By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

The nine candidates running in the March election for two open seats on the Montclair Board of Education emphasized one main idea — board members must engage with and listen to all stakeholders — during a forum on Thursday night, Feb. 17. 

Facilitating conversations with everyone from teachers to parents to community members without direct connections to the school district will be essential to securing funding, improving the curriculum and increasing transparency, the candidates said.

The virtual forum, co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the Montclair chapter of the NAACP, was moderated by Marlene Sincaglia, a member of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit. The nine candidates introduced themselves and took turns answering questions.

Running are Yvonne Bouknight, Jerold Freier, Holly Shaw, Melanie Deysher, Noah Gale, George C. Simpson, Phaedra Dunn, Jennette Williams and Lauren Q. Griffin.

Voters will choose among the candidates in a special election March 8, to fill terms that will end in January of 2024 after Montclair’s recent conversion from a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to a Type II district with an elected board of nine. 

The importance of communication was mentioned over and over by the candidates, as they each spoke to the need to create connections.

“We’re obviously a town full of very passionate people and a lot of opinions,” Shaw said. “The biggest issue the board faces right now and something we need to focus on is making sure people feel heard.”

Shaw has been involved in the Watchung School PTA and the Watchung playground committee, and helped fundraise for various district efforts, according to a questionnaire posted on the Montclair PTA Council website

But board members should focus on listening to what stakeholders have to say, not responding, Dunn said. Dunn is one two candidates — along with Deysher — who is backed by Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put a question on last November’s ballot asking if Montclair should have an elected board.

“We have to first recognize one another as a stakeholder and not view another stakeholder’s piece of the pie being greater,” Dunn said. “We all share the same pie, with the same goals of wanting our students to do well and to just feel great about school.”

Dunn is a licensed therapist who has been a member of the Montclair PTA Council, the Renaissance at Rand Middle School School Action Team for Partnership and PTA, according to her questionnaire response on the PTA Council website. She is also one of the co-founders of Montclair Moms of Color, a group created to give voice to those who have felt unheard, the questionnaire said. 

By listening to the community’s concerns, board members can distill the root issues and come up with creative solutions, Simpson said. Simpson is a creative director who has spent his career working in a variety of content areas, according to his questionnaire response. He is also an assistant den leader for Montclair’s Pack 12 Cub Scout troop, the response said. 

“The answer is not to try to get people to tell you their solution, but to tell you what their concern is,” Simpson said. “Anytime you’ve got divergent viewpoints, what you almost always have is different ways to say the same thing.” 

The board can facilitate these conversations by holding forums, scheduling meetings with parents and creating spaces where everyone can feel heard, Gale said.

Gale, a Montclair High School graduate and Montclair State University student, would be the youngest person ever to serve on the board and the first college student on the board. He has volunteered as a paraprofessional and an intern for schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and been involved in a variety of events held by the district.

Keeping communications clear and concise is also important, Freier said. Freier is an adjunct professor at Rutgers, Montclair State University and Caldwell University, according to his questionnaire. He has served on the Montclair school board, the Township Council and the Planning Board.

In the past, the district has overcommunicated, sending so many emails that people no longer wanted to open them, he said.

“We have to narrow down and focus on what we send and who we send it to or nobody’s going to read it,” Freier said.  

As Montclair Board of Education members continue to plan for a capital improvement bond referendum that would include at least $15.5 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades across the district, many of the candidates emphasized the importance of garnering community support for addressing what they see as the most pressing issue for Montclair schools. 

“The bond referendum in itself is like a candidate,” Dunn said. “We do need to get out in the community and help everyone understand the importance of the referendum and how it impacts our community as a whole.”

Getting out in the community is essential to the success of the referendum measure, Griffin said. Talking about potential pros and cons of the bond measure face-to-face will let the community know why the referendum is important, she said. 

Griffin has been a long-term substitute teacher at Northeast School and has been involved with the Northeast PTA and the Northeast School Action Team for Partnership, according to her questionnaire response. 

“We all know the benefit of having someone come in to talk,” she said. “Hearing what someone says in a message or an email is nothing.”

Community conversations should also focus on the district’s budget, Williams said. 

Williams has worked for the school district in many roles — teacher, substitute teacher trainer, grant writer and more. She recently served as the education director of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area. The organization said she has temporarily stepped down from her committee chair role, and will do so permanently if elected. The League said it does not endorse any candidate.

Utilizing Montclair’s corporate population, visiting the town’s houses of worship and having conversations will open doors to new funding opportunities, Williams said. 

Other candidates were on the same page — community partnerships, grants and exploring other funding avenues will help to relieve taxpayers of some responsibility for district costs, they said. 

Bouknight recommended utilizing services within close range, mentioning partnerships with Montclair State University as an example. Bouknight is an educator with more than 40 years of experience. She has taught in East Orange, Irvington and Plainfield, and most recently worked as a reading specialist in Glen Ridge before her retirement in 2018. 

Shaw pointed out opportunities for federal and state grants that can cover a wide variety of costs. Freier suggested holding combined summer school programs with Montclair Kimberley Academy. 

Overall, the district needs to be more flexible, finding creative ways to address budget concerns, Simpson said. 

“The priorities need to be looking at infrastructure of the schools, making sure the schools are safe,” he said. “But also to talk to the teachers about the priorities. What do they need? See if we can fund those a little bit better.”

Budget solutions will be found in the data, Deysher said. Data about grant funding, testing and more will help the board to decide if the district is achieving the best educational outcomes possible, she said. 

“We need to use data, and we need to use it wisely,” she said. 

Deysher has been involved in the PTAs at multiple schools in the district. She has worked with the Montclair chapter of the NAACP, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and various dyslexia advocacy groups, according to her questionnaire response. 

When it comes to decisions about education best practices, many candidates said they would look to teachers. 

The district has hired professional educators and well-versed teachers who can develop a curriculum that speaks to the needs of all children, Bouknight said.

“They are the ones who decide the education and the curriculum here in this district,” she said. “Our children — their needs, their wants, their gaps — that is what drives the curriculum.”  

By not consulting teachers, the board would be doing itself a disservice, Shaw said. 

“They’re on the front line,” she said. “They should have a stake in the curriculum.”

Having good teachers and a good paraprofessional made all the difference in his own education, Gale said. That’s why advocating for teachers, getting them fair pay and the support they need, is one of his main goals, he said. 

“One of the things I would fight for on the board is to better serve special education students by employing more paraprofessionals,” Gale said. 

It’s also important that the Montclair Education Association members feel valued, Deysher said. 

“Teachers need a seat at the table,” she said. “When their opinions are truly valued and that’s shown in policy decisions that the board makes and the district follows through on, then I feel like union relations improve.”

But teachers don’t just need to be heard, they need to be given space to grow, candidates said. 

Montclair’s curriculum is tired, and teachers need professional development to inspire new ideas to bring to their classrooms, Griffin said. 

“We need to get them excited about teaching in a way that doesn’t require worksheets and worry to meet every child’s needs,” she said. 

Supporting teacher initiatives, offering teacher buddy systems and encouraging the sharing of best practices will help to support staff and allow them to feel valued, Williams said.  

“They’re the ones who tailor the recipe, the attire if you will, that the children need in order to have a fair, equitable education,” she said. “They should be in on the conversation.”

On Sunday, Feb. 27, the Montclair Clergy Association, Montclair African American Clergy Association and League of Women Voters will hold a forum with the candidates at 7:30 p.m. To register, see the link to a Zoom registration at lwvmontclairarea.org.

On the following day, Monday, Feb. 28, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council will hold a forum. More information will be made available at MontclairPTA.org/sepac.