about every student, not just athletes.
“He cared so much about every single student. He acted as a guidance counselor to every one of us. He was more than just in charge of the athletes,” Saltzman said. “He is a very, very important person I think in the lives of everyone who goes to Montclair High School.”
Junior lacrosse player Marinella Herrera also said Gannon is a devoted and passionate member of the Montclair community and can always be seen cheering on his students at their sporting events along with his family.
“I really cannot imagine Montclair High School without Jeff Gannon,” Herrera said. “He’s such an integral part of athletics at this high school, and it goes beyond athletics.”
She also brought up the board’s earlier comments about being transparent and said she hopes the board will be transparent in situations like this, since many students were unaware there was a chance Gannon would be let go.
Another student who addressed the board was rower Kenny Coplan, who has set world records in rowing and has taken home many medals, accomplishments that he said were thanks to Gannon.
“Mr. Gannon spent 100 percent of his effort and time looking out for us -- the crew team and the 29 other sports teams that Montclair High School has,” Coplan said. “He taught us how to become leaders, how to improve Montclair High School sports and he wanted our feedback. Mr. Gannon has influenced us and taught us how to be better teammates, better leaders and better people.”
Coplan, along with several other students and parents, voiced their confusion over the district’s decision.
“Why you are firing a man this qualified and passionate, I do not understand,” he said.
Head boys basketball coach Gary Wallace spoke on the issue and said his players would have been at the meeting if they found out sooner that Gannon had lost his job.
Wallace called the district’s decision “disheartening” and said he changed his career direction because of Gannon, who offered him his dream job of coaching.
“I would just encourage you guys to really think about this decision because it not only affects the kids, but the coaches. We love Mr. Gannon because he works with us, he listens to what we have to say, he’s not a one-man ship, he bends over backwards so that we can get what we need,” Wallace said. “To get rid of him, I think would be a big mistake.”
Another district loss the public expressed frustration over is the loss of Nishuane School’s Assistant Principal Evan Kozak, a man who multiple parents said is responsible for running the school’s magnet and doing so effectively.
Montclair High School teacher and Montclair Education Association Vice President Petal Robertson compared the personnel cuts to paper cuts, saying that although they are small they hurt a lot. She spoke on all of the personnel cuts in the district.
“When we thought we put a Band-Aid on the paper cut through attrition – which would be the money saved on the 19 retirees we have in district – we rested a little bit easier at the thought that we put a little Band-Aid on our paper cuts and we soothed them,” Robertson said. “And that Band-Aid disappeared on Monday, May 15 when all of these cuts still went through.”
On behalf of the MEA, Robertson requested a formal discussion with the board of education to discuss what happened to that Band-Aid she referenced and to get some answers on the cuts.
Following the public portion of the meeting, Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak addressed the crowd and said they are unable to share details about specific employees – including whether Gannon was fired based on performance or let go because of budget cuts -- but that the board is doing their best to balance the budget while keeping the staff.
Board of Education member Joseph Kavesh also said he could not comment on specific employees but that he was happy to see such a large turnout of students at the meeting.
“I think it’s great whenever five students come to a board of ed meeting, and last night there had to be at least 50 students, maybe close to 100,” Kavesh said. “I think it’s a great experience for them, especially those who spoke.”
Kavesh added that he hopes students and parents continue to attend meetings and be a part of the conversation.
“I would hope that parents who were watching on TV and parents who were at the meeting would make a similar effort to turn out in those numbers when we’re dealing with other critical issues,” Kavesh said. “Like the achievement gap or special education or other issues facing the district.”