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Crumbling stairwells turned out not to be an April Fools’ joke. KHARI JENKINS/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By KIRSTEN LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local

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KIRSTEN LEVINGSTON

Kirsten Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.

Like a kindergartner preparing for first grade, I’m entering the 2019-2020 school year with trepidation. Unlike a 6-year-old, I actually have 12 years of Montclair Public School experience under my belt (as a parent, not a student). But I’m nervous anyway. A year ago, during the first week of the school year, part of a staircase collapsed at Montclair High School. When my daughter, a junior at the time, called me at work to tell me what happened I thought it was a late April Fools’ gag — until she sent a picture of the scene.

Subsequent building inspections turned up problems with other staircases in the high school. Administrators closed the main building for a couple of days and opened it late for several more. Portions of the building remained inaccessible and unusable, forcing teachers to repurpose hallways, auditoria and other spaces into classrooms. Rumors circulated about when building repairs would happen and how they would affect class schedules and instruction. Students would receive virtual instruction; would go to school in the freshman building in shifts; would skip school altogether and go work in the salt mines (OK, the last one is made up). 

But, for real, it’s August and the repairs are ongoing. Fingers crossed — come Sept. 3 MHS will be ready for students.

In an attempt to understand what was happening with the stair crisis, I started attending Montclair Board of Education meetings. Turns out the crumbling stairwells are a metaphor for deep, structural problems in this district. At one meeting former board president Laura Hertzog dramatically announced she was stepping down, describing a palace coup in which other board members secretly maneuvered to replace her as president.

“Sadly,” she said, “when I see this almost comical and hypocritical behavior, and ongoing pettiness, I must accept that the hard work that I have done to help change things has basically meant nothing. I understand that despite my best efforts, I am unable to change the toxicity that I have experienced while volunteering on this board.” 

Wait, had I accidentally stumbled on to the set of “Scandal?” Was that Olivia Pope peeking out from behind the blue curtain in the Inness Annex?

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At the next meeting I attended district superintendent Kendra Johnson announced she would be leaving after a year in the job, citing her desire to practice self-care and be closer to family. The announcement wasn’t a revelation — days before, the news had broken online, forcing Johnson to share her plans earlier than she had intended. As frustrated as I’ve been with the chaos, I feel for Johnson. She had been our superintendent for just a few weeks when the stairs collapsed, along with any hope she would be able to carry out whatever agenda she brought with her.

Our town has had a hard time finding and keeping school superintendents. This week the board intends to appoint an interim superintendent to replace Johnson while it searches for a permanent successor. By the time my daughter and her 2020 classmates graduate, they will have had at least three superintendents and three interim superintendents during their 12 years of matriculation. Consistent inconsistency.

Still, this latest pause is an opportunity for the board and those who care about our schools to take a breath and identify the barriers that have prevented our superintendents from lasting and thriving. What tools, resources, safeguards, or guidance are necessary to ensure progress and success? Maybe the next superintendent needs a pope-like adviser to help them read the tea leaves and navigate the unique community and interpersonal dynamics — the toxicity — they may be stepping in to.

Part of the solution has to be tapping into resources on full display at school board meetings. I’m talking about the MHS students who stand up during the public question-and-answer period to advocate — with reason and passion — for the issues they care about. The parents who attend meetings to hold the board and superintendent accountable and to support them in ensuring quality education for all Montclair students. Teachers and staff, people whose lives and livelihoods are affected on a daily basis by the district’s turmoil, bring to these meetings constructive ideas and recommendations. (I see you, Mr. Manos.) These are the assets our next leader can marshal and lean upon.

No doubt our 2019-2020 school year will have its challenges. In preparation for whatever is coming we can adopt a mantra that most soon-to-be first graders likely know: “Just keep swimming.”