Teachers, families reel at news of 83 Montclair schools nonrenewal notices
(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Montclair’s school superintendent says he issued 83 nonrenewal notices to staff Friday as part of an effort to stabilize the staff size and head off substantial nonrenewals in years to come.
Districts have until May 15 of each year to warn nontenured teachers and other staffers their contracts aren’t being renewed — even if they might later get offers to come back as administrators reshuffle schedules and rework spending plans.
And schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting that some could have offers to return as early as the next day. More would get rehiring notices by June 30.
But the sheer number of nonrenewals — including 35 teachers, up from the 26 Ponds said would be cut just a week prior — and the rapid changes to plans left educators and families attending Monday’s board meeting stunned and dismayed.
The head of the district’s teachers union called it “incompetency.” Board members themselves said they were thrown.
“I’m the chair of the [board’s] committee of finance and facilities, and ought to know about this, and I must say that I had no idea that there were going to be anywhere near this number of nonrenewals,” Eric Scherzer said.
When Scherzer said Ponds had assured him the district wouldn’t face budget problems, the superintendent said that’s what he’d been told by “former” Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano — possibly the first public acknowledgment Cipriano and the district had parted ways.
Cipriano, hired last summer, hadn’t been at a board meeting since March 2, and 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.
It’s not clear how many of the 83 positions — for 48 paraprofessionals as well as the 35 teachers — might ultimately be retained, or how many of those specific staffers might ultimately be asked to stay on. Ponds said he was still going through a process of making sure each teacher had a full schedule in his or her certificate areas — telling those at the board meeting that some haven’t — evaluating district needs and ensuring there’s enough funding to cover salaries.
But the New Jersey Education Association says the count of affected positions is four times as high as originally proposed in the district’s budget. Ponds said the increase in teachers, specifically, came after reviewing teacher evaluations.
The impact could be felt in class sizes. As things stand, the superintendent said, he’s planning around kindergarten class sizes of 21 students — up from 16 in the current school year.
He said in a presentation called “Stabilizing District Personnel that his plan is to break “the cycle of budgetary trauma year to year.”
‘Did not fulfill our obligation’
Board Vice President Priscilla Church said Monday the district “should really try to think of a new way” of carrying out budget cuts and nonrenewals. Staff members are unable to sleep at night, wondering if they’ll have jobs, she said.
“Unfortunately some of our best stars are our nontenured people because we’re getting better at hiring, and they’re getting better educated,” Church said.
Because of diversity hiring practices over the past few years, the district has gained teachers of color, Ponds said. But those staff members are not yet tenured and so are often first on the list for nonrenewal, he said.
By not renewing staff members, the district will lose those it had planned to renew to the competitive hiring market, board member Kathryn Weller-Demming said.
“It seems like a failure of leadership and administration,” Weller-Demming said. “I fear we did not fulfill our obligation for oversight as a board.”
Parent Diane Tehranian said by issuing nonrenewals only to quickly hire staff members back, it seems like the district just didn’t do the work to know who should and shouldn’t be nonrenewed.
“My issue is that the district waited until after the nonrenewals went out to communicate this or any other issues to the public,” Tehranian said. “The presentation tonight was wonderful, but it should have been shared weeks ago.”
Parent Andrew Gideon said this year’s budget process was one of the “most problematic” he’s seen in years.
By voting for the elimination of the Montclair Board of School Estimate — part of Montclair’s conversion from a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed school board to a Type II district with an elected one, approved in a referendum last year — Gideon said he had hoped board members would have more control over the budget. The BoSE, a separate body with representatives from the Township Council and school board, had final say over budgets previously.
“The members appear to be given access to more information than the public, but to have no greater input into the budget than any of the public did,” Gideon said. “Please don't make us regret that there is no longer a Board of School Estimate.”
In May 2021, the district issued 36 nonrenewal notices to staff members, more than half of whom were special education staff. Some of those positions returned in the fall and some of those staffers were rehired, but Ponds and Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck haven’t responded to messages sent since May 2 seeking a tally.
‘It’s a disgrace’
Jenna Sier, a curriculum support teacher at Nishuane School who received a notice, said Monday she never thought she’d be speaking at a board meeting, fighting for her job. Sier has taught kindergarten and first grade at Nishuane, and now works as a curriculum support teacher.
“Being a teacher is not a job to me. It is my life. It is something that I will never stop giving my all to,” she said. “I will sacrifice my sleep, my sanity, my own pursuits if it will bring a smile to a child's face and they gain confidence and knowledge.”
Three months ago, she was hired to be one of three districtwide reading interventionists, she said. Sier is also trained in the Orton-Gillingham system used to help students with dyslexia.
By cutting her position, she said, the district is “stealing a child the right to read effectively.”
Parent Danielle Lashley said Sier was the first person to show Lashley’s daughter, Lola, that reading was possible for her. Lashley hired Sier to tutor Lola after she was diagnosed with dyslexia in 2020.
“Sier would make Lola personalized notebooks, bring her rewards, and truly made Lola feel like teaching her was her favorite thing in the world to do,” Lashley said.
Lola called Sier is “the best of the best.”
“She was the one to really help me learn to read, and I love her,” Lola said at the meeting.
