By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The new task force Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller formally announced Monday morning has a big, broad job: Helping shape the environment to which the township’s public school students will return for full-time classroom instruction this fall.
And there are big, broad questions that will define its scope: How often the group will meet, how long it’ll exist, what its public engagement efforts will look like, what topics it’ll tackle, when it’ll begin recommending policy.
What exact issues the “Full Time Task Force” takes on and how its work ultimately filters out to other township entities — including the school district administration and Board of Education — are decisions to be made as the group gets going, Chair Debra Jennings said. The current lineup, appointed by the mayor, includes parents, students, educators, district administrators and school board members — but could expand to bring in more voices, Spiller said.
What’s not in question: Students are slated to return in the fall. Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy said he’ll be rescinding portions of his Executive Order 175 after this school year — in so doing, requiring all New Jersey public schools to provide full five-day in-person instruction, as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, who’ll be among the task force’s members, had already said he expects the same.
“We’re back,” Spiller said. “We’re coming back. That’s not the debate, that’s not the discussion here.”
Both he and Jennings said the goal, then, isn’t to determine when or if students return — but to provide input on what Montclair schools can offer when they do. That means looking for improvements that go above and beyond the pre-pandemic status quo. Among their areas of focus: the impact of long-term remote learning.
Students were out of classrooms for more than a year. A planned return for hybrid learning in January was put off when members of the Montclair Education Association refused to return, citing coronavirus safety concerns. The district sued, and the parties settled, ultimately resulting in a start of hybrid learning for elementary school students in April. Middle schoolers started their own hybrid schedule this month, and high school freshmen were slated to start theirs May 19.
Montclair school officials have no plans to resume full-time learning this academic year, though a group of families has filed a lawsuit aiming to make that happen.
Throughout the union-district conflict, Spiller — also the current vice president and incoming president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association — often found himself facing questions from media and the public about a return to schools. He said repeatedly he personally supported a return once all parties agreed it could be done safely, but that it wasn’t his role to dictate policy to the district or MEA. And as recently as a May 4 Township Council meeting, he told parents urging a return to schools he and the council “do not have a role in any policy decisions including opening or closing schools, setting up parameters around safety, anything else that would be related to schools. That is the purview of the superintendent. We’ve got very clear lines in every town, and here in Montclair.”
And the mayor’s new task force won’t set policy or have formal authority over school operations. It will, however, be able to make recommendations to the school district or other entities.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Spiller hadn’t provided a full list of task force members, but among them are Ponds and school board President Latifah Jannah. It also includes school board members Spiller appointed himself, as Montclair’s form of government gives mayors responsibility to do: Allison Silverstein, who joined the board last year, and Crystal Hopkins, who joined the board Monday night with two other new appointees (all together, Spiller’s selections now account for four members of the seven-person board). The task force will include Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, serving as the mayor’s representative.
Jennings, the chair, served as a Board of Education member in the early 1990s, stepping down when her husband was hired by the district; he’s now acting principal of Renaissance Middle School and slated to become the next principal of Buzz Aldrin Middle School. She’s a longtime special education and equity advocate who’d been executive director of the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network for 18 years.
She’s a founder of IMANI, which offers educational support programs to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students in Montclair, and a co-convener of the 1990s-era advocacy group Concerned African American Parents at Montclair.
She noted one issue in particular the task force is likely to address: “We have to look at what needs to happen with the buildings. I mean … you can’t escape that at all.”
The condition of school buildings had been a sticking point in the district’s dispute with the MEA, which wanted proof the district had done enough to mitigate coronavirus safety concerns, including antiquated ventilation systems. Montclair High School saw a stairwell collapse in 2018; others were closed off and repaired afterward as well. And as reported by Montclair Local this month, a buildings and grounds supervisor has alleged repair work was often neglected in buildings throughout the school system in recent years, putting students’ and staff members’ safety at risk.
Spiller cited another example of a topic the task force might take on: “For the summer, what can we do in terms of educational programming for our students? What can that look like in terms of partnerships between the schools and the town, even among an academic-slash-recreational program?”
Some work has already been done on that front. The district is planning a slate of optional summer enrichment programs, as well as summer school classes for students identified as needing to catch up on credits. Officials with the Montclair Community Enrichment Center at the Wally Choice Center — a program that helps students with remote schoolwork, created in a partnership between the township and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. — are hoping for district support with a summer program as well.
Jennings likened the task force’s coming priority-setting to the home improvement show “Clean House.” It’ll need to create piles to “keep, discard and maybe think about a little bit more,” she said.
An event to announce the task force didn’t feature any school officials as speakers, though Ponds, Jannah and others were among those lined up alongside Spiller and Jennings. Ponds, asked if district officials had been involved in the creation of the task force, said he’d received an email about it and welcomed a chance for parties to work together.
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-11, and Michael Gray, district director for Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-10, spoke of the Congress members’ work securing federal support for school infrastructure and coronavirus safety measures, such as the more than $6 million slated for Montclair schools under the American Rescue Plan. Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who like Sherrill is a Montclair resident, spoke of the county’s work to make vaccinations widely available. All described their advocacy for vaccinating teachers as a key step in moving toward a safe reopening.
Both Jennings and Spiller said while school policy is ultimately the purview of the Board of Education, they hope the task force can be a vehicle for public participation and a bridge among several groups. Members might, for instance, meet with Montclair’s PTA Council, its Civil Rights Commission or its NAACP chapter, Jennings said.
Parents can speak with the school board during the three minutes each is afforded during public comment sessions, Spiller said, “but sometimes an email or three-minute window is not enough to truly engage.” And Jennings said it’s unfortunate that sometimes families feel that’s their only avenue to feel heard.
“It’s important for this process to be as transparent, accessible and inclusive as possible,” she said.