Board of Education Meeting Comments 12/15/2014
The following comments were written and presented by members of Montclair 250, an organization of Montclair residents who work for the school district.
We are Montclair. We live here; we work here; we are parents of children who have or still are part of the Montclair school system that has always been a source of pride for our town. We are your neighbors, friends, and educators. As educators we say change is good, and there are many changes throughout the district that we would welcome.
The history of Montclair is steeped in the freedom to disagree yet still have a voice. It has always been part of the culture of this town and part of our respect for each other and our differing opinions. Lately, many voices of varying dissent are being silenced. This is not the norm for Montclair and we are not comfortable with this leadership that seems out of touch with what families want for their children’s education.
We are sad to say that it is our experience that members of this board and administration seem to have a need to separate people from one another: Principals from teachers, parents from teachers, and teachers from paraprofessionals. You have removed people from the agenda, ended a tradition of having teachers speak for their schools and have taken names out of order when calling people up to speak. We would never teach our students to jump ahead of line. Yet this is what is modeled at these meetings.
This kind of separation is attempted through breeding distrust. However, we, as a town, are all together – unified in whatever we agree and disagree about. It is the culture of this town: a culture that is more important than some may realize.
Succeeding in separating groups of people cannot go very far when it is based upon the misinformation, disrespect and inconsistency that affects our students. The current administration and some members of this board are no longer trusted to be honest or respectful to others. Most important of all, they are not trusted to be concerned with the quality of education for all of our children. Instead, this board and administration continue to pass blame for any failings on past administrations, present employees and still attempt to set one group against another.
For example, at the last board meeting, after a round of public comments from many parents in this town who took the PARCC and were not pleased, the Board discussed this. Rather than listen to what the citizens of Montclair said, David Deutch stated “This is simple economics. The PARCC is going to count in teachers’ evaluations. It gives them the incentive to be negative about it.”
Let us be clear with you: the issues educators have with the PARCC are not based on the fact that we will be evaluated. Rather, it is that we have evaluated the PARCC, and find it developmentally inappropriate for each age group it covers, and of low quality. Much more important, is the stress it puts on our students, while offering no benefit to them or instructional direction for teachers.
Perhaps listening to the many parents and educators who have recently taken the PARCC and trying to work within a framework of compromise (at a minimum) instead of attacking educators would be more helpful. Those who work with students are the experts. It is time that all realize that how to educate is best left to the educators.
During a meeting at the Bradford school, between parents and teachers last March, Dr. MacCormack, discussed how 46 states were adopting the common core and how wonderful it was. A parent stood up and asked, “If the common core is so good, then why have several schools spoken out against it at the board meetings?” Dr. MacCormack said “Because it’s hard.” She then went further and explained to the parents that it is difficult for teachers to change, that the common core is very different for them – it’s rigorous. Change is hard for the teachers. This same line has been given to parents at meetings they’ve had with Gail Clarke. It has become the central office’s mantra. One parent said that Gail Clarke made the common core so clear to her, and then followed up by stating that “I know no one likes the extra work, but it’s good for our kids.” Can you imagine anyone walking around stating “Oh, they just don’t like change—it’s too much work” about people in other fields? Again, this is misinformation to separate the community and to continue abusing our children’s education: because all of this dishonesty, and micro-management of who says what to whom, and retribution or intimidation for speaking up is just that—abuse of our children’s education.
Let’s step back to one of the first powerpoint presentations by Dr. MacCormack at a board meeting. Dr. MacCormack’s data showed that the achievement gap was much wider in Montclair than previously thought. She showed that the previous administration (again, the blame sits elsewhere) did not include the socioeconomic data and said this is something she would not leave out. In the most recent presentation of data that included the achievement gap, she did just that. Data and budgets change seamlessly. Responsible approaches, collaboration, any transparency and honesty are lacking in this top-down, corporate model of management that is not working for education. It ends up reducing the role of the educators, excluding them from the planning and decision making in a way that decreases the ability to move our students forward.
Not one member has addressed the budget with any real transparency. In addressing the budget, this district recently reported that they ended the year with no deficit balances and no line item over expenditures. However, with all the money marked for technology, why did they have to take money from principals’ building budgets to fulfill their spending on technology? Forget deficits – where has a surplus that could have been used for students gone? Again, this is something that greatly affects our students.
