By ERIN ROLL
Last week’s announcements of several planned staff cuts sent shock waves across the Montclair School District.
On May 15, news spread that the school district would not be renewing the contracts of several staff members across the district, including Montclair High School’s athletic director and assistant principal of English, 50 paraprofessionals, at least three student assistance counselors and Nishuane School’s assistant principal.
The Montclair High School community was especially dismayed by news that Jeffrey Gannon, the athletic director, was not expected to have his contract renewed. There were also reports that the contract of Kim Westervelt, the assistant principal of English at the school, would not be renewed.
“In a macro sense, I feel like this year has been a bit of a wake-up call for New Jersey school funding for the people of Montclair,” Board of Education President Laura Hertzog said on Tuesday. This is the first year, she said, that Montclair has truly been subjected to the state-mandated 2 percent tax increase cap.
“And it hit us really, really hard,” Hertzog said.
During the board meeting, several audience members accused the board of not being transparent about the reasoning behind the staff cuts, especially as they pertained to Gannon.
“The problem is there’s a difference between transparency and sharing private, confidential information,” Hertzog said, noting that the board has to abide by state laws on personnel matters. “And I understand how incredibly frustrating it is.”
She said that what was truly needed was for Montclair residents to speak up and to protest the state’s current practices on school funding. “We need really loud voices. Grassroots voices,” she said.
On Monday, May 22, a petition appeared on Change.org calling for Gannon and Westervelt’s positions to be reinstated. The petition stated that both of these positions were funded in the budget.
“Prior to being removed these two high school staff members did not receive an evaluation that detailed a poor performance. These two high school staff members did not receive an unfavorable evaluation from their district supervisor. The recommended removal is without cause and is personal in origin,” the petition claims.
During a series of budget presentations that took place starting in February, the district indicated that a number of positions in the schools would be cut, but in some cases, did not specify which school-specific positions were facing elimination. Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi indicated during those presentations that the decision to cut 50 paraprofessionals was based on discussions between the administration and school principals. Additionally, Bolandi indicated during that meeting that one of the district’s budgeting goals was to achieve equity among the schools: that they would have the staffing and resources appropriate to their student enrollment size.
The budget highlights presentation in February showed that the reduction of 50 positions, which would bring staffing levels down to what they were during the 2014-2015 school year, would amount to a $2 million savings.
But parents, school staff and members of the community criticized the decision.
Parents have also been critical of a decision to eliminate three student assistance counselor positions. When the Board of School Estimate took a vote on the budget in March, a number of Montclair High School students, including several from the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, told the board that the student assistant counselors played a crucial role in helping students with academic, personal and mental health issues.
During the budget presentations, the board indicated that the assistant principal — a role currently held by Evan Kozak — would be shared among several elementary schools as a cost-saving measure. But at the May 17 board of education meeting, several parents said that they had learned that the assistant principal position would be cut entirely.
The Special Education Parents Advocacy Council issued a statement on Monday regarding the pending elimination of the paraprofessionals: “SEPAC has been disappointed and concerned about the cuts to special education in the district since they were announced in March. Hardworking para professionals are the cornerstone of the classroom experience for many, if not all, students (both classified and unclassified). We have long advocated for the district to show paraprofessionals more respect as it makes decisions regarding their allocation, duties, benefits, job security and training,” the group said.
The statement continued, “In a letter addressed to the SEPAC community on March 10, Dr. Bolandi was adamant that despite a $2 million decrease in the budget line for paraprofessionals, services for children with special needs would not be negatively impacted. SEPAC, and the families we represent, anxiously await details as to who will put what systems in place to provide the supports and services our children are entitled to as a part of their education alongside their peers. Consistently applied policy, procedure and details can make or break educations.”
Hertzog said the board was waiting to hear from Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak and Interim Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo about the district’s end-of-year financial status. At that time, she said, the board will make a decision about how to proceed with the staff cuts.