MONTCLAIR, NJ - Calls for Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker's resignation intensified on Wednesday and resulted in the Board going into recess and then ending the meeting early.
The National Independent Black Parents' Association (NIBPA) disruptions completely shut down the Board of Education meeting, as they came out in full force to confirm their stance on zero tolerance for racism in the public school system.
The Board meeting started off as usual. There were no signs that in a few short hours, the atmosphere would completely change and the board meeting will be shut down, as calls for the immediate resignation of Parker intensified during the meeting.
The tensions were further escalated when a police officer, who had been invited to the meeting by the Board, came up behind NIBPA President Kellia Sweatt.
Presentations took place prior to public comment on the achievement gap, Restorative Justice and the budget, however, once public comment began, tensions mounted quickly.
The first public speaker was Jenn Whitlock, Youth Council President for the NAACP. Whitlock shared information regarding an event held this past Sunday by the NAACP regarding the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The School-to-Prison Pipeline is a program in which under-represented students of color are being pushed out of schools due to the harsh policies and the criminalization of students of color. A meeting was held to discuss how the School-to-Prison Pipeline related to Montclair and she shared a few ways in which we, as a community, can advocate against it.
Whitlock states, “They have found that many students who were suspended from school and were promised the opportunity to engage in the Restorative Justice Circles were not."
She added, "In fact, given the opportunity to do so, Restorative Justice is a way to help students resolve conflict, whether it is internal or external, by helping students understand how to effectively communicate and empathize with others.“
Whitlock stated that she and other students have utilized Restorative Justice and feel that it has been very helpful. They're asking that students not receive punishment without the opportunity to engage in these types of circles.
“Because the well-being and the growth of students should come first.” says Whitlock.
Whitlock also suggested that a resource hotline be implemented by the Montclair School System to help parents walk through the process of suspension and to help them with the steps that can be taken to ensure the growth of the child.
Whitlock went on to say that, as a person of color, she has witnessed many incidents of violent outbreaks in the class towards students of color. She recommends that teachers be required to have conflict resolution training and any other initiatives that discuss racial discrimination and inequity which happens in the classroom.
She also added, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline is very prevalent in the Montclair School system and not talking about the situation does not make it go away."
Melony Diesher spoke stating that 1 out of 5 students nationwide and worldwide has dyslexia and that students with dyslexia can read on a normal level but it requires proper and early screening for identification. She added that the DRA assessment that the district is currently using is not a dyslexia screener and is just something that determines which reading level the students are at.
"And one of the reasons why we miss so many children who have dyslexia in the district is because the district has abandoned the good screener, the PAR, which they had already spent money purchasing."
Diesher stated that when a student has trouble reading, the longer the issue is not dealt with, the student falls further and further behind and could be in danger of dropping out.
Elma Schneider, from SEPAC, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and the Montclair Friday Group, “where there are hundreds of families in the district who are working very hard to support one another emotionally, and practically. And to create a situation for all of our children that is safe and fair and that we get the services that we need academically and emotionally.”
Schneider states that she “came to address the fact that the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education was removed about a year ago. This is an organization that brings consultants who help children with disabilities in the district and also have the staff members learn the best way to deal with children before things get out of hand so that they don't have to go out of District. So the special needs Community employs you to bring back the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education so that we can hopefully reduce the number of children who have to go out of District.”
Tygier Williams Chapman, the Cheerleading Coach for Montclair High School, spoke on the fact that the Girls Basketball Senior Night, last game of the season, which is a big event for the seniors, was unexpectedly canceled without explanation.
"The cancelation of this event was a big disappointment for the students, and a big inconvenience for the parents, many of whom took off work early to attend this event."
Williams-Chapman stated, “This is something that you only get once."
"This is something that is very important to the seniors. And it should have been something that was celebrated. This is something that not only gives a chance for the seniors to celebrate the end of their High School Sports career, but also gives them an opportunity for their family to come out and praise them and show them support.”
She is asking that the school plan something that will take the place of the fact that the students missed the special night.
"$600,000 cut from Equity?" Nicole Farjani pointed out that the Board of Education put up a slide which showed that the African-American students were far behind in the achievement charts and then put up a slide which states that they will be cutting back $600,000 in Equity Curriculum instruction.
