Pre-K discussion leads to tense moment between Montclair BOE members
By ERIN ROLL
The future of Montclair’s pre-K program came up for discussion at the Feb. 7 Board of Education workshop meeting, but not without some tense moments over the subject of money.
The board presented a first draft of a resolution concerning the district’s pre-K program. If approved, the resolution will have the board support all state and local efforts to provide public money for pre-K, and have the district begin exploring how to implement a range of publicly financed pre-K options.
Montclair became one of the first towns in New Jersey to start a public pre-K program in the 1970s. But the district was forced to cut the program in 1996 because of budget issues. In 1998, the Montclair Community Pre-K was founded to help meet the need.
Board member Jevon Caldwell-Gross said that he agreed with the resolution but that he wondered if the board should start looking into public pre-K once the new superintendent was in place.
“Why wouldn’t we be looking at preschool?” board member Jessica de Koninck asked. “I think we’re really just talking about the end date.”
The conversation became tense when board member Joe Kavesh mentioned the subject of financing.
“Show me the money,” Kavesh said.
“What in this resolution do you think we can’t afford right now?” de Koninck asked. “To say that we don’t have the money is to say that we don’t have the money for a lot of things. Maybe I’m an idiot but I’m not seeing what in this resolution is a cost item.”
Board member Anne Mernin said that even though there were still questions about whether the funding would go through, it was possible that the board could get some useful data out of an early discussion of pre-K expansion.
“Just to answer you, Joe, this is not about finding money in a local budget for preschool expansion,” board member Eve Robinson said, adding that the state was providing financing opportunities for districts seeking to expand their pre-K offerings. She then went into detail about the founding of Montclair’s pre-K system and the MCPK.
She said that Montclair had been the first district in the state to implement the theory of multiple intelligences in its pre-K program. “We need to get back to being the fine early childhood district that we once were,” she said.
Robinson said that the resolution was to prepare Montclair to be eligible to receive money from the state.
“So we have always had a commitment to public pre-K that has always been backed up by public dollars. Your tax dollars, Joe, have been paying for public pre-K for 20 years,” Robinson said.
The audience applauded at the end of Robinson’s speech.
“Thank you for the history lesson. I, of course, grew up in this township,” Kavesh said, adding that he had attended Nishuane, Bradford, Hillside and Glenfield. “So do not ever lecture me about the township,” he said. “I will forget more about Montclair than you will ever know. I stand by my concerns, my fiscal concerns, they are valid and I stand by them.”
Kavesh’s remarks were met with some murmurs and head-shaking from the audience.
In the public comment period, Stephanie Fitzgerald, the executive director of the MCPK, thanked the board for considering a resolution. “We would do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we didn’t get going now,” Fitzgerald said.
Diane Anglin, a former member of MCPK’s board of trustees, also thanked the board for considering the resolution.
“To your point, Mr. Kavesh, it actually saves money in the long run, if we invest in the kids early,” Barbara Reisman said.
In a follow-up interview Tuesday, Kavesh said, “I take my role as a trustee very seriously. It’s an enormous responsibility. I approach every issue that comes before the board with a few things in mind. Is this in the best interest of our kids? Is this something that’s in the best interests of the district? And is this something that the district can afford?” He added, “Publicly funded Pre-K for three- and four-year-olds is a noble and wonderful concept. Whether we can afford it as a district in 2019, 2020 and beyond is another question. I take the district’s finances very seriously. I wish that money grew on trees, but it does not.”
Robinson declined to comment further on the matter on Tuesday.