Board president Laura Hertzog, right, and board member Anne Mernin, left, speak during Monday night’s BOE meeting as Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak, center, listens. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The student advocate position took center stage at Monday night’s board of education meeting. And the discussion, both between board members and the public, got rather tense at times.

The Montclair BOE approved the posting of the job description, following a long, animated and occasionally tense back-and-forth among board members about the need for the position and the role that it would play in the district.

A student advocate would be someone who works primarily to students and families, acting as a liaison between them and the school district on perceived equity issues. The position was created and added to the school budget a year and a half ago at the suggestion of then-Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi. However, this year, the board had decided not to fill the student advocate job, citing budget issues and concerns that one person would be able to meet the needs of all of Montclair’s students. But that decision generated a great deal of criticism from parents and the community.

During the discussion, Board President Laura Hertzog, Vice President Franklin Turner and board member Joe Kavesh were very vocal about the need for the student advocate position, indicating that it was long overdue. Other board members, including Anne Mernin, Jessica de Koninck and Eve Robinson, had reservations about various aspects of the job, the wording of the job description.

“We just invested heavily in an assistant superintendent to do equity work,” Mernin said. She said she was concerned that having a student advocate job would compartmentalize equity work, something that should be the responsibility of all staff members. “What I would like to see is that we hold our leaders in the district very strictly accountable for equity.”

Hertzog said that the board approved a student advocate job along with that of assistant superintendent of equity. “We voted on this as a package deal,” she said. “It’s not either/or, it’s and/both.”

Hertzog said it would be “embarrassing” if the board did not immediately take action. “It would send a terrible message on every single front,” she said. “It’s a year. And. A half. Later,” she said. “And it’s the same seven people.”

“This isn’t about voting no,” de Koninck responded. “It’s about, how is this going to work?”

During a meeting of the civil rights commission earlier this fall, Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said that the district would be willing to take another look at hiring for the student advocate position.

Turner voiced his frustration at how long the process had taken. “I’m just disappointed that we’re having this dialogue, for several reasons,” Turner said.

At one point, Turner questioned whether any other position in the district would have been subjected to as much scrutiny as the student advocate position.

“We need this to work! If it doesn’t work it’s going to go back to the drawing board!” de Koninck responded.

Hertzog said that the issue was that the board was repeatedly revisiting a job that the district superintendent had already approved. “When we approve the job, we hire for the job,” she said. She also asked why the board didn’t have this discussion a year ago. “The way this has played out looks like we’re just stalling,” Hertzog said.

“Can we at least do it in a way that’s going to move the needle?” Mernin responded.

A number of parents and community members came to the microphone Monday night to express their dismay at how long it had taken the district to post the student advocate position.

“A year and a half of getting something approved?” asked John Washington, who had also attended the civil rights commission meeting where the student advocate position had been discussed. He mentioned that his own work as an entrepreneur involved being on boards of directors: “If you were on my board, I’d have fired you.”

Justin Thompson asked the board to think of what they would do if someone were lying in the middle of the floor, bleeding. “You wouldn’t wait five minutes, you wouldn’t wait an hour. You dad-gone wouldn’t wait a year and a half, he said.”

“I realized that I have never agreed with the board more than I do today,” said MEA chair Petal Robertson. She told Turner that she understood completely about his frustration about not being heard. “To you I say, welcome to the club.”

After the meeting, Hertzog indicated that the job will be posted on the district’s website for the public to view.

However, at the end of the meeting, members of the board commented that they had been pleased with the discussion.

“I think tonight was a moment of growth for us in some ways,” said board member Jevon Caldwell-Gross, saying that the meeting was a display of healthy discussion and healthy disagreement. “What people fear sometimes is the consequences of the disagreement.”

“This has been my most enjoyable board meeting…because we had a hearty, robust discussion, and we conducted ourselves very well,” Kavesh said.