Farjani goes on to say, “You show us a slide that shows the gap between African-American students and white students and then you tell us that you are planning to cut $600,000 from the equity curriculum. That seems pretty pointless."
"I think what Gayl Shepherd is doing with the Restorative Justice program is wonderful. However, I do not think that, that should take away from what we have already worked on as far as equity. You have all of these people coming here talkin about restorative justice so that you can sell it. Because we all know that restorative justice has to be sold to the community in order for it to work."
"When I worked in the schools, staff was asking about what it was and was rolling their eyes about it. So we know even staff is still going to have a problem with restorative justice. I hope they get onboard quickly because it is not going to work and we are going to spend an awful lot of money on it. But in the meantime you are going to cut $600,000 from equity in curriculum and instruction and so we will be paying close attention to where those cuts are going because the staff member who was in charge of equity was implementing things that were helping the children that were marginalized for far too long. Mr. Joseph Graham which a lot of people saying they have a problem with, but when I needed him because when equities were happening in front of my face, he was very helpful to me and students who were being treated unfairly..."
"For some reason this board has been ignoring all the things that I have been trying to tell them. So where I appreciate restorative justice I also see what you are doing and I believe that, that will hurt children gravely. Don't do it until we have fully bought into it with the staff which we know is going to be a problem.“
Diane Anglin, NAACP Education Interim Chair, shared in the concerns about the cuts of $600,000 from the budget regarding equity. “I don't know that this is the best way to put the achievement gap up on the board without discussing a plan. It is time for us to dust off that achievement gap panel recommendation whether we agree with everything in it or not. There were significant jobs added to the town as a result of the achievement gap. And when you are talking about a student advocate and an assistant to the superintendent to assist inequity, we do not want to see those positions go away unless there is conversation on what you think is a better plan.”
"Terminate Dr. Parker," said Sweatt, president of the NIBPA Montclair Chapter.
When she took the stand, the atmosphere soon changed. Sweatt pointed out, "The Board of Education has spent the entire meeting praising the Restorative Justice Initiatives and claiming that they wish to eradicate racism in the school system, yet today, the Board of Education performs a racially motivated act of hiring a Montclair Police Officer to attend a public Board of Education meeting and to stand near the public seating."
"This is just another racial and discriminatory act conducted by the Board."
Sweatt asked, "Why is a police officer present? ...to criminalize the black parents who are only trying to hold you accountable?”
Sweatt pointed out that there were a lot of people on the Board who are complacent with racism because they were present during the time when Parker made the controversial statement.
“You cannot bring in programs to eradicate racism when you, yourself, supports racism,” says Sweatt.
Sweatt also pointed out the policies regarding anti-racism which used to appear on the Board of Education's website are no longer online.
“Dismantling the programs that are in place to help our black children is a problem for us. Under the section of the Anti-Racism policy, it states that schools are committed to embrace an anti-racism stance at all facets of this organization. The policy also says that the Montclair Public Schools will not tolerate racism and discrimination."
Sweatt added, "So under definition section of that policy, it says that discrimination is a distinction intentional or not that is based on personal characteristics of a group, class or category. So according to policy, a teacher being racist who distinguishes between children because of race is defined as discrimination and racism and will not be tolerated. Therefore, Dr. Parker, you have violated the zero tolerance of racism policy."
She added, "How has he been permitted to remain here?”
"The NIBPA is unwavering in their stance to remove Dr. Parker from his position."
At an NAACP meeting in the Fall, Parker admitted to making the statement, “...this may be a little controversial, but I do not care if a teacher is racist, so long as it does not disrupt instruction.” Dr. Parker has since apologized if his statement was misunderstood.
Robinson, the president of the Board, called for the next speaker. But the next speaker, realizing that Sweatt had not finished what she was stating, offered his three minutes to speak to be used by Sweatt.
Robinson stated that this was not allowed and tried to stop Sweatt, who stated that she was not finished yet. At this time, the Montclair Police Officer who was in the room, came up behind Sweatt to get her to leave the podium, and everything went wild.
