Who’s in charge of Montclair schools? No one (On the Other Hand)
I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to write another downbeat column about the Montclair Township Board of Education. Enough with the negativity.
This month’s edition will be dedicated to heartwarming, positive topics guaranteed to lift your spirits in these gloomy times. Like cherry blossoms, those are nice! The ones in Branch Brook Park were very pink this year. Did you get to see them? No? Too bad. Well, you could still catch the irises at the Presby Gardens. They should be in bloom right about now. That should get your mind off the total chaos in the Board of Education.
What? You didn’t read about it? What were you, out looking at cherry blossoms? Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced that 83 staff including 35 teachers received nonrenewal notices – meaning they officially had no job offer for next year. This came as a shock to people who follow these things, like, you know, the Board of Education.
Only a week earlier, Ponds told the board that only 26 teachers would be nonrenewed. Board member Eric Scherzer, the chair of the committee of finance and facilities, which sounds like it might have something to do with finances, said that Ponds had reassured him that there wouldn’t be budget problems this year.
Many of the nonrenewed are community members with families who now have to face additional anxiety and uncertainty on top of two years of teaching in COVID hell. Some might be hired back, but there’s a severe shortage of good teachers and staff due to, you know, two years of COVID hell, so there’s no guarantee they will be available.
Ponds short-circuited the regular review process by presenting the budget to the board and public well after the state-mandated March 28 deadline to get it to the county Superintendent of Schools. Instead of the usual weeks of public hearings, the board was forced to rush through its approval, only to find out about the true extent of the cuts after the fact. And thanks to the new elected school board system, there is no more Board of School Estimate, which in the past would have had to approve the budget after holding its own public hearings. That board included the mayor and two township council members.
But wait, under this new system, the public gets to vote on the budget in November, right? Wrong! We only get to vote if the board votes to increase the budget over the 2% cap on year-to-year growth of the property tax levy established by state law. (By the way, that cap pretty much guarantees that there will have to be cuts every year, due to something you may have heard of called inflation, but let’s not get into that now!)
You might think this confusion over staffing is all merely a case of miscommunication, but it feels uncomfortably like a PG episode of “Succession,” with the superintendent telling the board, “Forget you.” Except, like Ceelo Green, he didn’t mean, “forget.”
In theory, the board members (elected or not) are supposed to superintend the superintendent, but in practice, they seem either unable or unwilling to do so. Can’t somebody else step in? What about the mayor? Ah, but you forget (uh, don’t remember?) that the mayor has absolutely no control over the school board — not officially. This is even more true now that it is elected, not appointed. Oh, Board of School Estimate, how we miss you. And most of us didn’t even know you existed.
It's true that the mayor might be able to work behind the scenes, pour oil on the waters or use some other peacemaking metaphor to avoid a throwdown at the next board meeting. On the other hand, the position of mayor is barely a part-time job, with a stipend of $10,000 a year. It’s the appointed township manager who runs things day-to-day. And neither has any authority over the school board.
Which might make you ask the question, “Who the ‘forget’ is in charge around here?” Luckily, I have the answer. The answer is no one. No one is in charge.
I said I had the answer, I didn’t say you’d like it.
The only ones who can do anything about this sorry state of affairs (I can hear you groaning) are us. Wisely or not, we (well, you) chose to have the power to elect the board. It’s time to use that power.
Literally, it’s time — petitions for the next school board election are due on July 25. We need to find some candidates who can give us more than the bland platitudes offered up during the last election, people with a clear, specific vision of what the district needs and who are ready to provide leadership.
What else are you going to do? It’s too late for cherry blossoms.
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.