On the Issues
My Stances on Various Issues
Governance, Strategic Planning, Management Reporting and Accountability
All stakeholders need to have confidence in the district’s ability to successfully implement its initiatives, including with respect to budget development and staffing, capital plan management, closing persistent opportunity gaps, and fulfilling the recommendations of the special education audit. Sound governance and policy oversight by the Board is needed to compel proactive, robust and sustained strategic planning, execution, monitoring, evaluation and accountability connected to clearly-defined board and district goals and objectives in each critical area. I would also urge the district and the Board to clearly and consistently communicate its progress and challenges with key stakeholders through robust management reporting, and to embrace collaborative solutioning supported by deep stakeholder engagement.
We need more effective and sustained strategic planning, execution and monitoring with respect to our district goals for diversity, equity, inclusion, opportunity and student achievement. With the strength of our diversity comes a solemn obligation to work proactively to redress opportunity and achievement gaps, structural racism and unconscious bias, and other obstacles to equity and inclusion for students of all backgrounds and abilities. Meeting the educational, health and wellness, social and emotional needs of all students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners, has to be a lived moral commitment shared by all stakeholders in the district, not just a compliance exercise. Strategic planning, execution and monitoring requires that we establish clear goals and objectives, key risk indicators and key performance indicators, and management reporting expectations connected to those goals and metrics.
Enhanced planning, execution, monitoring, evaluation and management reporting is also critical with respect to the district’s development and management of its operating budget, as well as its facilities management. More specifically, budget conversations with key district stakeholders and the public need to begin much earlier in the year, including any scheduling and staffing analysis and collaborative solutioning, to break the cycle we have seen in recent years where the Board is asked to approve a budget with a large unspecified placeholder cut to school personnel, leading to excessive non-renewals and delayed final budget and staffing decisions that have damaged employee, parent and student morale and caused us to lose exceptional teachers and support personnel to other districts. And the Board needs to ensure that, should the voters approve the facilities bond referendum, the district is prepared to effectively execute those capital projects, managing the performance of the architects and contractors to ensure high-quality designs and specifications, high-quality workmanship, and on-time and on-budget project delivery. All of that must be supported with clear and consistent management reporting to the Board and to the community on the district’s progress in executing the projects in the capital plan and in managing the district’s debt service.
I believe in compassionate accountability. That means collaboratively developing goals and objectives with the Superintendent and other critical stakeholders, with understanding of and empathy for the complexity and difficulty of the work and analysis of resource needs and limitations. Expectations should align with our community’s priorities and values, but also need to be clear and fair, and the administration needs the support of the Board and the community through planning and execution. Within that framework, the conflict and excuses can be minimized, and meaningful, respectful and compassionate accountability is possible.
Facilities, Infrastructure and the “Community Investment Plan”
For too long we tolerated an inadequate level of investment in our school facilities and infrastructure, and it’s come back to bite us in a big way over the past several years, both before and during the COVID pandemic. The sustained failure of our old governance model to rise to meet the capital needs of the district was to me the biggest reason to convert from a Type 1 to a Type 2 district. As a community, we now have the power and the obligation to redress those extensive capital needs. Our children and staff need and deserve safe, healthy, technologically modern and attractive schools, classrooms, facilities and grounds. They deserve infrastructure that facilitates learning and pedagogical best practices, as well as supporting school pride and belonging. This encompasses everything from ventilation and indoor air quality, to the integrity of our building structures, to effective IT infrastructure and connectivity, to safe, fun and attractive playgrounds.
A district of our size with schools the age of our schools probably needs steady capital investment in the range of $10-20 million per year, and we as a district have come nowhere close to that in over a decade since the opening of the Charles H. Bullock School in 2010. I believe we as a community need to support the facilities bond referendum, also referred to as the “Community Investment Plan”, this November, to get us back on the right track. And the Board needs to ensure that the district is prepared to effectively execute those projects upon passage by the voters, managing the performance of the architects and contractors to ensure high-quality designs and specifications, high-quality workmanship, and on-time and on-budget project delivery. All of that must be supported with clear and consistent management reporting to the Board and to the community on the district’s progress in executing the projects in the capital plan and in managing the district’s debt service.
