By ERIN ROLL
A division within the board of education has resulted in the departure of another board member, the second in two months.
Board president Laura Hertzog resigned from the Montclair Board of Education Thursday, May 16, the same night the board elected new leadership, including Eve Robinson as president and Latifah Jannah as vice president. Alfred Davis was sworn in as the board’s newest member, replacing former vice president Joe Kavesh. Kavesh was not reappointed by the mayor for a second term.
Hertzog read from a prepared statement, reflecting on the board’s accomplishments during her tenure, but also condemning what she saw as a persistent culture of toxicity and hypocritical behavior on the part of some of the board members.
“I have spent four years dealing with people who present one face behind closed doors and a very different one when the light is shining on them, yet have the temerity to falsely accuse others of improprieties when they don’t get their way. This has been hugely distracting, and clearly will not be changing,” she said.
Hertzog accused Robinson of trying to garner votes from board members to unseat her. It was “hurtful,” she said, given the fact that she thought the board had been working on building better relationships. “I was genuinely blindsided when Ms. Robinson called me late this past Friday afternoon and I learned that she had been spending weeks gathering votes for her and Ms. Jannah to take over as president and vice president,” she read. “That while I was sitting in a circle thinking we were being open and honest, she and another person in that circle were smiling and looking me in the eye, already knowing that those votes had been secretly gathered without any conversation with me.”
The stress of serving on a divisive board was taking a toll on her and her family, Hertzog said, and therefore decided to resign for her family’s sake. “I believe that my commitment to children will be put to better use elsewhere,” she added.
Kavesh, who left the board in May, told Montclair Local he “witnessed first-hand how [Hertzog] was constantly undermined by three fellow board members.” He did not name the board members, but said those board members also undermined him as well.
“She didn’t come to the board with an agenda or political connections in town. Her focus was squarely on the best interests of the kids and our schools. It’s the town’s loss,” Kavesh said.
At the meeting, Robinson thanked everyone for their vote, and of Hertzog’s accusations, she said, “I’m sorry this had to come in under such misunderstood circumstances.”
Hertzog left after the public comment period was completed, and before the board could vote on routine business.
Hertzog was appointed by Mayor Robert Jackson in 2015, and has served as president for two years. Jackson told Montclair Local he was surprised by her decision to resign from the board.
“Laura is incredibly intelligent and thoughtful and I’m confident that any decision she’s made is after careful consideration of what’s best for her family and the community,” Jackson said.
In an interview following the meeting, Hertzog told Montclair Local she had an often strained relationship with three of the board members — Robinson, Jessica de Koninck and Anne Mernin — during her time on the board.
Media reports from 2016 reported that Hertzog asked three incoming board members — Kavesh, Jevon Caldwell-Gross and Franklin Turner — to support her in a run for board president.
De Koninck, who was president in 2016, and Robinson and Mernin, objected to her run for president.
Objections by the other board members led to the three new members’ appointments being delayed. Jackson initially withdrew the appointments for Kavesh, Caldwell-Gross and Turner. Within a week Jackson changed his mind and they were appointed to the BOE.
In 2018, more friction between the board members came to light, during the appointment of Superintendent Kendra Johnson.
At a special meeting on April 11, 2018 on the superintendent appointment, Robinson, de Koninck and Mernin did not attend. Hertzog, Kavesh, Caldwell-Gross and Turner voted in favor of appointing Johnson.
Although the superintendent appointment is made solely by the board, Jackson had said, during a press conference in March, that he would prefer that the district hire an administrator with prior superintendent experience.
At subsequent meetings, Robinson, de Koninck and Mernin alleged that the meeting to discuss the superintendent hire had been scheduled at the last moment, on an evening that the three could attend. But Hertzog contended all three were well aware of the meeting date and refused to come.
With Hertzog’s departure, all of the board members who voted in favor of appointing Johnson as superintendent are now off the board. Caldwell-Gross stepped down from the board after accepting a new job in Indianapolis, and Turner resigned from the board in the wake of allegations that he did not meet the board of education’s residency requirements because he did not have a Montclair residence.
At Johnson’s first BOE meeting as district superintendent on May 2, 2018, Hertzog and Robinson publicly disagreed over the special meeting scheduling. Hertzog said she sent a follow-up text on April 8, 2018 and it was on that evening, she said, that three board members told her that they would not be available on April 11. Their reasons for cancelling, included dinner plans, Hertzog said.
Robinson, de Koninck and Mernin remain on the BOE.
CHANGE OF HEART?
Hertzog’s announcement also took members of the board by surprise. Some board members said they hoped Hertzog would change her mind.
Board member Priscilla Church described Hertzog’s departure as a significant loss to the board, as she welcomed Hertzog’s insights on important issues. “If she doesn’t rescind [her resignation], she’s going to be missed.” Church also said that the board has been working on improving relationships. “I feel really bad that we weren’t able to repair certain things,” she said.
De Koninck said she hoped that Hertzog might take some time to reconsider her decision to leave the board.
“I will miss her, and her texts,” said Jannah, referring to Hertzog’s text messages filled with lots of emojis. “But I also think… there’s a lot of leadership ability on this board,” she said.
Members of the audience also spoke out against Hertzog’s resignation.
Kellia Sweatt also offered her thanks. “Your votes tell us who you are, it tells you your values and your principles.”
Sweatt said that she found it upsetting that board members of African-American descent did not remain on the board for very long.
To Robinson, June Raegner said, “Ms. Robinson, I’m deeply concerned about your completely different agenda from our outgoing president.”