Also stated in the district’s budget report was that as this district prepares for the development of the 2015-2016 budget, they continue to address increasing expenses in the areas of special education costs, utilities and employee health benefits. This district changed health insurance companies to save a vast amount of money. They muddled through this quickly, not researching CIGNA enough. Much quality has been lost. The CNA determined that Cigna denies roughly 39.6% of all claims (compared to competitors such as Aetna who denied about 5.9% of all claims in the same time frame.) The district did not research other companies, get bids on the insurance, or discuss it with the MEA. After handling this in so incorrect a manner to save money, we do wonder why employee health benefits is under the label of increasing costs.
More importantly, this district claims that special education costs are increasing. They certainly are. When the needs of our students are not met, parents will take their students elsewhere and our district and taxes will foot the bill. Out-of-district placement is up. In this administration’s short tenure legal fees have tripled from the $200,000’s to the $600,000’s. This upsets us greatly. We work hard to make a difference in our students’ lives even without the needed resources in materials and staffing. Our students are our neighbors and their parents our friends. By taking away materials and paraprofessionals, and worrying more about seeming to close a gap rather than really closing it, once again, the board and administration of this district have frayed the edges needed to help our next generation of students succeed.
The meetings held with parents early in this administration’s tenure introduced the idea that the brightest and the best would be brought in. First of all, the insult inherent in that statement to all the existing staff is offensive. Many of the brightest and best have been here much longer than this administration and have helped thousands of students, both academically and emotionally, from kindergarten through their senior year of high school. So far, incorrect data, misleading statements, poorly thought out plans, and a lack in the ability to motivate, train, and advance educators is all we have seen. We are still waiting for the brightest and the best.
Last year offered little professional development to teachers or paraprofessionals. Until late in the year, most of the Professional Development offered was a repeated overview of the Marshall Rubric. We are educators. As educators, we have dealt with a vast amount of rubrics in our careers. We could figure out the Marshall rubric. So after a year of this, Central Office decided to get back on the academic track. They offered specific Professional Development. This was offered with the promise of more. Gail Clarke specifically said that the Balanced Literacy Professional Development was geared more toward newer teachers, even calling it Professional Development 101, but would move forward from there. It has not moved forward.
Many of us have years of experience and a wealth of knowledge. We would like to go outside of district for more in-depth professional development. We are told no—the district provides it. We have to miss a day of teaching our students to come to these Professional Development sessions that do not offer growth. If the Professional Development is geared toward newer teachers, then why does the whole district have to lose teaching time and pay substitutes? Just as we differentiate our teaching for our students, we expect the district to be held to the same standard. It seems that our definition of Professional Development and our district’s differ.
For example, high school history teachers were recently told to bring their students to the assembly for a meeting about Amistad. As the students entered, Davida Harewood, district supervisor for social studies, asked if any students would like to ask questions of the presenter afterwards. Students did raise their hands. Those students were handed pre-written questions to ask from Ms. Harewood. The Common Core demands higher analytical thought, yet our students are being taught to read someone else’s questions, putting their own thoughts aside. As students left the auditorium, Ms. Harewood told them to always question – make sure they question their teachers all the time. Professional Development should always model best practices. Later that day, all the teachers found Professional Development certificates in their mailboxes, from Central Office. Just for walking their students to the auditorium. Yet this district talks about raising the bar.
New Jersey’s Department of Education states that the definition of professional development is one that is aligned with student learning, educator needs and embedded in educators’ daily work. It further states that that PD shall have as its primary focus the improvement of teachers’ and school leaders’ effectiveness in assisting all students to meet the Common Core Curriculum Standards.
Neither change nor rigor is hard for teachers. We change consistently and constantly to meet the needs of our students, not Central Office’s need to have us teach to tests. Whatever anyone’s issues with the Common Core, let’s understand that our Central Office has been doling out propaganda for Pearson Publishing and keeping the curriculum narrower and narrower so that we are teaching to a test. That is not what we do. We educate. There is a vast difference between teaching to a test and teaching our students to have a love of learning. Enriching the lives of our students is what matters. We are critical of the changes, not anxious about change. It is time that this difference is understood.