Kids to Montclair schools: ‘Save our teachers. Stop giving excuses’
Art teacher Sona Yeghiazaryan won’t be returning to Hillside Elementary School next year. She’s one of 83 school employees who received notices in mid-May, saying the district wasn’t offering them their jobs for 2022-23 — at least not yet.
Whether the district ultimately offers Yeghiazaryan a position for the coming school year — as officials say the school district will for many of those who received notices — is a moot point, for her personal planning. She’s already accepted a position outside the district.
“The way the situation has been handled really, truly shows disregard for the humans that are involved in this,” Yeghiazaryan said outside Monday night’s school board meeting at the George Inness Annex of Montclair High School, where dozens of students and parents had gathered for a “draw in” in support of a teacher and art program they love.
Those humans, she said, are the staffers and families affected by cuts.
Monday, students and parents drew chalk on the sidewalk, with messages such as “Art Saves Lives.” They put together paper flowers, to decorate a paper tree, since “Mrs. Y” often conducted projects with paper flowers in the classroom.
They’re not the first to come to the school board with worries about art funding in recent weeks, to protest potentially losing teachers they love or seeing programs compromised, and to voice concerns about a decision-making and budget process they say was too delayed and not transparent enough.
At a May 26 meeting, several rallied around the 83 staffers, expressing particular concern about the arts.
But when they went inside, school officials said once again — as they have several times over the past month — that programs aren’t in danger of being cut.
“We want to reassure again that we will have the programming that we currently have in our building,” schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told those who’d gathered for Monday’s meeting. “There will be art at Hillside. There will be art at Glenfield. These programs will exist.”
Under state law, districts have until May 15 of each year to warn nontenured teachers and other staffers their contracts aren’t being renewed, even if those plans might change as school officials continue working on schedules and finances. The cuts were part of an effort to stabilize the staff size and head off substantial nonrenewals in years to come, Ponds said at a May 16 school board meeting.
But the district was still working through its plans, he said at the time, and all individuals who’ll be rehired would be notified by June 30.
Max Mellman, a music teacher at Edgemont Montessori School and the acting secretary of the Montclair Education Association, said staffers had been promised they’d receive contracts through an online system by June 15 — but he said that didn’t happen, and that school officials haven’t explained why it chose the people they did for offers.
But Damen Cooper, the district’s director of personnel, said contracts for union-affiliated staff members were put into the online system by June 17. He also said he was trying to have nonaffiliated staff contracts available on or after July 1.
In early May, Ponds said 26 teachers would get nonrenewal notices, but he didn’t initially address how many other staff members would get notices as well. Days later, he announced higher figures — 35 teachers (he said the number was adjusted after staff reviews) and 48 paraprofessionals.
District officials haven’t said how many of the people have since been offered their positions back, or ultimately how many of those 83 positions they now expect to keep. Montclair Local sent Ponds a message early Tuesday, looking to confirm the availability of contract offers in the electronic system, asking for any available update on how many positions would be retained, and whether the Hillside art position specifically would continue.
Ponds, via his secretary, sent back a one-line reply that didn’t address most of those questions: “All schools will continue to have their programming and will be staffed appropriately.”
At Monday night’s board meeting, several students and parents continued to voice their concerns about possible cuts and a process they said left them in the dark.
“I’m very sick and tired of people telling me that I do not understand this budget,” Zoe Cohen, a fifth grader at Hillside, said. “I feel as I’m sitting here, the irony of all the principals and teachers going up and talking about all the amazing teachers here and yet a lot of them are getting cut. Save our teachers. Stop giving excuses.”
Jade Roman, a member of Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council, questioned how cuts might affect children in special education, saying the uncertainty caused “additional stressors such as ‘Will my child have a paraprofessional?’ and ‘Will there be a trained dyslexia professional in the building?’and ‘Will there be a bus available?’”
Ponds said Monday night the district was “working diligently to bring staff back where we can.”
“We’re doing it thoughtfully within a pattern of strategy,” he said. “We know that it is hard when individuals lose their jobs. It’s difficult. … However, you got to be responsible fiscally. This takes hard decisions, decisions no one wants to make but have to.”
For some parents at Monday’s meeting, those assurances weren’t enough.
“Even though we found out now that Ms. Y may have found another position, that exactly proves our point,” Royd Climenhaga Word, parent of a fifth grade student at Hillside, said. “We've lost the opportunity to retain a great teacher.
“And sure, maybe they can keep the program going, but they have to rebuild every year now. They have to kind of recondition and push everything again from a different perspective and rebuild the trust with the students and the way the programs are working.
“We had that in place and we've lost it because of the board's inaction. And that's what's caused us to be in the position we're in.”
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