With the Montclair School District soon without a superintendent, and one open seat on the Board of Education, Mayor Robert Jackson attended the Montclair NAACP’s education committee to speak about the district’s future.

Superintendent Kendra Johnson announced in July that she would be departing the district to take a new job with the Howard County School District in Maryland. No date has been set for her departure.

About 50 people from the community attended the Aug. 1 meeting held at the Wally Choice Center, including various school staff, BOE Vice President Latifah Jannah and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville.

Jackson emphasized that although he has the capacity to appoint board members, he does not have any oversight in school-related business, including the hiring of a superintendent.

Jackson blamed Gov. Chris Christie’s 2011 two percent tax increase cap and superintendent pay cap — which in Montclair at the time was $175,000 — for driving many superintendent candidates out of New Jersey. Currently in Montclair, the superintendent salary can not top $191,584, which was Johnson’s salary.

Since the departure of superintendent Frank Alvarez in 2012, who had made $250,000 and left to head a district in New York, Montclair has had four superintendents, either on an interim basis or a full-time basis. Full-time superintendent Penny MacCormack replaced Alvarez in 2012. Interim Ronald Bolandi replaced MacCormack who left in 2015 to also take position out of state. Barbara Pinsak replaced Bolandi in 2017 as another interim. Johnson was hired as a full-time superintendent in May 2018.

The district may have a greater candidate pool this time, as in July the cap on superintendent pay ended with Gov. Phil Murphy signing a bill eliminating it.

As for the board of education opening which resulted when member and board president Laura Hertzog resigned in May, Jackson said there is no timeframe to appoint a replacement. By contrast, with an elected board, any vacancy must be filled within 65 days of the seat becoming vacant, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

NAACP Education Committee Chair James Harris, who moderated the evening, noted that Montclair is one of a very small number of New Jersey school districts with appointed boards, with most districts now having elected boards.

When selecting board members, Jackson said he looks for candidates who have a background in finance, law or education and have an overwhelming interest in Montclair schools and its students. “You’re there to be an advocate for the students.” A balance of genders and ethnicities on the board is also sought, he said.

Jackson said he did look at a board member’s voting record and BOE meeting attendance, in response to audience questions on the subject, but they were not given much weight when reappointments are made.

After the meeting, former BOE member Joe Kavesh said that he was not satisfied with the mayor’s remarks on board members histories.

“It is unconscionable and indefensible that Mayor Jackson acknowledged tonight that he does not examine board members’ voting records when deciding whether to reappoint them. I would think that, more than anything, how one votes on the BOE should matter. With this mayor, apparently not,” Kavesh said after the meeting.

In a subsequent interview, Jackson said, “I'm not a roll call Nazi or political boss. I never received a concern from any of the superintendents, board presidents or board members about the attendance of any board member at board meetings or committee meetings. If I had, and verified that concern, I would factor that into my decision making.”

All of the board members who voted in favor of Johnson becoming superintendent are no longer on the board. Kavesh was not reappointed in 2019. Franklin Turner resigned in 2018, amid allegations that he did not meet the district’s residency requirements. In 2018, Jevon Caldwell-Gross resigned after he and his wife took new jobs in Indiana. In May, Hertzog resigned midway through the BOE’s reorganization meeting denouncing what she saw as a toxic atmosphere with political maneuvering while serving on the board.

Some parents have appealed for the new board member to have children who are currently enrolled in the schools, particularly children who are in elementary or middle school. At the July 23 council meeting, parent Selma Avdicevic claimed that only one of the current board members has children in the public school system, alleging that the current members sent their children to private schools.

Avdicevic said Johnson is being forced to leave as superintendent because her work in equity did not have the full support of the BOE members. "We have a female superintendent, African American, highly educated, highly qualified for the position she held, leave town,” Avdicevic said, contending Johnson lacked the board’s support to fulfill her mission.

“That is the BOE you put in place," she said to the mayor.  "Robert, I am really really sorry to have to say this, but this falls into your lap."

The ongoing development in Montclair was also a topic of concern at the meeting, including affordability, and if the development would lead to an influx of new students.

Jackson said Montclair’s student enrollment has generally declined over the past six years. Furthermore, he said, it has been found that the new development in Montclair did not contribute substantially to the student population: on average, six students for every 100 units, but some of the audience members disputed this.

As previously reported in Montclair Local, a Rutgers report found that multifamily housing may not necessarily increase the student population.

An analysis of data provided by the schools found that older apartment complexes, such as Union Gardens, were more likely than newer high-rise complexes, such as The Siena, to have children in residence. The Rutgers data also concurred that as family income increases they are less likely to live in multifamily housing.

“I grew up in this town, born and raised, spent many hours in this park house as a young man,” Jackson said. He was raised by a single mother whose own education didn’t go beyond eighth grade. “My mother decided I was going to have a better life than she. I have a real living experience of what it’s like growing up poor. I’ve lived what a lot of people talk about.”