It was an intense, often emotional, meeting for the Montclair Board of Education on June 7, as members of the community continued to protest a series of proposed school staff cuts that were first announced in March when the board was working on the budget.

The district has been considering eliminating at least 30 teaching positions and 50 paraprofessional positions. In mid-May the announcement of some specific cuts, among them the positions of athletic director at Montclair High School and assistant principal at Nishuane Elementary School, angered parents across the district.

The meeting lasted until nearly 11 p.m., as a long stream of audience members, mainly parents and teachers, came to the microphone to express their support for teachers and staff affected by the cuts, and to criticize the board for making the decisions that it did.

A large number of Nishuane parents, many wearing Nishuane T-shirts, attended the meeting to show support for Assistant Principal Evan Kozak. The district is planning to eliminate Kozak’s position at the school; initially, the plan had been to share Nishuane’s assistant principal among several of the elementary schools.

Karen Andes, the school’s PTA president, was the first of the speakers. In her statement, she noted that among all Montclair elementary schools, Nishuane has the largest proportion of K-2 students learning to read for the first time.

Several parents praised Kozak’s work as an administrator, and argued that the school and its students would be worse off without him.
Alison Silverstein, the parent of a special-needs kindergartner, became visibly emotional as she talked about her son. She said Kozak had assured the family that their son’s needs would be met at Nishuane.

“So imagine the surprise that myself and many of the parents have felt, to hear that there would be no assistant principal position next year,” Silverstein said. “This is essentially taking a piece of the foundation of our school away.”

Deirdre Birmingham agreed. “Many of us were caught off guard when we thought we were getting half of his time, and so we would like to know what happened to change this,” she said.

“People like him are hard to find. You know that,” said Gina Chung Fortt. “You’ve been looking for a superintendent for how long?” she asked, in a hint at the board’s long-running search for a full-time superintendent.

“He’s an absolute superstar. He seems to be everywhere, all the time,” said parent Steve Lucas.

The decision to eliminate paraprofessionals has generated heavy criticism.

Many of the parents who addressed the board have special-needs children who have benefited from the work of aides and other special education staff.

Rachael Quinn Egan thanked the special education staff for all the work they had done on behalf of her daughter, who is now heading to Rutgers. “Some that are being let go do not have tenure, but that does not mean they are not great teachers.” Egan said. “I cannot imagine what we will do without these 35 teachers and 50 paras and coaches, and this has not been explained to us so I am left to guess, to lose them in order to replace them with college graduates who cost less is bad news for our children.”

Samantha Mather, who has a son with special needs, became visibly emotional as she described how the district staff had worked with him.

The community has also been especially critical of the board’s decision not to renew the contracts of Montclair High School Athletic Director Jeff Gannon and Assistant Principal for English Kimberly Westervelt.

Walter Springer started a petition on calling for a review of Gannon and Westervelt’s planned termination. That petition garnered 1,050 signatures, and Springer presented the board with a hard copy of it.

Jeremy Michelitsianos, the head crew coach at Montclair High School, was among those who spoke on behalf of Gannon. “If he loses his job and we then employ another athletic director, because last week so many student athletes spoke up for Mr. Gannon, and at the end, it was alluded to that it was a budget cut. And as Mr. Springer said, this is not a budget cut. There will be an athletic director at Montclair High School next year.”

He noted that Gannon had continued to work as usual, even with the prospect of a nonrenewed contract.

Michelitsianos finished, “I just find it hard to read in the press, the local press, week after week how the BOE is being dragged through the mud, the school is being dragged through the mud by these — I realize there’s cuts, but what we should be doing is celebrating teams, sports teams at this school and our student athletes and their performances, and not reading about unjust cuts. I realize there has to be some, but this position will be here next year. This is completely different.”

Petal Robertson, a teacher at Montclair High School and vice president of the Montclair Education Association, noted that Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi had urged the board to look into hiring new staff members as existing staff retired. She noted that since March, 11 staff members have announced their retirement, and that their combined salaries equal at least $1 million. “Mr. Bolandi didn’t just recommend it, he strongly recommended it,” Robertson said.

Francine Moccio was particularly forceful in her criticism of the board. “I have nothing really of substance to add, except where all this points out, and points up, are all the contradictions here that’s been put before us, and the incoherency of the operation of this board. ... Maybe I’m suggesting we should have an interim board, with an interim president, and an interim vice president, and an interim whole Montclair public school district!” Moccio said. “Because we can run it much better...than you have!”

“It is very clear that very many people at Nishuane value Mr. Kozak,” said Board President Laura Hertzog. “It is also clear that people at Bradford value people they are losing. And at Bullock. And at Glenfield. And at Hillside. And at all of our schools that are being impacted.

“I think it’s wonderful that Nishuane parents are passionate and are able to be here. But to a point that was made earlier, I don’t want anybody to think that we didn’t hear you. We heard you.”

The decisions were very difficult ones, Hertzog said, and she acknowledged that the district had to make decisions that were unpopular.
“And there seems to be a perception that if things changed, we lied to you. And that’s not true.”