When they called for the end of the meeting, members of the public refused to sit down and be quiet. “This is now a protest,” screamed one of the NIBPA members.
The Board was not able to control the room and so the board shut down the meeting and left for 20 minutes. Once all of the public left the meeting, the Board returned and closed out the meeting.
Calm Before the Storm
Prior to public comment, the meeting was informative and celebratory. Here's what happened prior:
Parker started the evening by introducing Boyce Ennis, Chief Music Director and the Montclair High School Madrigal choir. After a melodic selection from the choir, Maggie Faulkner performed a violin solo.
Petal Robertson, President of the Montclair Education Association (MEA), announced the upcoming, anticipated visit on March 4th by Becky Pringle, Vice President of the National Education Association. She said, "Becky Pringle is coming to town to learn about the progress of the district's implementation of the Restorative Justice initiatiive."
Robinson stated that a few years ago, one of their members of the MEA, Gayle Shepherd, who is also the district Restorative Justice Leader, sat on a panel regarding education with Governor Phil Murphy. Restorative Justice is one of the things that Ms. Shepard advocated for and actually got him to focus on, Robinson told the Board.
Robinson continued, “...and when they began to discuss best practices, it was a joy to see how many people in the room were talking about Restorative Justice. For anyone who is unfamiliar, the best way that I can describe Restorative Justice is transformative. I've watched it over the past three years change, not only the student environment, but also change the interactions between staff members, change the interactions between staff and administration, change even how we interact with board members and superintendents."
Robinson added, "I've seen students who were, before, at complete opposite ends and were ready to constantly go at each other. I walked into the Restorative Justice room in the high school and saw everyone sitting around eating chips. And I was like, ‘what's going on here?; she laughs. “I realize that there is power, not just in the sitting Circle, but there is power in the adopting of beliefs and the practices of Restorative Justice. There is power in believing that relationship building is what is going to restore our district, and what's going to save our community.”
Robinson went on to thank the National Education Association (NEA), which is the largest labor union in the country, and Vice President Pringle who has talked about Montclair for three years.
She added, "Ms. Pringle has decided to spend a day in Montclair not just to see the schools, but to see the community as well. Ms. Pringle believes that what has been done in Montclair is unprecedented with the district's willingness to support the Restorative Justice initiative with staff."
“On Wednesday, March 4th, Montclair is receiving its first visit ever from the National Education Association’s Vice President, Becky Pringle. She will be able to go around and see Restorative Justice in action. For the National Education Association to hold its first-ever National Conference in the state of New Jersey, and in the town of Montclair because of the work regarding the Restoration Justice Initiative and because, despite all our differences, we found this one avenue in which we can be together. We have now received national attention beyond measure,” proudly states Robinson.
Greg Foster, Board Member for the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE), was next on the agenda to share important information regarding the America to Me Initiative. This initiative will take place between March 1st and May 31st.
On March 1st, the Montclair Fund for Education Excellence (MFEE) will be kicking off their “America to Me” Campaign.
“We are really excited about this community-wide conversation on race and equity using a 10-part documentary series called “America to Me,” said Foster.
MFEE will be working with several community partners including the Township and the Civil Rights Commission. The series examines racial inequities through the eyes of teens in a Chicago suburban high school that looks and feels a lot like Montclair High School” states Mr. Foster. For more information please visit the website at www.mfee.org.
The “America to Me” Program works very closely with the Restorative Justice Program to help bring the community together. Nathan Parker stated that these programs feel like a new beginning because it brings the community closer.
Parker discussed how the Board’s Facilities Committee has been interviewing various architectural firms to take a look at how the facilities are structured and recommend any changes to update and bring them up to the 21st century. The Firm that was selected out of the seven applicants interviewed is called EI Associates located in Cedar Knolls. Michael Wozny, Director of Educational Projects, and his colleague, Joe Donnelly, Educational Program Specialist, attended the BOE meeting to give an overview of what they will be doing over the next two months
Wozney explained that he is an architect and explained that the way that they work is they walk through the facilities and evaluate them and look at the facilities from an educational standpoint.
“So, what the district has asked us to do is to take a close look and investigate all the various parts of the buildings so that you can move forward with a long-range facility plan. It will be a user-friendly document that we will produce which will identify deficiencies that we see have remedies that we recommend, improvements, and cost associated and will provide photographic references."
