A school year’s-worth of frustrations came to a boil last week, when Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck made a public apology for trying to collaborate with Montclair school district officials. 

Kondreck called schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds a liar, citing multiple cases of what she described as lacking communication throughout this school year. She also told Montclair Local she was considering taking a step back from a labor management collaborative aimed at building the union’s relationship with the district. 

Ponds didn’t address her comments at the meeting, and hasn't yet responded to messages from the newspaper seeking comment on the same issues Kondreck raised.

Budgets and staffing

The union has been asking to meet with district administration to discuss its budget since January, sending several emails to Ponds before “it became clear we were not going to be a part of the process and our help was not requested nor wanted,” Kondreck said at the June 1 board meeting. 

Kondreck asked Ponds for specific information about the budget and its impact — a copy of the full budget submitted to the state Department of Education, details about programming and employees that would be funded through Title I funds and through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — but she has yet to receive a response, she said at the meeting. 

“During the school year, there were a few months that I showed up at these board meetings and I just sat quietly,” Kondreck said. “I chose to not come to the mic, partly because I knew that our newly formed collaborative was still taking shape, partly because I was hopeful, partly because I believed and trusted that this administration really wanted to make changes for the better.”

The union and the district have been working together on a labor management collaborative, a program launched last summer through Rutgers, the New Jersey Schools Boards Association, the New Jersey Education Association and others.

Union leadership wanted to work closely with the district, “despite outrage from several people who knew better,” Kondreck said. 

But Kondreck learned her lesson, she said. This year, Ponds notified teachers of a remote-optional policy during winter break, just days before it was implemented, she said. His administration sent nonrenewals to 83 staff members, including 35 teachers, after saying a week before that only 26 teachers would be noticed as well. Through actions like those, Ponds has made his stance on collaboration clear, she told Montclair Local. 

Kondreck and other union members have spoken out at several board meetings since the nonrenewals were announced, arguing that the cuts were not well thought-out and were made without consulting all relevant stakeholders. Ponds has said several of those issued notices would still be offered their jobs back, but hasn’t pinned down a number. 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. 

“As far as I'm concerned, I think that perhaps we need to be taking a step back from the collaborative for right now,” Kondreck told Montclair Local, separately from the meeting. “Because I don't think Ponds knows what it means to be in a collaborative.”

Being in the collaborative means talking through everything, even the decisions that may ultimately be made by the superintendent's office, she said.  

“The collaborative includes sitting down and actually talking about that decision before that decision is just made and announced to everybody,” Kondreck said.  

Board members who have spent months assuring the union that the district does want to work together need to look at those leadership positions and “decide if the future you desire for this district is the same future that they desire,” Kondreck said at the meeting.

“To those that tried to pull me back, to those that knew how this would play out, to those that saw the foreshadowing and impending doom that I chose to ignore, I step forward and admit that I was wrong,” Kondreck said at the June 1 meeting. 

The frustrating throughline is a lack of preparation, Candice Pastor, union communications and social media chair, told Montclair Local. Budget season comes every year and to feel like it’s a scramble, not knowing who should be nonrenewed or which teacher has which certifications, is unnecessary, she said. 

“It's just about not being prepared and not taking the consideration to think about the buildings,” Pastor said. “And it’s really a disservice to the students and the staff and the admin.”

When board member Eric Scherzer said during a May meeting 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 hasn’t attended a board meeting in Months, and the district hired an acting business administrator, Paul Roth at a rate of $835 per day, without officials providing any explanation why the position was needed.

District officials have declined to comment on whether Cipriano’s apparent departure is related to the hiring of an an independent consultant to investigate a complaint alleging discriminatory statements were made by a Montclair school district staff member; the consultant was hired March 2, at the last meeting Cirpiano attended.

Ponds has not yet responded to emails sent to his district address since May 3 asking for details about the budget, budget process and nonrenewals. 

Coronavirus

In an April 14 memo to principals and buildings and grounds staff, Ponds said the district would be returning to the policies of “pre-Covid days” effective April 25, with teachers responsible for opening and closing their classroom windows “as they deem necessary.” Custodians who had been arriving early to open classroom windows each morning under the district’s policy to that point would no longer do so, the memo said. 

Any problems opening windows should be referred to custodial staff, and addressing window repairs would be a priority, the memo said. 

At a May 4 meeting, Kondreck said the union was “nervous that the district is flirting with disaster” by changing the window policy. With the weather getting warmer, open windows are more appropriate than they were in the winter, without cold air disrupting the classroom environment, she said. 

After Kondreck’s comments, parent Joanna Desmond-Stein asked Ponds if the window policy had actually changed. 

“A memo went out that we are still to open windows and that we are asking our teachers and staff to open windows,” Ponds said at the May 4 meeting. 

After the May 4 meeting, Ponds told Kondreck he had meant for the memo to convey that teachers were required to open their windows, Kondreck told Montclair Local. 

But the district cannot require teachers to conduct any manual labor and doing so would be a breach of contract, Kondreck said. But Ponds told Kondreck the union was entitled to bring in legal representation to challenge the policy, she said. 

Ponds told Kondreck he intended to send out a memo clarifying the window policy, but that memo has yet to come, she said. 

The memo did not require teachers to open windows, so some do and some don’t, Kondreck said at the June 1 board meeting. 

“You lied to the public then, just as you have many times,” Kondreck told Ponds at the June 1 meeting. 

Kondreck is also waiting to hear back from Ponds about the district’s other coronavirus policies, she said.

“I've asked three times formally and in writing for current COVID protocols because the protocols that are posted on the district website are not being followed in all of the schools,” Kondreck said. 

Ponds has not yet responded to an email sent May 12 asking for clarification on the window policy, coronavirus testing and virus mitigating policies.