Another Nishuane parent, Kaylyn Keane, called Sier “magic.” Sier was Keane’s child’s kindergarten teacher, and she went out of her way to make sure her students were engaged and not losing traction in their reading development during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Keane said.
“During that dark time, I don't know what we would have done without her,” she said. “She kept our kids’ spirits up and their education moving forward.”
Keane said she’s seen Sier help students with dyslexia learn to read.
“You're not allowing an absolute gem of a teacher to leave,” she said. “It's a disgrace, and it’s going to fail so many future students at Nishuane.”
Yet Siers’ position won’t be eliminated, officials said. Instead, it’ll be covered by Title I funding. Ponds said the nonrenewal notice was related to budget changes as the funding shifted — leading board members to question why individuals whose positions would continue to exist got notices in the first place.
‘How systemic inequity is enforced’
Northeast School curriculum support teachers Maryann Asaro and Oumelghait Jamai, both of whom got notices, said they were the only Response to Intervention teachers at Northeast, helping students who performed below grade level by providing individualized and intensive assistance, Asaro said.
“As a Response to Intervention teacher, I see four to five students per period per day, five times a week,” she said. “We help those students who are struggling and may fall through the cracks.”
Without the help of Asaro and Jamai, students will need to fail their way into receiving individualized education plans in order to secure support, Asaro said. They serve students who are about one to two grades below grade level — 15 are English language learners, two just exited the ELL program, and nine students have markers consistent with dyslexia, Jamai said.
The students that Asaro and Jamai serve are the populations that make up the achievement gap, Jamai said.
“A move to cut the support from this population is another example of how systemic inequity is enforced and maintained firmly in place,” she said.
The nonrenewals do not take into consideration the most vulnerable students in the district, Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, said at the meeting.
Montclair is a district with a history of visionary leadership that ushered in the charter school system, “a national model for high-quality integrated education,” Rodriquez-Vars said. The current administration can do better, she said. And Marcia Almeida, a volunteer with MFEE, asked how English language learners would be supported without vital staff members.
From a restorative justice lens, the budget is doing harm, Syreeta Carrington, a social studies and restorative justice teacher at Glenfield Middle School, said at the meeting. An English language arts coach at Glenfield who received a nonrenewal notice has helped as the school saw more students achieve grade-level status this year than in the two previous years, Carrington said — “so I'm flummoxed at her nonrenewal, especially when the data shows her efforts are already successful.”
Special education, arts, diversity
The nonrenewals will also have a significant impact on support for special education programs, Jada Roman, a leader of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said Monday.
“We know today that many of the staff members that are being terminated include dyslexia experts, the most necessary and trusted professionals, as well as our paraprofessionals who know our children are again on the chopping block,” Roman said.
The nonrenewal decisions seem to have been made in a vacuum, she said. The Special Education Parent Advisory Council has repeatedly asked about processes, staffing concerns, communications and more, she said, but rarely have responses been given.
“We as a community and as individuals know that you've heard us and our concerns, but question if you're really listening,” Roman said.
Alma Schneider, a former Special Education Parent Advisory Council leader, said she almost burst into tears when she saw how many paraprofessionals were being cut.
“The children who are most vulnerable, the paras who deal with them and spend the most time with them and keep them safe and keep them being as successful as they can be in school, are always the first to be on the chopping block,” Schneider said. “It's devastating to watch this as a parent over and over and over again.”
Authorities haven’t said specifically how many special education staffers would receive notices. Ponds had previously said he wouldn’t cut special education “certified staff members.”
Teachers and parents also advocated for the staff members in the arts who received nonrenewals — 15 art, dance and music teachers received notices, according to a campaign started by the New Jersey Education Association urging the district to “stop gutting Montclair's staff.”
“I’ve come tonight with frustration that I once again have to stand before our board and beg for support for the arts,” Brienne Kvetkus, a Montclair High School art teacher, said.
Since flooding from Tropical Storm Ida damaged classrooms at Montclair High School, the art teachers have been left to scramble for supplies, relying on parent donations for students to work on college portfolios, Kvetkus said.
“Our program is dying, and people like me, who have put years into it, are feeling exhausted having to hold it together,” she said.
Parents expressed concerns about how the nonrenewals will affect staff diversity. Many of the 83 nonrenewals were issued to staff members of color, according to a Montclair Education Association message sent Sunday to some of its members.
Nishuane School parent Alliah Livingstone said Monday she has seen the direct pride her daughter took from having a teacher who was “a brown girl like her.”
“For an administration and a district that hangs its hat on a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, this is shameful,” Livingstone said.
Diversity hiring efforts of the past few years will be in vain, she said.
Another Nishuane parent, Elizabeth Weston, said she had “deep concerns” about the nonrenewals disproportionately affecting teachers of color.
“To lose this significant a number of teachers of color is a huge problem for me, and it should be a huge problem for the community,” Weston said. “It represents a step backward in initiatives that have been being fought for for many, many years.”
After listening to more than 40 public comments about the nonrenewals, Ponds said the budget process will be improved moving forward.
“The feedback that I’ve received and I’m listening to tonight is to extend the budgeting process,” he said. “I understand the frustration, and moving forward I can definitely do a better job with that and we’ll plan to.”