By ERIN ROLL
The Montclair school district will file a lawsuit against the Montclair Education Association, aiming to force teachers back to classrooms that the union contends aren’t yet safe.
Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said, in a statement released Tuesday, that in spite of “good-faith mediation” — started after the MEA’s members voted not to come back for a planned resumption of in-person learning — no resolution had been reached.
“The status quo cannot continue; therefore, and with the support and direction of our Board of Education, I see no other option but to instruct our legal counsel to file a lawsuit against the MEA for a physical return to school,” Ponds wrote in a community message posted to the district’s website. “It is with a heavy heart that I take this action, having only served the community, the parents and guardians, my teaching staff, and students since July 2020.”
Late Tuesday, the MEA said it was “sucker-punched by a district that cries wolf,” saying there were “mounds of proof of the district’s negligence in preparing buildings for students” and accusing Ponds of violating the conditions of a confidentiality agreement as mediation between the parties continued. It said Ponds’ mentions in community messages like the one released Tuesday of his plans for a return don’t take into account students’ or teachers needs for safety or scheduling, and include information on his ideas for a return “without context and [ignoring] the fact that he has failed to consider the important details needed
to make such a plan work.”
“And, as for going to court, the Superintendent has threatened us with litigation time and time again, despite our many requests to handle our differences through restorative practices,” the MEA wrote in its response.
See the full statements at the bottom of this story.
Montclair students have been on all-remote learning since March of last year, when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey. Since then, multiple plans to resume in-person classes on hybrid plans — with some students present, and others remote at any given time — have been delayed. Elementary schools were most recently expected to resume hybrid learning Jan. 25, and older students were expected to come back Feb. 8. But last month the union’s members refused, and Ponds conceded in another community bulletin Jan. 22 he wouldn’t have the staff to bring kids back to classrooms.
The MEA has contended classrooms aren’t yet safe, citing community spread of the coronavirus, and aging ventilations systems a report in the fall said would ultimately cost $26 million to fix. While the district has purchased 400 air purifiers, repaired windows so they can be opened up outside and instituted safety practices, the MEA contends the district hasn’t been transparent enough with its plans to satisfy the union’s concerns.
Ponds said the district had offered several solutions during the mediation process, including using only rooms that had fully functioning HVAC systems and ventilation, proposing that kindergarten and special education classes start the school year with in-person learning at Charles H. Bullock School, and allowing teachers to report for in-person instruction for four hours then work the remainder of the day remotely and off-campus.
“We continue to provide additional documentation through our mediator and our talks remain open. We understand the MEA’s need to feel certain that the district has secured a safe working environment,” Ponds wrote in his statement Tuesday.
Ponds said also that mediation talks with the MEA and the mediator will continue despite the filing of the lawsuit.
The district is one of about 270 school districts in the state that are fully remote.
The MEA informed its members in an email last week that the district was preparing to take the matter to court, but at the time, neither the MEA nor the district provided any specifics on legal action.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a contentious debate between the schools, the MEA, and the community over whether to reopen the schools following the 10 months of closure.
More than 100 parents and elementary-age students gathered outside of Montclair’s Edgemont Montessori School Jan. 25 for a protest organized by Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning — or FAIL — a group dedicated to getting the district’s children back into the classroom. For months, FAIL has been circulating a petition to return students, with more than 730 signatures as of Saturday afternoon.
The NJEA in January started a letter-writing campaign, urging the district to keep schools closed. It too gained hundreds of participants, though the campaign no longer appeared to be online Saturday. In response to the NJEA campaign, parent Carolyn Corbran and others launched their own petition via the website Action Network, under the name “Concerned Parents and Community Members of Montclair, NJ,” calling for hybrid and in-person learning to be made available. It had nearly 600 participants Sunday.
At a school board meeting last month, MEA members blamed the district for not being transparent enough, and urged school leaders and the community not to demonize teachers. Some parents and students praised Ponds and the district for their plans, at the time, to move ahead with the Jan. 25 opening. Some said it was long overdue, citing the emotional and educational difficulties their children were experiencing out of the classroom. Some parents struck a cautious note, asking for more information about safety precautions, or backing teachers who didn’t feel safe going back. And some just lamented the acrimony developing.
The dispute in Montclair has caught the attention of regional and national news media, including the New York Times.
“If we maintain the status quo, no one prevails. Our staff is discouraged and defeated. Our parents are frustrated. There is a rift in the relationship between our community and our educators. I cannot in good conscience support this status quo. When forced to make a decision between competing interests, I will always do what is best for our students,” Ponds wrote. “I implore our teachers to return to the classroom for the benefit of our students, those who we have all been called to serve. And, I am committed to forging a trusting relationship with the MEA, the staff, and the community.”
The MEA said Ponds’ message implies “that the staff is not teaching or working, that we don’t care about the students, and that there is a rift between the parents and us.”
“He couldn’t be further from the truth. We absolutely care about our students, which is why we have been asking for documentation that the schools are ready since October because we want to ensure the best learning environment for both students and staff,” the MEA wrote.
Also Tuesday, a watchdog group critical of the MEA criticized Mayor Sean Spiller — vice president of the statewide union — alleging he’s siding with the union over the township. Spiller, who has said many times he’s sympathetic to all sides of the debate and hopes to see a consensus over when and whether teachers can return safely, said he wouldn’t respond to what he called “a neo-conservative, right-wing organization dedicated to attacking public education.” The group’s group rejects that categorization.