The Magnet System, Courtesy Busing, and the School Placement Process
Montclair’s magnet system is and has been one of its most unique and attractive attributes, and we need to understand and respect the history that led Montclair to implement it starting with two schools in 1977 as part of its response to a court order mandating desegregation of our schools, and expanding over time to include theme-based programming at all schools K-8. And the district’s courtesy busing policy, wherein bus transportation is offered free of charge to students residing more than one mile from their assigned school in Grades K-8 (whereas state law would only require the district to offer free busing to students residing more than two miles from their assigned school) was and remains critical to the implementation of the magnet system. Although Montclair’s demographics have shifted several times since 1977, a return to traditional “neighborhood schools”, with children automatically assigned to the school closest to their home and busing provided only to the extent required by state law, would still result in material de facto re-segregation of schools at both the elementary and middle school levels, due to sustained patterns of residential segregation in Montclair. History advises us strongly that increasing school segregation leads to increases in inequity. I cannot and will not support changes to the Montclair Public Schools that will lead to increases in inequity, and therefore cannot and will not support the elimination of our magnet system or of the courtesy busing program on which it depends.
That does not, however, lead me to benign acceptance of the status quo with respect to school integration and the district’s school placement process. Even with our magnet system and courtesy busing in place, we have seen over the past decade plus a troubling pattern of creeping re-segregation in our elementary schools that is starting to spill into our middle schools. This issue needs to be analyzed so that we can consider changes that reinvigorate our magnet system and better assure that it effectively serves its raison d’etre of enhancing integration and equity. This could require a demographic study, a redrawing of the zones leveraged as a proxy for diversity, a detailed analysis of the school placement procedures and computer algorithm, and surveys or community conversations about the “attractiveness” of the existing magnet themes versus the other factors driving school ranking patterns across different demographics. Again, history tells us that increasing school segregation leads to increases in inequity, and the district has already seen a blatant example of that play out in the substantiated Buildings & Grounds whistleblower report where (now-former) district officials de-prioritized the work orders from what they derisively called the “ghetto schools.”
Closing the Opportunity Gap
Growing state and federal support for the expansion of free public early childhood education programs, including universal full-day, public pre-kindergarten, as well as preschool programs for 3-year-olds, provides a tremendous opportunity for addressing the district’s persistent opportunity and achievement gap. We need to develop a thorough and thoughtful plan for implementing universal free public full-day pre-kindergarten in Montclair as expeditiously as possible, as well as assessing the availability of funding to serve as many 3-year-olds as possible in high-quality preschool programs.
Meanwhile, in K-12, segregation of certain in-school programs and disproportionality in student discipline and in special education referral and classification patterns remain troubling symptoms and drivers of inequity, contributing to the opportunity and achievement gap. Again, history is a critical guide. Without affirmative, conscious and effective anti-racist policies and procedures, one can expect to see a sustained privileging of white spaces and whitening of privileged spaces. The district has an obligation to meet the educational needs of every child to help every child succeed, and that (along with federal and state mandates) will require us to retain some level of “gifted and talented” programming, honors and AP programming, enrichment programming, academic intervention programming and, of course, special education programming and services that meet the needs of individual children as developed through the IEP and 504 processes, and programming and services that meet the needs of our growing population of English Language Learners.
And the Small Learning Communities at MHS can also serve to enhance the diversity of the curriculum while enriching depth for students in their areas of passion. But we need to analyze the policies, processes and procedures used to identify, evaluate and assign children into such programs and we need to do so using anti-racist and intersectional lenses. We cannot simply accept special education disproportionality that largely “supplements” to meet the needs of children from more privileged families while it largely “contains” children from less privileged families. We cannot allow access to gifted and talented, honors and AP programming to be heavily dependent on standardized tests that can be gamed with access to high-priced tutoring, nor can we allow it to be heavily dependent on teacher referrals subject to conscious and unconscious bias, nor can we allow it to be heavily dependent on parent requests that reward insider knowledge and “squeaky wheel” persistence. Addressing programmatic segregation requires a multi-faceted approach guided by diversity, equity and inclusion goals and strategies, including anti-bias training and process transparency.
Additionally, the district needs to affirmatively monitor for disproportionality in student discipline and in special education referrals and classifications by category and to establish equity goals supported by key risk indicators and key performance indicators to be monitored to assess the impacts of laudable programs like Restorative Justice and Response to Intervention, along with other strategies developed and implemented to achieve those equity goals.
