Penny MacCormack  and Robin SchlagerMontclair Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager held her second community meeting since regaining her Montclair Township Council seat in July 2012 at the Edgemont Park field house last night, where constituents brought up ward issues such as historic preservation and concerns involving municipal parks.  Councilor Schlager devoted the first thirty-seven minutes of the meeting, though, to her special guest, School Superintendent Penny MacCormack.

Dr. MacCormack explained that she was conducting a “listening tour” throughout the township, garnering feedback from residents.

Dr. MacCormack cited her vast experience as an educator, from her service as Chief Academic Officer at the New Jersey Department of Education to her various positions in Hartford, Connecticut, but said that alone was not enough for her new job.  “What I need to truly be ready in my mind for this position is to understand the community, understand the context,” she explained.  “Because I can know all the research and have all the knowledge I need, but I need to better understand the community I’m working in, in order to implement that well.”

She cited three fundamentals that guide her work in education: the belief that all children can learn based on hard work and application, continuous improvement of school systems, and the need to outline a specific, strategic plan to meet the goals of a school district that can be implemented.  She admitted, regarding the third point, that elements of a plan that are dropped once shown to be ineffective can be scary, because some district employees could lose jobs as a result.

Among the issues raised, a few of them were academic issues, while others brought up quality-of-life issues pertaining to the facilities.  Liza Cohn, a co-president of the Mount Hebron Middle School Parents Teachers Association (PTA), said that, with every child now having a feeder school to go, it’s important that each of the middle schools can embrace every kind of child rather than a specific sort, referring to cases where children are entered into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) schools.

“What happens is that, kids from those feeder elementaries feel like, ‘I’m not an engineering student, why should I have to be at that school?’ I think that every elementary school student should feel comfortable going that next level,” Cohn said.  She noted that the STEM sector is one of the six learning communities at the high school, and she felt that sending students from three elementary schools to a STEM middle school was not necessarily a good thing for all the students.

“Do I think it’s great that we would have a middle school that has an especially strong STEM component?  Yes, but I think as we consider the middle schools as a unit, I think each of them has to stand on their own,” Cohn added.  She added that each middle school draws strength from families that embrace them and feel comfortable in them, and that they should accommodate a more academically varied student body.

Selma Avdicevic, an unsuccessful candidate for Second Ward Councilor last year, asked about the proposal to hire deans of students, and Dr. MacCormack explained that, with principals asked to spend more time in classrooms to evaluate teachers, it would be beneficial to bring in lower-paid staffers to do the jobs that a highly paid principal doesn’t need to do.  Though Avdicevic appreciated Dr. MacCormack’s efforts to evaluate teachers, she suggested that a similarly serious consideration ought to be given to hiring a technology teacher at Watchung School, which currently doesn’t have one.  “For this school that is a science and technology magnet not to have a person teach technology is a little bit of a handicap, and we’re doing those children a disservice,” Avdicevic said.  She also made this much clear – contrary to the sentiments expressed at Monday’s school board meeting, she did not want to see tax increases to allow more school spending.

Nancy Iannace, a non-parent, expressed frustration that childless residents are not included in the conversation, when the schools affect everyone in the community.  She said that the individual schools themselves are part of their neighborhoods, and that those without children ought to be better informed of school expansions or field renovations that have an impact on local populations.

There was barely a mention of the ongoing deadlock in negotiations between the school board and the MEA teachers’ union, though resident Pat Kenschaft spoke out in favor of giving teacher’s aides health insurance.  Ms. Kenschaft, an environmentalist and local activist, also urged the school board to eliminate the use of leaf blowers on district properties.  In a related complaint, resident Phil Gordon complained about the “disgusting” accumulation of trash on the streets around Montclair High School from the local eateries students frequent at lunch.

Councilor Schlager admitted that this has been a problem for quite some time.  “The school has been very proactive about it,” she said.  “The principal sends out e-mails very often, reminding parents to please ask your kids to be respectful of the neighbors’ property.”  She added that Principal James Earle recognizes the high school as a neighbor to the adjacent homeowners and has personally asked students to be mindful of other people’s concerns.

“It doesn’t always work,” she lamented.

Councilor Schlager said the student cleanup crews and attempts to install trash receptacles in the neighborhood have been unsuccessful.  No one, however, suggested restricting students to high school grounds during lunch recess.

Dr. MacCormack, thankful for the feedback, left for another engagement, and the rest of the meeting was devoted to Second Ward issues, including the coming dredging project for Edgemont Park’s pond.  As the superintendent was leaving, however, Councilor Schlager focused her attention to Rand Park, adjacent to the high school’s George Inness Annex building.  She noted that many of the trees and bushes have been devastated by recent storms, along with a challenge course installed by the Greenwald family in honor of their late son David.  The town, the schools, and the Greenwalds are working in a partnership to install a patio, repave the walkways, and install trash cans and chessboard tables, along with a bush garden to attract butterflies, to make the park more appealing for students and other residents.