The Montclair Board of Education decided to remove the Montclair Education Association (MEA) from the public meeting agenda starting with Monday night's meeting. The change outraged union leader Gayl Shepard, who prepared the following remarks to be read at the meeting. Shepard was unable to complete her comments in the three-minutes allowed during the public comments.
The Montclair Education Association represents ninety-two percent of the employed staff of the Montclair Board of Education. I speak on behalf of the MEA’s membership of nearly 1,000 strong. We are the professionals who strive to make your children’s educational experience positive and successful.
The Montclair Board of Education President, Robin Kulwin, informed me this past Friday, Sept. 20 that the Montclair Education Association would no longer be on the Board’s Public Meeting Agenda. Ms. Kulwin explained that the change occurred due to the feedback from parents who spoke with her in supermarkets and around town. According to Ms. Kulwin, these parents said they were uncomfortable at Montclair Board meetings due to the “dissension” that they felt while in attendance.
I was immediately baffled by Ms. Kulwin’s remarks. Logically, I began to review the content of the last several board meetings held in April, May, and June of this year. I recall many speakers alongside of the MEA; stakeholders, students, educators, business owners, and retired teachers taking the microphone. I was reminded of a group of individuals that displayed a petition signed by more than 500 parents imploring this Board to postpone quarterly assessments. Their appeal was barely acknowledged. Where are these supermarket parents? Why does the Board President hear their concerns? What magic do they possess? So many of us who diligently attend Board meetings and speak of our concerns month-after-month, desperately wish we had some of that magic.
The most discouraging aspect about the Board’s decision to remove the MEA from the Public Meeting Agenda, is that it is yet another attack on the longstanding culture of our town that celebrates collaboration. Throughout my term as MEA President, despite the challenges we have faced as a district, I have strived to work together with this Board. The very essence of Montclair is our ability to celebrate diverse and differing opinions without fearing or censuring them.
I can only image the dissension that must have arisen in Board meetings when the issue of that time was the Desegregation of Montclair Public Schools. How many of us would not be here today if it were not for that contentious quarreling?
Our Magnet School system would not be in existence without the disunity of a determined group of townspeople who knew that anything worth having, or keeping, is worth fighting for.
We stand on the shoulders of our town leaders, activists, and historians, who recognized that difficult conversations and changes often involve struggle. As a result of this struggle, the Montclair Board of Education, for over fifty years, has collaboratively given voice to the President of the MEA, who speaks on behalf of the teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, secretaries, guidance counselors, instructional specialists, technical employees, computer system analysts, SAC counselors, security guards, custodians, building and grounds workers, Child Study Team members and librarians in the Montclair Public Schools. How are we honoring our democratic process, if all parties are not respectfully heard and represented?
What shame would we bring on our union label-sewing, arm-locking, counter-sitting, bus-riding, overcoming, song-singing ancestors if they thought for one second that Montclair was “bitten by the nation’s bug” that dishonors unions and the voice of public educators? This is the equivalent of asking the MEA to sit on the back of the bus, and we just won’t do it.
Don’t forget that true leaders sit together at the collaborative table of unity initiating conversations that involve struggle. True leaders don’t require “total control,” but a willingness to listen and understand.
I ask that members of the Montclair Board of Education hear my message and not be persuaded by your personal agendas and fears. Please be brave and reconsider your decision to omit the Montclair Education Association from the Montclair Board of Education’s Public Meeting Agenda. Let’s “Stand Together for Public Education.”