Donnelly then explained that long-range facility planning is not just about bricks and mortar. It is about educational decision-making as well.
“The building administration, the central office people, the curriculum people, the child study team etc. We look at how the facilities are currently servicing the educational programs and perhaps most importantly what's the vision for the next 10, 12, 15 years out. What kind of facilities will we need to support 21st Century Learning?"
They stated that they hope to have the process started and have a report to present to the Board by May 1st.”
Edgemont’s Principal Jeffrey Freeman received a sustainable New Jersey Grant, funded by the NJEA. This is the second time Edgemont has won this grant. The grant will cover projects that include rain gardens, outdoor learning classrooms, greenhouses, sustainability curricula and more. With this grant money, Edgemont will begin to construct an outdoor learning environment that is aligned with Edgemont environmental curriculum in the principles of Maria Montessori. The state of New Jersey has a certification program for public schools in New Jersey that supports and rewards municipalities and schools as they pursue their sustainability programs.
The boys swim team, led by coach Ed Koenigsfest, dominated the Number 3, Riverdale, to capture their first ever Title by a score of 111 to 59. One of the students, who is the captain of the team, has won a scholarship to attend a Division 1 University as a swimmer, officials announced.
Parker started by saying that the budget will reflect the goals of Montclair Board of Education. "The first goal has to do with the governance of the Board of Education. The second goal has to do with student achievement. The third goal has to do with fiscal responsibility and the fourth has to do with selecting a new superintendent."
He went on to say that the budget is anchored in student achievement. "And to be quite frank there is a lot of work that has to be done in student achievement."
Parker then put up a slide for the audience to view and asked the audience to talk with one another and describe what they saw on the charts and what they think it meant.
The chart showed a huge gap between the achievements of African-American students versus white students in the Montclair Public School system at all levels and it also showed that the gap gets wider as the students get older.
"Not only did the chart show a huge gap in the achievements between African-American students and white students but it also showed that as the white students get older their achievement level drops drastically. There needs to be a raising of achievement from all students on all levels."
Parker went on to say that this gap is the biggest equity in the entire District and that we have to modify programs to close the achievement gap.
“If the district continues doing the same programs that it has been doing for the past four or five years which has not closed the achievement gap, then we need to be reflective and self reflected to figure out how to approach and construct lessons. It's an opportunity frankly, for change,” says Parker.
The Total Revenues for the district is $131,150,939. The Total Expenditures is $138,663,921. Total expenditures is a simple roll over. If the district continues with its current staff who will receive their contracted raises, there will be a deficit of $7,512,982, officials announced. "It is going to be very challenging to bring this budget into balance and at the same time improve delivery of instruction in the school district."
The main drivers of these budgets is contractual salary increases. Although the staff deserve salary increases, the increases actually drive up the level of the budget. And the second driver of the budget is the increase in health benefits. When the first renewal projections were received, there was an increase of 18.1% Fortunately, in the past few weeks, the Insurance Consultant reviewed the budget and was able to bring the increase number down to 14.2% which is still a huge increase in the cost of health benefits.
Emidio D’Andrea, Business Administrator for the Montclair Board of Education, took the mic to share how the district plans on closing the 7 million dollar deficit gap. D’Andrea showed a chart and the part that stood out more than anything else was the fact that the budget is supported 92% by the tax levy assessed upon the community at-large.
The Board is also waiting to hear from the Governor regarding State Aid which is usually addressed at the end of February. The budget will have to be adopted before the next meeting of the Board on March 4th.
"Employee salary, health benefits and other employee benefits make up 80% of the budget. These items are fixed courses that occur on a regular basis. This leaves the remaining of 20% for the rest of the budget which is called the Operating Budget."
D’Andreas added, “This is what we work with on an annual basis to make sure that the students are properly educated. Out of the remaining 20%, transportation takes up a big part. Plant operations and maintenance take up another part. Tuition is another component.”
