Parents, students worry Montclair schools are gutting the arts
(KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Students, parents and Montclair school district staff members continue to rally around the 83 staff members who were issued nonrenewal notices May 13.
The cuts, particularly those to the district’s arts teachers, will have a detrimental effect on students, school morale and the future of the district, community members said at a Wednesday, May 25 Montclair Board of Education meeting. Their objections came despite Superintendent Jonathan Ponds’ assurances that programming will not be affected.
It’s not clear, ultimately, how many positions the district will lose, since school officials say at least some of those issued nonrenewals would be hired back. Ponds said at the meeting that 13 nonrenewed staff members had already been hired back, and the district will continue to work on additional rehires, evaluations of retirements and scheduling in the coming weeks.
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 schedule.
The cuts were part of an effort to stabilize the staff size and head off substantial nonrenewals in years to come, Ponds had said at a May 16 school board meeting. All individuals who’ll be rehired will be notified by June 30, he said. Some of them would hear the next day, he said at the time.
But at the May 25 meeting, Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck said it wasn’t until that day that previously non renewed staff had started to receive contracts.
“People waited, they were hopeful,” Kondreck said. “And not one single person received a contract the next day.”
A Nishuane School teacher — Jenna Sier, who spoke in defense of her job at the May 16 meeting and was assured by Ponds at the time that her position was safe — has yet to receive a new contract, Sier said at the May 25 meeting.
But Ponds confirmed again that Sier’s job was safe — the curriculum support teacher is one of 14 to 16 staff members whose positions will be covered by Title I funding, he said.
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. And 48 of the nonrenewals were issued to paraprofessionals, Ponds told Montclair Local.
Ponds has not yet responded to a question sent May 12 to his district email asking to see a breakdown of the nonrenewals by position, department and school.
The future of art in Montclair is being threatened, Max Mellman, Edgemont Montessori School music teacher, said at the May 25 meeting. Mellman grew up in Montclair 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,” Mellman 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.
Montclair is a community that values the arts, Daniel Gerdes, Montclair High School art teacher and parent, said at the meeting. There’s a reason Montclair is home to many stars of the arts and entertainment industries, he said.
The arts provide students with a space to process their emotions at a time when doing so has never been more important, Gerdes said.
“How much time, energy and money has the district spent in its effort to promote social and emotional learning, only to eliminate some of the most readily available and essential resources and opportunities for students to experience just that?” Gerdes asked
By cutting arts staff, the district is depriving students of a safe outlet, he said.
“We as teachers, especially teachers of the arts, have a unique opportunity each and every day to empower students, give them a voice and teach them to express themselves, even the darkest parts of themselves,” Gerdes said. “In doing so, I'd like to believe that we are effectively preventing the need for violence of any kind, one interaction at a time.”
On May 24, the day before the meeting, Hillside School parent Heather Miller started a Change.org petition, collecting support for the school’s 38-year-old drum corps, Drums of Thunder, and the arts program, both which stood to be affected by the nonrenewals, she said at the meeting. As of the afternoon of May 26, the petition had garnered more than 740 signatures.
After a performance by Drums of Thunder during the meeting, Ponds confirmed that the program will continue next school year, led by the same teacher, Christopher Golinski.
More than a dozen students spoke out in support of nonrenewed arts staff members, sharing the impact the classes and teachers have had on their time in the district.
Hillside fifth grader Ella Word said she wanted to raise money for Hillside’s nonrenewed art teacher, Sona Yeghiazaryan, so she could stay at the school. Word said she started at Hillside this school year and Yeghiazaryan made her feel welcome.
“Ms. Y isn’t just a teacher. She's our friend, and we care about her,” Word said. “That's why we want her contract renewed, even though we won’t be at Hillside next year.”
Another Hillside student, Uche Obadike, said Yeghiazaryan is the best art teacher he’s ever had.
“She's one of the people that makes Hillside Hillside,” Obadike said. “Without her, I would not be as interested in art as I am today.”
Chloe Damaskos, a senior at Montclair High School, said the district’s art program has been a constant in her life.
“Ever since I can remember, I've loved art,” Damaskos said at the board meeting. “It's got me to college. It's got me through the lowest points in my life.”
Taking arts opportunities away from children “is horrible and indefensible,” she said.
Several students from Montclair High School’s School of Visual and Performing Arts spoke in defense of the program and its teachers, though Ponds said at the meeting that the program did not undergo any cuts and will continue in its current form.
The program’s long-time director Brenda Pepper was nonrenewed in June 2021, but rehired two months later.
The nonrenewals have triggered concerns about competition and equity in the district, parent Bridget Placek said at the meeting.
The cuts have pitted principal against principal and created “ugly resentment” between families and schools, as each school community argues why their staff and programs are most deserving of limited funds, Placek said.
“If the plan is to reinstate teachers and staff based on who receives the biggest public outcry, what happens to the paraprofessionals who don't work with 300 kids, who are doing the unsung and essential jobs?” Placek asked. “And the English as a Second Language teachers who work with 20 families, many of whom already have every challenge stacked against them?”
Parent Josh Katz asked that Ponds and board members consider the implication of cutting arts teachers from arts magnet schools. Katz grew up in Montclair and also attended the public schools.
“When we see the cornerstone of the [magnet] emphasis at Nishuane and Hillside and Glenfield being gutted, it's not just a hit against the students,” Katz said. “That's a hit against the diversity that everyone says they actually care about.”
At the meeting, board members shared their concerns about how the budget process has occurred this year and in years past.
The budget process needs work, board President Latifah Jannah said.
“Every year it’s always something,” Jannah said. “We wash, rinse, repeat every year.”
She said she is looking at effective budget processes in other districts — processes that begin budget work in September and involve the whole community.
“So whether it's March or April, when the budget is due and the board has to vote on the budget, there are no surprises,” she said.
Vice President Priscilla Church also spoke about the need to reform the budget process — “the process is our biggest problem right now,” she said. By creating school schedules and requiring retirement notices earlier, the district could better plan for the needs of the coming year, she said.
“We won't have to lay people off and put them in such an extreme position where they're wondering what the future is going to bring for them,” Church said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Board members Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming also called for changes to the process.
“There's something wrong about the process when we needed to tell them two weeks ago that they didn't have their jobs and now we're telling them that they do,” Scherzer said.
The district needs to be working on the budget throughout the year, taking stock of where deficits may arise, Weller-Demming said.
“Next year, we have to do better,” she said. “A budget is not a vault to open once a year and find out you have no money.”
District staff members told Kondreck that they have completed more than 200 class coverages this school year because of staffing shortages, Kondreck said at the meeting. The cost for staff members to cover 200 classes is more than $10,000, she said.
“[Dr.Ponds] you made decisions based on assumptions and your assumptions are wrong,” Kondreck said.
At the May 16 meeting, when Scherzer also questioned the state of the budget, Ponds said he’d previously relied on assurances from “former” Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano — possibly the first public acknowledgment Cipriano and the district had parted ways. Last month, the board hired acting business administrator Paul Roth at a rate of $835 per day, without explaining why the position was needed.
At Cipriano’s last meeting, the district hired an independent consultant to investigate a complaint alleging discriminatory statements were made by a Montclair school district staff member, but officials haven’t addressed whether those are related. Cipriano first began working with the district last year as a consultant investigating claims that other officials, including his predecessor, engaged in abusive workplace behavior.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chloe Damaskos' name.