Monday night’s board of education meeting showed signs that the 2017-2018 school year was getting off to a bumpy start in some regards.

Two staff members reported that staff morale at the schools was low, while a parent criticized the nutritional quality of the district’s food service, especially after parents reported seeing sodas in a school vending machine last week.

The schools will also be doing a district-wide locker inspection after a student at Hillside was injured by a falling locker on Friday.

Montclair High School teacher Thomas Manos, who is the vice chair of the Montclair Education Association, reported that the year had gotten off to “a rocky start, at best,” indicating that morale was low among the staff.

This winter, the district announced the possibility of cutting several teacher and staff positions; several of those staffers were hired back before the start of the school year. “We were happy to see a number of staff members rehired this year,” Manos said, but he added that those positions should not have been eliminated to begin with.

He also said that the staff had been told that there would be shared sacrifices among the teachers and the central office staff, but that he had seen a number of job postings for central office staff. He urged more transparency and communication: “The current methods are not working. Talk to us. Invite us in.”

“I’ve handed out boxes of tissues to four teachers as they cried how they can’t take it anymore,” said Petal Robertson, chair of the MEA.

She was also critical of a staff attendance policy that was due to come up for discussion at the meeting; the board did not immediately provide details of that policy.

Like Manos, Robertson called for greater collaboration and transparency. “If collaboration is what you truly desire, stop saying it at mikes, stop saying it at public meetings,” she said, and asked for the board to sit down and talk with teachers and staff.

Abraham Dickerson spoke at the microphone to criticize the board and district for a perceived lack of effort on encouraging healthy meal offerings from the district’s food service providers.

Last week, a photo was provided to the Montclair Local, appearing to show a vending machine full of diet sodas in the George Inness Annex’s atrium. But by Monday night, that vending machine had been emptied. “How is it possible that no adult sees sodas in the high school cafeteria, and no one says anything?” Dickerson asked.

Board President Laura Hertzog pointed out that the removal of the sodas was one indication that the board was in fact listening to Dickerson’s concerns. “I don’t want you to feel that just because we don’t give you a substantive answer, in this room, doesn’t mean we’re not listening, she said.”

“It’s not that people aren’t looking,” board member Anne Mernin said. “It won’t happen overnight. But people are looking.”

Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said after the meeting that she had been notified of the vending machine issue late last week, and that the district was looking into the matter.

Later in the meeting, Hertzog, in response to the audience’s comments, said that the board was taking the public concerns very seriously. “I’m distressed when people say we aren’t listening or we aren’t collaborating,” she said. She added that she herself was willing to look more closely into things if parents desired it.

Hillside locker accident
A student at Hillside had to be taken to the hospital on Friday after a locker came loose from its moorings on the wall and fell on them, Pinsak said.

Pinsak said the incident happened during a class transition time. She said that grounds crews worked over the weekend to replace all the anchors and moorings on lockers of that type, and she said that the district would be conducting a locker inspection in all schools with the assistance of an outside vendor. She also said that school principals had been instructed to have custodial staff keep their eyes open for any problems with the lockers.

As of Monday, Pinsak said that she could not comment on the student’s condition, citing confidentiality rules.

Homework policy
The district brought up the homework policy for a first reading. However, Pinsak said that it was possible that it may take six months to a year to finalize the regulations.

The district has been researching a homework policy for some time. A handful of parents provided input during a comment period this summer, and three schools have provided their own feedback.

“It’s complicated, as everything is, because people have different ideas of what homework should be, how much time should be allocated,” Pinsak said.

She said that some of the parents who gave their input had concerns about family time, or project-based homework assignments and whether all students would have access to the needed materials.

Mernin also noted that there was the subject of consistency: whether, for example, a second-grader at Bradford would have similar homework as a second-grader at Charles H. Bullock or Hillside.

Side Door
The meeting began with a presentation from Susan Thompson, the chair of the Side Door after-school program for middle-school students.

Side Door operates out of Union Congregational Church from 2:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays. The offerings include board and video games, indoor and outdoor sports, homework help, arts and crafts and movies.

Thompson said that most of the students attending Side Door tend to come from Buzz Aldrin. Sixty percent come from the 07042 zip code, and that it is mostly boys who attend.

June Raegner praised the program, saying that her three eldest children had gone through it.

She said that one negative effect of releasing children from school at an early hour was that according to the merchants, there were large numbers of middle school students running through traffic. She also suggested that the district look into publicizing Side Door to fifth-grade parents during the spring.

The Side Door presentation was part of an ongoing effort to showcase different community groups that work with Montclair’s children. “It takes a village, and I’d like more things that our village does to help our kids to be showcased,” Hertzog said.