Brenda Pepper directs Abraham Deitz-Green as Zariyah Happonen looks on during a rehearsal for “As You Like It” in the spring. Parents said they’d learned Pepper had been dismissed from her position as School of Visual and Performing Arts artistic director in June, but she was hired back at the Aug. 16 Board of Education meeting. She’ll be splitting the role with Montclair High School drama teacher Megan Wills. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

By ANDREW GARDA and TALIA WIENER
garda@montclairlocal.news
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Many of the Montclair Public Schools staffers expected to be released this fall have been rehired — including an athletic trainer and the School of Visual and Performing Arts’ artistic director, whose dismissals were criticized by some parents. 

Atanes Meronuli, one of just two athletic trainers responsible for about 60 teams at Montclair High School, was among 36 school district staffers to receive nonrenewal notices in May. In the weeks afterward, the Montclair Education Association’s former president, Petal Robertson, said she couldn’t find any “rhyme or reason” to that and several other cuts the district planned. Robertson resigned the position in anticipation of becoming the New Jersey Education Association’s secretary-treasurer in September.

At a June school board meeting, Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the district might find it had to hire back some of those staffers, as needs for the fall became clearer. The MEA had criticized that statement, saying many staffers would need to move on to other jobs elsewhere with their futures in Montclair uncertain.




According to a message from the MEA Tuesday, 29 of the 36 staffers had either been offered  their Montclair jobs back or chose employment elsewhere — but it didn’t specify how many were in each category. A message to the MEA seeking further clarification wasn’t returned by press time. 

But Meronuli was approved to be rehired at the Board of Education’s Aug. 16 meeting. School officials didn’t address the change in plans at the meeting.

Also hired back was School of Visual and Performing Arts Artistic Director Brenda Pepper — though she’ll now split the role with Montclair High School drama teacher Megan Wills. Pepper hadn’t been among the 36 staffers the MEA identified as getting nonrenewal notices in May, but community members said at the June meeting they’d learned she was expected to be let go as well.

One of two trainers

The MEA was never given any reason why the decision to not renew Meronuli’s contract was made, and nothing has changed since, according to communications chair Candice Pastor.

“The association was told the nonrenewal was due to ‘economy and efficiency,’” Pastor wrote in a response to an inquiry by Montclair Local. “We are pleased he has been offered his position back, but we were not provided with the rationale.”

When asked for comment, Ponds declined to give further insight into the original decision to release Meronuli.

“Mr. Atanes Meronuli is confirmed as an athletic trainer for our high school athletic program,” he said in a statement to Montclair Local. “We are excited to be starting new fall, winter and spring seasons. Our student-athletes and all athletic personnel work hard and we are cheering for them.”

Ponds, at a June 21 board meeting, didn’t go point-by-point to rebut assertions MEA members made about how programs or class sizes would be affected by the staff cuts. But he said the cuts were made with “compassion” and an awareness of schedules.

Montclair High School athletics trainer Atanes Meronuli, center, watches girls soccer during a recent scrimmage. After previously being sent a non-renewal notice, Meronuli was rehired at the Aug. 16 Montclair Township Board of Education meeting. (ANDREW GARDA / MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

While Meronuli was ultimately brought back, this wasn’t an easy few months for him, he said.

“This summer was a stressful one for me, not knowing whether I would be doing athletic training at Montclair or another school,” he said. “I always said if I was given the opportunity to come back, 100%, I would.”

But Meronuli was grateful many people in the Montclair community were pulling for his return.

Meronuli and fellow trainer Michele Chemidlin are getting set to manage the athletic needs of eight sports for the fall season.

“It feels great to be back even this year, [since] last year there wasn’t really a preseason,” Meronuli said. “This year we are getting some type of normalcy in sports, with full practice schedules and games.”

As he returns to the Aubrey Lewis Athletics Facility, Meronuli said he’s just happy to get back to work.

“I look forward to working with the staff I’ve worked with closely, all the coaches, nurses, administration such as [athletics director administrative assistant] Kim Covello, [Athletics Director] P.J. [Scarpello], Michele — who has been by my side through this whole turn of events — and especially the athletes.”

For now, Meronuli and Chemidlin are taking care of impact testing for athletes as well as helping teams as they begin their preseason practices and scrimmages. But the season is right around the corner, with girls tennis at Millburn on Sept. 1 at 4 p.m., before the Mounties football team kicks things off against East Orange at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3, at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium.

Return to SVPA

Pepper has served as School of Visual and Performing Arts director since 2012, according to former SVPA member and 2014 Montclair High School graduate Cameron Silliman.

“​​I always felt like Brenda encouraged us to take chances and to work really hard and to really just love what we were doing,” Silliman, who now works professionally as an actor, said. “You could always sense that she loved to direct us, and it’s always great to have a director that is enjoying the process, because it makes you enjoy the process.”

The director salary will be $15,000 each for Pepper and Wills, according to new hire information published by the district. 

Pepper and Wills did not respond to multiple emails sent starting on Aug. 18. 

“We are pleased to offer this valuable experience in performing arts to our students and continue with dedicated and talented personnel,” Ponds and MHS Principal Jeffrey Freeman said in an email to Montclair Local.

They did not respond to questions asking why Pepper was let go in June.

SVPA Director Brenda Pepper will be splitting the role with Montclair High School drama teacher Megan Wills during the 2021-22 school year. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

During three-hour rehearsals, pancake breakfasts and shows, Pepper always encouraged students to explore what they were passionate about and come to her if they needed any help, Silliman said.

“As college was approaching, she always checked in on students,” Silliman said. “She was always super, super excited to see what all of our futures would look like.”

Class of 2021 graduate Destiny David said Pepper and SVPA helped her grow as a performer and explore different ways of self-expression. David joined SVPA during her freshman year when a friend encouraged her to audition. During her senior year, she was cast in a leading role — Rosalind in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

“It really pushed me out of my comfort zone,” David said. “It made me more comfortable with playing different roles and not really being afraid of trying different things, which is really cool.”

SVPA was David’s main extracurricular activity during her time at MHS, and it’s where she found her community, she said. 

“SVPA is a huge time commitment, usually every school day, from right after school to about 6:30, but some of the friends that I’ve made in SVPA I can see being in my life for years to come,” David said. “Ms. Pepper mainly just kind of stepped back and let the students share their opinions and vocalize different things that they want and things that will benefit the community.”

Board of Education member Eric Scherzer said at the Aug. 16 board meeting that he was “glad to see we’ve resolved issues that have come up with SVPA.”  

“We’ve heard that problems are resolved and contracts have been given out to continue the program, with full support of former and current professionals,” Scherzer said.

He did not respond to further questions sent via email. Board President Latifah Jannah declined to speak on personnel matters.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Megan Wills as Hillside Elementary School’s drama teacher; that is her former role. Wills has been a Montclair High School drama teacher since the 2020-21 school year.