Equity and Inclusion for Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners
Meeting the educational, health and wellness, social and emotional needs of all students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners, has to be a lived moral commitment shared by all stakeholders in the district, not just a compliance exercise. It is the Board’s obligation, through policy and oversight, to help assure that the system is designed and functioning to fulfill the moral commitments we have as a district and a community to meet the educational, health and wellness, social and emotional needs of all children. In some ways, the legal and regulatory framework under which we must operate can drive a compliance-focused approach to the processes for implementation and monitoring in areas like special education and English Language Learners. When we hear from the parents and the students in these programs that they do not feel adequately supported and valued, or that they are upset about losing staff who have valued and supported them, it ultimately is not sufficient to respond that we are in compliance and will be in compliance, because we’ve scheduled all students with the required educational specialists.
Compliance with IEPs and 504 plans and with the laws and regulations governing services for English Language Learners is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient. Assignment of the required educational specialists is a huge component of meeting the needs of students with disabilities and English Language Learners, but the system cannot then leave those professionals on an island bearing all of the responsibility for meeting the needs of those children. Serving the best interests of the children, with a driving commitment to equity, access and inclusion, remains a shared responsibility of all stakeholders, including general education staff, school and district administration, the Board, and the community. And we of course need to have processes in place to ensure that the students are achieving positive outcomes, and where students are not achieving positive outcomes, that we are adjusting their program accordingly.
Specifically on special education, we need to ensure that the district is continuing to move forward with its implementation of the recommendations from the GoTeach audit of our special education program, and that those changes are effective and sustained. And we need to maintain effective channels for communication and collaboration with the Special Education Parent Advisory Counsel and the community of parents and children who are served in special education to listen to their feedback regarding how effectively we’re rising to meet the needs of each child. This includes ensuring accommodations that make school events and activities accessible to all.
Specifically on English Language Learners, with the increasing number of non-English-speaking parents and students in the district, we need to assess our current resourcing and programs to support these families and consider how best to adjust to most effectively create a more welcoming and supportive climate and culture, and whether we should supplement and/or migrate away from pull-out ESL and sheltered English toward the creation a two-way bilingual model where Spanish-native students acquire English and English-native students acquire Spanish. In the interim, we need to at least provide equitable access to the district, the schools and the curriculum with translators and translated materials for parents and students.
The annual budget processes need to improve. The Board needs to establish clear expectations around the governance, planning, development and communications for the budget process. It cannot be a one-month sprint that leaves the district and the Board scrambling to figure out how to close a projected deficit even after the final deadline for budget passage, bumping into the deadline for providing notice of non-renewal to non-tenured staff. The budget process has to be a continuous one, with the district regularly updating the Board’s Finance and Facilities Committee about projected or actual cost increases (e.g., in transportation bid and award), projected and actual salary breakage, projected in-year line item deficits or surpluses and corresponding appropriation adjustments, health insurance experience and projections, and more.
Staff scheduling efficiency analysis should be performed in active consultation with building principals as schools are developing and adjusting their schedules, preferably in the Spring for the subsequent academic year, with re-analysis in the Fall with respect to any enrollment-based changes in staffing and scheduling. Where and when Central Office identifies opportunities for scheduling and staffing efficiencies, these should be discussed with the building principals, the union and the Board early in the year to support collaborative solutioning. Where possible, the Business Office should develop and present to the Superintendent and the Board Finance and Facilities Committee multi-year revenue and expenditure projections.
Even with the best advanced, continuous and collaborative budget management, budget planning and problem solving, however, it is important to acknowledge that if the district stays bound by the two-percent cap on annual increases to the tax levy, it will remain unable to meet the projected cost increase simply to sustain existing staffing and programs year over year, let alone to fund critical new programs and initiatives to drive improvement. We of course need to examine opportunities for greater efficiency on an annual basis, and we need to engage in meaningful program evaluation to identify areas where existing resources perhaps should be reinvested elsewhere, but there’s a limit to how much blood can be drawn from a stone, and we need to be thorough and thoughtful to assess the impacts of any potential staffing or programming cuts on our students.