The Board of Education, along with the principals, have made recommendations of things that they can reduce in the upcoming budget to assist in reducing the deficit. One of the first things that they are going to be reducing is 2 positions that were in the budget last year, one secretary position and one operational aide position. The operational aide position was brought on when the district had trailers, but now since the trailers are no longer in use, this position can be eliminated.
The Board is also looking to cut back $600,000 from equity curricula instruction. This admission caused an outcry from the Public.
The Board is also looking to consolidate routes with Transportation as well as cut some of the technology budget. Reducing the cost of legal services and reducing the judgments by $200,000 will also bring down the deficit. Please note that this year the district is already running over $700,000 in judgment fees. The food budget will also be reduced district-wide.
“We're looking at every Department to try to bring the budget into balance. We came up with a $3.9 million recommended cut for the budget. We started off with revenues of $131 million. We saw the increase of revenues to $132 million. We started off with expenditures of $138 million. We are requesting to decrease the expenditures by 3.9 million bringing it to $134 million.
"As of this evening we are still sitting short by 2.3 million dollars. We are hoping that the state would bring us additional funds.” say D’Andrea.
If anyone has any suggestions or comments regarding the budget please reach out to the Board of Education. “This is a difficult budget year and we are restrained by the 2% tax cap.” states Parker.
Restorative Justice Initiative
Syreeta Carrington, Social Studies teacher at the Glenfield School, took the podium to describe the Restorative Justice Initiative Program at Glenfield and Edgemont schools.
Restorative Justice is the alternative method of disciplining children that seek to balance the process between being too permissive and being too punitive. The goal of Restorative Justice is to work with students to come to a solution rather than handing down punishment. Teachers who use restorative discipline practices find that behavior in the classroom improved drastically. They have better relationships with their students and therefore less stress with unresolved conflicts. (As defined by www.weareteachers.com)
Several parents from the Glenfield School stood up and gave their experience on how the restoration Justice initiative experience was very helpful to them and believe that it's a great opportunity for the community to heal its racial tension and other issues that they are having within the community.
One mother, Melinda Brown-Hyatt, gave a very moving speech. Stating that many sources have shown how the climate has gotten very racially-charged. She has two little boys in the first and second grade at Edgemont Elementary School. She just moved to Montclair and has lived here for only 18 months. She said her children have experienced no less than four racialized incidents in their classrooms. As a result of these incidents her sons have experienced visceral reactions during the day when they have been victimized.
Brown-Hyatt says her sons have exhibited signs, “...sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes both. We spend too little time as adults focusing on how racial trauma affects our children in our schools. I want to express to you how restorative practices help them deal with their day when they are faced with these incidents. They leave school less mentally bruised and leave the school feeling seen, heard and validated in a way that they would not without having restorative practices. And I think this is also good for our white students who, without restorative practices, will go uncorrected on the behaviors in which they are engaged in. These behaviors, when uncorrected, lead to years of racial superiority and white supremacy that is harmful to our society as a whole,”
Several parents from Edgemont also came to the podium to explain their experience with the Restorative Justice Initiative Program that is being initiated at their school. There were many great testimonies and accolades given to how this program can and will begin to heal the racial division and tension within the community. Not only will this program be beneficial for students and for teachers but for the entire community at-large.
It was explained that the real goal is to start the children in this program in elementary school so by the time they reach high school the racial tensions and inability to communicate properly with each other will be eradicated. It is also their hope to continue this program so that each new generation will improve from the last generation.
Eve Robinson, President of the Montclair Board of Education, reported that February 19, 2020, was the deadline for applications to be submitted for the search for the new superintendent.
"So far approximately 70 people started the application and 35 people have completed the application."
According to Robinson, NJSBA’s Consultant has already conducted three of the five input sessions. 75 people attended the input sessions. The NJSBA’s Consultant has put together a report of the input information received and will be sharing it with the Board as soon as the sessions are completed.
The feedback and information will be posted on the website for the public to view. In addition there is also a survey available on the Board of Education’s website under superintendent search (https://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/board_of_education/superintendent_search)
Robinson says, “Right now, we have about 168 responses to the online survey. We are sticking to our timeline and want the survey to be completed by May 1st so that the candidate who is selected can begin by July 1st. By March 17th we will be meeting with all of the candidates who have completed applications.”