Montclair classrooms are short special education staff, leaving some students spendings hours on their phone and computers, according to the president of the Montclair Education Association.
(COURTESY OF GREEN CHAMELEON / UNSPLASH)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

This article has been updated to reflect information on staffing levels provided by the Montclair Public School district’s interim director of special services, David Goldblatt, on Sept. 30. Schools superintendent Jonathan Ponds hadn’t replied to messages seeking information on vacancies prior to this article’s initial publication on Sept. 28.

Many special education classrooms in Montclair public schools have started the school year without adequate staffing, according to parents of special education students and the Montclair Education Association. 

The district’s interim director of special services, David Goldblatt, told Montclair Local on Sept. 30 that as of Tuesday, Sept. 28 (the date this article was originally published), there was “a grand total [of] four special service teacher vacancies in a [Montclair Public Schools] professional services staff of over 1,000.” An email message from Goldblatt didn’t say how many special services teaching positions the district had in all, and he declined to provide further clarification when asked in a follow-up message.

Goldblatt also didn’t say how many paraprofessional positions were open, but said the need for paraprofessionals is based on students’ individual education plans. He said there’s always a need for paraprofessionals when clinicians return from absences over the summer and complete IEPs that were in process in June.

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Teachers have been hired for three four vacant teacher positions, “but their present districts have huge teacher vacancies” and haven’t yet released them, Goldblatt said. Those teachers are set to begin on Oct. 7, Oct. 25 and Nov. 22, he said.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds hadn’t responded to messages from Montclair Local asking how many positions remain vacant prior to the initial publication of this article.  

Officials said at a Sept. 20 Board of Education meeting they were “working desperately” to fill positions, and that the problem is part of a statewide teacher and staff shortage — not due to the district’s negligence. District officials also didn’t discuss exact numbers of vacancies at that meeting. 

Montclair Education Association president Cathy Kondreck spoke about the issue at the meeting. Some special education students are not receiving instruction in core content areas, some substitute teachers come to class late and students are left spending hours on their phone and computers, she said. 

Kondreck said an alarmed staff member pulled her aside on the first day of school, admitting she was scared. She didn’t clarify if that staff member worked with special education students.

“She said, ‘I’m scared I’m gonna have to start telling the truth about what is really going on,’” Kondreck told the BOE.

With missing staff, the district is out of compliance with students’ individualized education plans, Kondreck said.Paraprofessionals provide additional classroom support for students. Many education plans require a student to be paired one-to-one with a paraprofessional throughout the day. 

Montclair Local asked Goldblatt Sept. 30 to address Kondreck’s assertion the district was out of compliance with IEPs, but he declined to do so.

“While the district has promoted its plan for addressing social and emotional learning consistently this year, they have left the group of students with the larger social and emotional needs in our district in the worst of situations,” Kondreck said at the meeting. “Our special education students are not being serviced in the way they deserve.” 

The district has hired all the paraprofessionals needed, Damen Cooper, the district’s director of personnel, said at the meeting. He didn’t address how many other staff positions remain open.

“We are working desperately to ensure everything is staffed,” Cooper said. “This is an ongoing process.” 

But as of Tuesday, the district’s hiring website listed 21 job openings for special education staff — four paraprofessionals and 17 teachers. There was also a job opening for a supervisor of special education. 

New job postings are being published daily, “many of which should have been filled months ago,” Kondreck said at the board meeting. 

In July, the district announced it would be making major changes to special education following a third-party audit that found racial disparities in how often children are classified as needing services, problems with communication and inequitable student experiences across the district’s schools.

Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council leaders told Montclair Local they are in communication with parents, the MEA and district administration to better understand the situation.

“We will not mince words, what is happening is unacceptable at all levels,” The Montclair SEPAC Leadership Team said in a joint message to Montclair Local. “We are here to work with [the district], but we can not and will not stand by and allow our community to be forgotten.”

Kondreck, at the board meeting, pointed to the district’s cuts of 36 staff members last May, 23 of whom the union has previously said worked in special education.

Ponds said at the time the district might find it needed to hire back staffers over the summer, as needs for the school year became clearer. But In June, then-MEA President Petal Robertson told Montclair Local the district would struggle to hire back staff, as those dismissed would likely secure work elsewhere. 

“Not only is it demoralizing, it also doesn’t work,” Robertson, who stepped down from the MEA presidency to become secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association, said at the time.

In late August, the MEA told Montclair Local 29 of the 36 staffers had either been offered their Montclair jobs back, or hired by other districts, but didn’t say how many were in each category. Kondreck has not responded to questions about staffing from Montclair Local sent to her MEA address since Sept. 9.

At the Sept. 20 meeting, board members approved the hiring of a special education teacher at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, a position that Cooper said has been empty for almost two years. The class had been staffed by a long-term substitute teacher, he added. 

The teacher will begin Nov. 22 and a former Renaissance special education teacher will take over until then, SEPAC leaders said they were told by the district. 

Cooper said he takes the staffing of special education classrooms seriously, as a former special education teacher and state monitor for the special education department of the New Jersey Department of Education. 

“We have hired all the paras that are needed,” Cooper said. “Please know that this was not anything that was negligent.”

Cooper has been working with hiring agencies, principals and the district’s interim director of pupil services, David Goldblatt, to find staff for the district, Ponds said at the board meeting.

“Many districts in the state have been experiencing staffing challenges and shortages,” Ponds told Montclair Local. “We have been able to staff classrooms with quality personnel.”

Kondreck said the students are already weeks behind in their studies and their routines.

“These children who are deserving of an excellent Montclair education are already weeks behind their grade-level peers, not just in academics but in the natural routine that gets established in the transition back to school,” Kondreck said. “Unlike their grade-level peers, they will not bounce back quickly from a setback of this magnitude.” 

Other districts are hiring first-year teachers at the salaries usually set for teachers who’ve been in place a decade because the need is so high, Cooper said at the meeting. For the 2021-2022 school year, New Jersey reported teacher shortages in special education to the U.S. Department of Education, alongside shortages in career and technical education, English as a Second Language, math, science and world languages.  

On Sept. 24, a new state law was signed by Gov. Murphy directing the New Jersey Department of Education to establish a five-year pilot program allowing teachers without their full certification to be hired.