For that reason, it is important to remain open to the possibility that the needs of our students may in some years require serious consideration of bringing a public question to the voters to increase tax levy revenues more than two percent, while also recognizing the district’s obligation to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and to weigh the impacts of such tax increases on Montclair residents and, in turn, on our town’s treasured diversity. The district and the Board also need to work in collaboration with stakeholders to find other innovative ways to increase revenue and/or reduce costs, such as through more aggressive pursuit of competitive grants, or through the design and implementation of outstanding in-district special education programs that not only allow us to serve more Montclair children in-district, but could also allow us to draw tuition-paying children from other districts. And all budget decisions and the projected impacts of those decisions have to be examined through the lenses of diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism.
The role for technology in education is a multifaceted question, encompassing technology as an academic subject, opportunities to leverage and incorporate technology into the teaching of other academic subjects, and the technology infrastructure and tools needed to facilitate the continuity of the district’s operations. It’s said that the generations currently in our schools are or will be “digital natives”, but I believe school districts can and should play a role in teaching students how to safely and effectively navigate our digital world while also preparing them for opportunities for advanced study and careers in technology and/or to effectively leverage technology in whatever field of study or career they ultimately pursue. The school board should obtain assurances that the district is implementing an effective and appropriate technology curriculum, scope and sequence K-12, inclusive of internet safety, privacy and digital citizenship.
Across the broader curriculum, technology can be leveraged as a tool or medium for instruction and for teacher and student creativity, including in the arts, or as assistive technology to support students with special needs. And the district needs to maintain the necessary technology infrastructure to carry out all of the business and operational functions of the district, as well as to be able to pivot to remote instruction if and when the need arises. All of this also requires a commitment to address the “digital divide” and thus to ensure that all students and families have equitable access to technology tools and connectivity. And it must also be balanced with appropriate consideration of the health and wellness impacts on children of excessive screen time, social media, and gaming addiction.
Health, Safety and Security
The district needs to clarify its procedures and cadence for health and safety inspections of its buildings and grounds, including the structural integrity of roofs and stairways and exterior masonry, the safety of our playgrounds and fields, the adequacy of our mechanical ventilation systems, and indoor air quality inclusive of carbon dioxide, mold and other environmental hazards. And we need to invest robustly in HVAC upgrades and other capital projects and ongoing and preventative maintenance to mitigate the health and safety risks to students and staff. With respect to other safety concerns such as fire, active shooter, bomb threats, etc, I believe we need to place the onus more heavily on the grownups to develop, receive professional development and drill on safety protocols and procedures, while reducing the psychological toll of constant drilling on students, particularly in the early grades.
School Start Times
Multiple studies show that a shift to later school start times for teens better aligns with their natural developmental sleep patterns and needs and can produce many benefits. Those benefits include improved academic performance, reduced tardiness and truancy, longer and better-quality sleep, extra time for a healthy breakfast, better physical health, fewer behavior problems, and a reduced risk of car accidents. Montclair’s middle and high schools start far too early, while larger elementary schools start too late, inconsistent with both age groups’ developmental needs. As a former Montclair Business Administrator, I certainly recognize the complexity and challenge of adapting the district’s staggered bus routes and managing the impact to athletic practice and competition schedules, as well as the impact on some students with after-school jobs or responsibilities caring for younger siblings. But the research-supported benefits of later school start times are too great to ignore, and we need to pull together the necessary stakeholders to make it happen with the right adjustments and supports to mitigate the associated challenges. We should be able to achieve this by September 2023.
Communication, Relationships and Trust
An effective school board needs to be able to engage in effective multi-directional communication that empowers all families to understand how they can most effectively partner with the district to help their children and all children in the district to reach their potential, that empowers district staff to serve the needs of all children in the district within the context of a healthy and supportive work environment, and that effectively solicits and leverages the support of other community partners. In the spirit of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, it is important that all school board members actively demonstrate at their meetings a commitment to open, inclusive, respectful, empathetic and collaborative dialog, deliberation and decision making, as well as carrying that same mindset into the school board’s closed session and committee work. This is a commitment I have always brought to my work, both in my career and in my volunteerism, and I promise to carry it into my work on the Board should I be elected.
Relationships and trust among the Board, district administrators, school administrators, staff and families have been strained for a long time. In addition to engaging and communicating with all stakeholders in ways that are grounded in empathy and respect, equity and inclusion, we also need to commit to transparency and accountability, open and collaborative dialog, deliberation and decision making. That includes being open and honest about positive and negative news and results, supported with clear and effective management reporting on timelines and performance metrics. All of that contributes to establishing trust among district stakeholders, and relationships built on trust are both healthier and easier to sustain.