By ERIN ROLL
The reported termination of several district staff positions, including that of Montclair High School’s athletic director, brought a large crowd of upset parents, students and community members to Tuesday night’s Board of Education reorganization meeting.
Earlier that day, word had spread around the school community that the district would not be renewing the contract of Jeff Gannon, the school’s athletic director.
There were also rumors that the contract of Kim Westervelt, the MHS assistant principal for English, would also not be renewed.
Before the board addressed the matter of staff cuts, it elected Laura Hertzog president for a one-year term, succeeding Jessica de Koninck. Franklin Turner was elected vice president.
A large group of student athletes, including from the lacrosse, crew and track and field teams, turned out to express their support for Gannon and to share their concerns about his termination.
Parents also objected to the proposed elimination of the assistant principal position at Nishuane, a post that was originally to have been shared among several other schools; as well as several math teacher and paraprofessional positions.
Several students who spoke at the microphone paid tribute to Gannon’s expertise as a coach, and how he made an effort to connect with each student and ask about their day; some carried signs proclaiming support for Gannon.
Parents, meanwhile, were highly critical of a perceived lack of transparency on the board’s part regarding the terminations. There was no mention of the terminations on the district website or the agenda for the meeting.
During the public comment period, Walter Springer, who represents Montclair High School on the PTA Council, read from a letter that he had presented to the BOE that day. “The previous interim superintendent was in his role for two years. Prior to leaving he gave recommendations to this board. Two of the personnel recommendations for the high school are the replacement of the athletic director and removal of the assistant principal for English,” he read.
He finished, “With two years of work within the school district, I question the personnel recommendations of the previous superintendent. If these recommendations were given without documented incidents I believe these recommendations are purely personal.”
A Feb. 27 presentation that described some of the budget highlights indicated that five MHS staff positions might be eliminated, but the presentation did not go into specifics of what those positions were.
Marianella Herrera, a junior at MHS, mentioned that she has two younger siblings involved in sports. “I cannot imagine a Montclair High School without Mr. Gannon at the head (of athletics),” she said. To the board, she said, “I know that you guys talked about transparency prior to your elections.”
Kenneth Coplan, a junior on the MHS rowing team, spoke of how Gannon’s coaching had enabled him to represent his school, and the United States, at a competition in the Netherlands in which he received a bronze medal. “Why you are firing a man this qualified and passionate, I do not understand,” Coplan said.
“I promise you that firing Mr. Gannon will be the single biggest mistake that you make this year,” said student Dean Chancer.
Jodi Paroff, a parent representing the school’s fencing booster club, called the decision to eliminate Gannon’s job a “short-sighted and poorly communicated decision.”
“Clearly, Mr. Gannon is a rock star. … It looks like if you keep with this decision, he’ll be quickly snapped up elsewhere,” said Rachael Quinn Egan.
A number of other staff cuts were also causing a great deal of distress for parents, Quinn Egan said. “A lot of us are really, really shocked and shattered.”
Trente Miller said she was especially upset about the cutting of the Nishuane assistant principal position, currently held by Evan Kozak. “I can’t understand how the children of Nishuane won’t be affected when you’re eliminating an administrative position,” Miller said.
Petal Robertson, vice president of the Montclair Education Association and an English teacher at Montclair High School, compared a staff cut to a paper cut: something that looks small, but is very painful. “So what just happened to the Montclair School district was over 60 little paper cuts all over our body,” she said. “The [student assistance counselors] are paper cuts. The paras are paper cuts. The teachers are paper cuts. The administrators are paper cuts.”
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak explained to the audience that the board could not comment on specific personnel matters during a public meeting, as per board policy. However, she said that the budget cuts were a difficult, but necessary, decision. “What happens when you do have to make reductions — and it’s a sad thing to discuss — the people who are non-tenure are the first to be reduced. And that’s labor law, and that’s tenure law,” she said.
Pinsak emphasized that the Board of Education is required, by law, to get the budget balanced. “There’s no two ways about it,” she said.