MONTCLAIR, NJ – Parents raised concerns about the safety of ventilation technology in schools while Board of Education (BOE) members grappled with accusations of conflict of interest in the district in last night’s meeting.
Three new members have been appointed to the Board of Ed by Mayor Sean Spiller: Crystal Hopkins, Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming. Montclair Board member Sergio Gonzalez alleged that the appointment of these new members might have been contingent on an interview with President of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) Petal Robertson.
Spiller also serves as Vice President of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The MEA, being Montclair’s branch of the larger state union, might have influenced Spiller’s decision to appoint certain individuals.
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“Last week, Mayor Spiller provided one final surprise when he decided to terminate my tenure after just 20 months of service,” began Gonzalez’s statement which he presented at last night’s meeting. “I knew my reappointment was not certain given how outspoken I had been about getting the children back in the buildings, but a part of me believed the mayor would live up to his campaign promise of an independent board.”
Though schools have started opening in April after months of being shut, the MEA’s demand for evidence of safety in the buildings slowed the reopening process.
“I want to be clear in separating my positive experience with MEA members from my less than positive experience with MEA leadership, NJEA leadership and the mayor,” Gonzalez stated. “But I absolutely can say that the MEA leadership has worked tirelessly to usurp the BOE’s legal status as the decisive policy-setting power in the district.”
Gonzalez mentioned that he knew of at least “one outgoing board member” that was asked to sit down with the MEA President as “a condition of reappointment.”
“I am disappointed that what appears to be the new criteria for vetting a Board member is asking labor to weigh in. If that’s actually happening, that’s wrong,” said Board member Priscilla Church, who was an educator herself for over 20 years. “Yes, we’re here to work with labor, but it’s important that the Board is allowed the autonomy to represent the community.”
As a result, there is now a push to convert Montclair’s school board from appointed to elected. A petition calling for a referendum on an elected school board was posted on Vote Montclair’s website.
“It is the stability of our Board that is vital,” said Eve Robinson, a Board member who failed to get reappointed. “What I’ve seen in the last few years is a move toward a very stable Board of Ed that is not contentious, not dramatic, but is actually doing the work we need.”
Along that note, outgoing Board member Jessica de Koninck welcomed the new members, who were in virtual attendance.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to see how interesting our Board meetings are,” she said. “We’re here for the kids. That’s the first, last, only reason we’re here.”
Board member Dr. Alfred Davis, Jr., admitted that he had little knowledge of the political sentiments brewing beneath the surface.
“A lot of the things talked about tonight, I wasn’t even aware of … the politics,” he explained. “I think the key to all this is to maintain a stable Board. I look forward to welcoming the new members.”
Gonzalez is well-known for his work in increasing bussing to the South end of Montclair, pushing schools to reopen this past year as well as helping with the special education audit. In a separate comment for TAPinto, staff asked that, if Gonzalez were reappointed, would he return to serve on the Board.
“Yes,” he answered. “While the work is difficult, it is rewarding to help shape policy that helps our underrepresented and vulnerable children.”
TAPinto staff also reached out to Petal Robertson, Crystal Hopkins, Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming for comment, with no response.
The BOE had Dan Daniello from HVAC contractor D&B Building Solutions present on the needlepoint bipolar ionization technology installed in Montclair schools. The district had the vendor Global Plasma Solutions (GPS) make the installation. However, due to public concern over its safety around children, the technology has remained off in all buildings.
All GPS products do not produce ozone or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), according to Daniello. He cited a byproduct analysis that was done in March, where no VOCs were observed above detection limits.
The presentation did little to reassure worried callers during public comment. One commenter, Melanie, pointed to a lack of peer-reviewed research that tested the product around children. She and others demanded the Board turn to public health officials for guidance on the technology.
Another caller brought up a letter written by Delphine Farmer, Assistant Professor of chemistry at Colorado State University, addressing the Montclair community. According to this letter, the district was right to turn off the ionization tech, citing a study the chemist conducted that tests the ionization in a real-world setting. According to the study, the technology creates various byproducts including formaldehyde, a poisonous gas.
Parents called these installations a “well-intended, but incorrect decision” and that it gives “schools a false sense of security.”
However, according to Daniello, GPS has worked with over 2,500 schools nationwide, including districts in New Jersey such as West Orange, West Windsor and Howell to install air-cleaning technology.
When President of the Board Latifa Jannah asked if there had ever been issues with other districts, Daniello responded, “I cannot think of an unhappy customer on that list.”
Dr. Kalisha Morgan, Assistant Superintendent for Equity, Curriculum and Instruction, presented on enrichment programs for the upcoming summer.
The Summer Learning 2021 program is an opportunity to bridge the gap for students who might have lost out on learning while schools were in remote session. Elementary school students can participate in Summer Hike, which consists of English Language Arts (ELA) and math enrichment. Summer Step Up is targeted assistance for K-5 students. As usual, the high school is also offering credit recovery for students who might need to take a course.