In May, the Montclair school district issued 83 non-renewal notices — 35 teachers and 48 paraprofessionals were told they did not have a job for the 2022-23 school year. 

As of July 11, 21 teachers and 23 paraprofessionals have been rehired, according to Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck. 

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has not responded to emails sent to his district address since May 12 asking for a breakdown of the nonrenewals by school and department, how many new contracts were offered and additional questions about the nonrenewals. 

At a May 9 Board of Education meeting, Ponds announced that 26 nontenured staff members as well as an undisclosed number of paraprofessionals would be cut to make up a $3 million deficit in its 2022-23 budget. A week later, 83 nonrenewal notices were issued to 35 teachers and 48 paraprofessionals.

The nonrenewals were part of an effort to stabilize the staff size and head off substantial cuts in years to come, Ponds said at a May 16 board meeting. They were necessary while the district evaluated enrollment, scheduling and funding for the upcoming school year, he said.

Nonrenewal notices, issued to 83 staff members, were necessary as the district evaluated enrollment, scheduling and funding for the upcoming school year, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said. 44 of the nonrenewed staff have since been rehired. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO)
Nonrenewal notices, issued to 83 staff members, were necessary as the district evaluated enrollment, scheduling and funding for the upcoming school year, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said. 44 of the nonrenewed staff have since been rehired. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO)

In a presentation called “Stabilizing District Personnel,” Ponds said his plan is to break “the cycle of budgetary trauma year to year.” Despite the cuts, programming for students would not be affected, he repeated. 

But the large number of cuts came as a surprise to many — Kondreck called it “incompetency” and Board of Education members said they were taken by surprise. 

“I’m the chair of the committee of finance and facilities, and ought to know about this, and I must say that I had no idea that there were going to be anywhere near this number of nonrenewals,” Eric Scherzer said at a May 16 board meeting.

When Scherzer said Ponds had assured him the district wouldn’t face budget problems, the superintendent said that’s what he’d been told by former Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano. Cipriano hadn’t been at a board meeting since March 2, and in April the board hired acting business administrator Paul Roth at a rate of $835 per day, without explaining why the position was needed. 

According to Kondreck, the nonrenewal notices were issued to four teachers at Northeast School, three teachers and two paraprofessionals at Bradford School, three paraprofessionals at Edgemont Montessori School, one teacher and three paraprofessionals at Watchung School, two teachers and five paraprofessionals at Hillside School, four teachers and 13 paraprofessionals at Nishuane School, three teachers and one paraprofessional at Bullock School, two teachers and two paraprofessionals at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, six teachers and nine paraprofessionals at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, seven teachers and six paraprofessionals at Glenfield Middle School, two teachers and three paraprofessionals at Montclair High School and two paraprofessionals at the Developmental Learning Center.

Nearly half of the nonrenewed staff members were arts teachers — of the 83 nonrenewals, eight were issued to art teachers, four to music teachers and three to dance teachers, according to a May 15 email the Montclair Education Association sent to its members. 

Students, parents and Montclair school district staff members have spoken out in support of the arts teachers at board meetings and in online petitions, arguing the cuts will have a detrimental effect on students, school morale and the future of the district.

The future of art in Montclair is being threatened, Max Mellman, Edgemont Montessori School music teacher, said at a May 25 board meeting. Mellman grew up in the township and is a Montclair High School graduate. 

In a town defined by the arts, cutting art, music and dance teachers “is ridiculous,” Mellman said. And sharing arts teachers between schools will lead to disengagement, he said. 

“When a teacher starts working two separate positions in the name of efficiency, they care less, they tire sooner,” he said. “They become less of a part of the fabric of their school community.”

Every school deserves its own dedicated teachers, he said.

“Don’t tell us about efficiency,” Mellman said. “Any good educator knows that education takes time.” 

Mellman is also secretary of the Montclair Education Association, but said at the board meeting that he wasn’t speaking in his capacity as a union leader. 

The nonrenewal of Christopher Golinski, Hillside's music teacher and director of the school’s 38-year-old drum corps, Drums of Thunder, led to outcry from students, parents and teachers. After a performance by Drums of Thunder at a board meeting, dozens of comments about Golinski's impact and a petition that collected more than 740 signatures in two days on his behalf, Golinski was offered a contract for the 2022-23 school year. 

The nonrenewals will also have a significant impact on support for special education programs, Jada Roman, a leader of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said at the May 16 board meeting.

“We know today that many of the staff members that are being terminated include dyslexia experts; the most necessary and trusted professionals, as well as our paraprofessionals who know our children, are again on the chopping block,” Roman said. 

The nonrenewal decisions seem to have been made in a vacuum, she said. The Special Education Parent Advisory Council has repeatedly asked about processes, staffing concerns, communications and more, she said, but rarely have responses been given. 

“We as a community and as individuals know that you've heard us and our concerns, but question if you're really listening,” Roman said.

Northeast School curriculum support teachers Maryann Asaro-Ilardi and Oumelghait Jamai, both of whom got notices, said at the May 16 meeting they were the only Response to Intervention teachers at Northeast, helping students who performed below grade level by providing individualized and intensive assistance, Asaro-Ilardi said.

“A move to cut the support from this population is another example of how systemic inequity is enforced and maintained firmly in place,” Jamai said.

Asaro-Ilardi was offered a contract for the 2022-23 school year in June. Jamai has not yet responded to an email sent to her district address July 11 asking if she received a new contract.