The Board of Education is forming a new committee — called the Labor/Management Collaborative — intended to build upon the district’s relationship with the Montclair Education Association. 

“The relationship that the board and the district has with the MEA, we really want to make sure we work on repairing that relationship moving forward,” Board president Latifah Jannah said at a June 2 Board of Education meeting. 

The district would first seek to join the efforts of the New Jersey K-12 Public Education Labor-Management Committee, a project created by Rutgers, the New Jersey Schools Boards Association, the New Jersey Education Association and others. That statewide group works “to create labor-management district partnerships to enhance school level collaboration,” according to a Rutgers website on the effort.

Several districts are participating in a pilot program to create such partnerships, with more set to begin participation in the fall.

But the outgoing president of the MEA, Petal Robertson, said the announcement “felt like a performance” from a district that hasn’t done its part to mend relationships so far — though she later told Montclair Local it could be a helpful avenue for discussions.

The district-union relationship has seen conflict in recent months. MEA members refused to return to school buildings for a planned start of a hybrid learning schedule in January, citing coronavirus safety concerns. The district sued, and the parties eventually settled, making way for a staggered return to classrooms that began with elementary schools in April.

The two parties have worked together on other initiatives since — including an effort that saw about 200 teachers vaccinated in a partnership with township officials and Mountainside hospital. But other disagreements have continued. This week, for instance, the MEA issued a statement criticizing what it called “draconian cuts” to staff — including special education and arts teachers — and calling the district’s plan to consider calling back laid-off staffers over the summer “irresponsible.”

Jannah and former board member Eve Robinson brought the idea to the board after they attended a March event held by the Rutgers Collaborative School Leadership Initiative and sponsored by the New Jersey School Board and the New Jersey Education Association, Jannah said at the board meeting. 

New Brunswick, Clifton and Montgomery Township are among the many districts that utilize labor management collaborations in New Jersey. The collaborations are found to improve student performance and communication between teachers, administrators and unions, according to Rutgers Program on Collaborative School Reform

New board member Eric Scherzer will head the committee, selected because of his experience working in and with unions, Jannah said. Scherzer worked in management for the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local of the Service Employees International Union that represents physicians and fellows. As a manager, he sat across the negotiating table from the organization’s own union representation, from the Communications Workers of America.

Scherzer is waiting to hear back from the New Jersey School Boards Association on the possibility of joining the  New Jersey K-12 Public Education Labor-Management Committee effort, Jannah told Montclair Local on June 7. 

“I appreciate the difficulty of being in negotiations. I’ve been in many of them,” Scherzer said at the meeting. “The conversations I hope that we’ll have will be ones that restore the trust between the community and the MEA and the custodians and the principals.”

Robertson, who is leaving her MEA post to begin a two-year term as the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association in September, said she was surprised by the plan to create the new committee.

“I just wanted everyone to imagine being in a relationship and you and your partner have been having this constant conflict for almost 10 months,” Robertson said. “You tried to reach out to your partner, they said next to nothing. Then when you’re out together in public, your partner then says they pledge to mend the relationship and start anew but they never said anything to you.”

Robertson told Montclair Local June 7 the collaboration is “a wonderful thing” and could help ensure “every disagreement doesn’t have to be a fight.” But she said she wants to make sure the board does more than just talk about it. 

“It’s not always easy because we have to make sure that we’re speaking our truth and listening to each other’s truths,” Robertson said. “But we have to make sure it’s authentic or it’s not going to be sustainable.” 

Robertson said she had not yet been contacted by the board regarding the collaboration as of June 7. 

The district is “trying to work together” with the association, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the board meeting. There has been discussion about starting a podcast featuring the district and the association talking about how they can “build back better,” Ponds said. 

“We do have an open hand,” Ponds said. “We do want to work together.”

School Board Vice President Priscilla Church shared her support for the collaborative during the June 2 meeting and said she was “very disappointed” when she heard Robertson’s comments at the meeting. 

“I agree the past 10 months have been very acrimonious and very difficult, and very sad that it had come to that point,” Church said at the meeting. “I really hope that we can just rally in the fact that we’re putting it out there and then let it settle and then come together and get this done.”