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Montclair Council Denies BOE Access to Email Archives for Assessment Investigation

Montclair mayor says BOE has the right to its own information.

Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson Photo credit: Teresa Akersten
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson Photo credit: Teresa Akersten

An investigation by the Montclair Board of Education into how more than a dozen student assessments wound up on a public website hit another snag this week. 

The Montclair Town Council with a 5-2 vote denied the school board access to servers the two entities share for the purpose of the investigation.

The investigation into how 14 of 60 tests posted to a password-protected teacher portal were leaked in late October, just weeks before they were to be administered to students, is dividing the residents of Montclair and disrupting the relationship between the town and the school board, the resolution states.

"The decision to deny access was driven by the unfortunate fact that this issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor and has created a divide in our community,” said Councilman Sean Spiller. “A majority of us on the Council simply felt that as leaders, it is time to look for ways to come together. This current process seems only to be pushing families further apart from one another and solutions further away."

Mayor Robert Jackson, on the other hand, said the school board should have access to its archives.

“The Board of Education has a right to get its own information from its own server, irrespective of how one feels about the investigation or the Board,” Jackson said Thursday.

The investigation was launched with a unanimous vote from the school board on Nov. 1, a week after it was discovered by a district parent that multiple tests created to comply with new Common Core State Standards had been posted for a short time on a public website.

The security breach compromised the integrity of the assessments, which were created over the summer by teams of teachers who were paid nearly a half-million dollars for their work.

Whether the township can legally deny the school board access to its own servers remains unclear. The township attorney for Montclair was not immediately available for comment.

“One of the things that we need as part of looking into what happened is access to our servers and our emails that have been archived,” Board of Education President Robin Kulwin said.

Montclair Schools and the township have an agreement to share the servers, which are housed in the fire department’s headquarters, Kulwin said. The school board pays 95% of a network administrator’s salary and the council is responsible for the remaining 5%, she said.

A faction of educators, parents and community members opposed to the quarterly assessments has sparked heated discussions at school board meetings and around town, and some have called the investigation a "witch hunt."

Regardless of whether the tests were popular or not, Kulwin stands behind the decision to investigate the security breach.

“Our obligation is to the students of Montclair. Was it a good thing for the students of Montclair to have the work that the teachers did over the summer breached in this way? I don’t think so,” Kulwin said.

ACLU-NJ Vs. Montclair School Board

Another obstacle into the investigation was raised last week when the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a complaint against the Montclair School Board, claiming that issuing a subpoena to determine the identity of an online poster who uses a pseudonym oversteps the authority of the school board and violates their client’s right to free speech.

An Essex County Superior Court judged granted a temporary order to quash the subpoena and prevent additional subpoenas to protect the identity of the online poster, who goes by "Assessmentgate" and has been critical of the school board and the school administration on a blog and as a commenter on multiple websites.

Kulwin said she did not direct the school board’s attorneys to seek out the identity of Assessmentgate or anyone else who has been critical.

“I am assuming [the attorney] came up with what he thought were valid reasons as a professional,” she said. “I don’t care who Assessmentgate is or any of these anonymous people. If they know something, than the idea I believe is that the attorneys can ask these questions.”

She added, “It’s not who they are that matters to me, it’s more of a matter of what information did they have when.”

Kulwin said the school board would meet in executive session on Monday prior to the public board meeting to be updated on the investigation.

An investigation, she said, she hoped would have been wrapped up by now.

“If people would cooperate, we could get to the bottom of it and be done,” she said.

I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 December 13, 2013 at 04:27 PM
Teresa, thank you for this really excellent article. It is balanced and fair. It is good to see how much you were able to get Robin Kulwin to say. Obviously she feels that she does not have any more control over this investigation than she does over the schools. It must be a very stressing and trying time for her. You can see here the subpoena issued to MBoE Member David Cummings: http://www.aclu-nj.org/files/4813/8618/9800/MBOE146_Subpoena_of_D__Cummings_RGL.pdf Even though he brought this on himself indirectly, it is really a shame to see his colleagues treating him in this manner.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 December 13, 2013 at 04:28 PM
Teresa, you should not be surprised that few people will be commenting here about Montclair for some time to come, especially those who are critical. The subpoena's have many people rightly afraid for their privacy and freedom.

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