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Middle School Principal Demoted By Board

Samantha Morra is demoted for allegedly enrolling her children in Montclair schools even though she pays taxes in Little Falls

 

The Montclair School Board voted Monday night to terminate Samantha Morra's position as assistant principal of Mount Hebron Middle School and return her to a teaching position in the district.

Montclair school district officials confirmed last month that the central office was investigating Morra to determine whether she enrolled her children in Montclair schools using a Montclair mailing address that is actually part of the Little Falls school district.

On Monday night, Dr. Clarence Hoover, acting as interim schools superintendent now that former Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez has stepped down, recommended that Morra be demoted.

Morra had held the $115,000-a-year assistant principal position for two years. Now she'll return to her previous job as a technology teacher at Mount Hebron.

But Morra told board members that Alvarez had given her verbal authorization to send her children to Montclair schools starting three years ago.

And—according to the file presented by the school district's attorney Derlys Gutierrez—Morra had turned in a copy of a driver's license bearing a Montclair address and a PSE&G bill bearing a Little Falls address when she and her husband registered their children.

Morra lives on Upper Mountain Avenue on Montclair's border with Little Falls but pays taxes to Little Falls.

"I registered my kids three years ago with the permission of [Alvarez]," Morra told the board. "I have never claimed to be a Montclair resident.

"I have worked hard," said Morra, who has been employed by the district for 18 years. "The notion that I would risk my reputation and my livelihood is absurd."

But Gutierrez said that, when contacted by phone, Alvarez denied giving Morra any such permission.

The discrepancy turned the entire meeting into something of a he-said-she-said situation.

Liza Cohn, co-president of the Mount Hebron PTA, said Morra had worked tirelessly on behalf of the school's children. "She has made an enormous contribution," she said.

But School Board President Robin Kulwin said the whole issue boils down to where Morra pays taxes—and that's to Little Falls.

The issue of non-residents sending their children to Montclair schools "is an issue our community is very sensitive to as we have increasingly had to stretch our dollars," she said.

School Board member Tanya Coke said that, as an administrator, Morra must be held to a higher ethical standard than other parents.

Kulwin and other board members said they were bothered by the fact that Morra had no paperwork to back up her claim that Alvarez had given her verbal authorization.

Apparently the school district's policy allows for such verbal authorization—but district officials said they don't recall any similar case while Alvarez was superintendent.

Kulwin said the board decided against complete termination after Gutierrez told members that the residency violation "did not rise to the level" of the state upholding the action against a tenured teacher.

When asked what Morra might owe the district for educating her two children for three years, Gutierrez cited a fee of about $75,000.

After debating whether or not to require Morra to pay restitution, board members were advised that they could put off that decision until a later date.

But board members noted the fact that, in other cases of non-residents sending their children to Montclair schools, resitution hasn't been pursued.

Morra's children have been disenrolled from the Montclair school district.

An email went out to Mount Hebron parents from Hoover on Monday night, just after the meeting ended.

He said: "Interim Principal, Mrs. Trigg-Scales, has settled in rapidly and has been working with staff on the schedule and the curricula for new courses. As a result of tonight’s action by the Board of Education, a new assistant principal will be selected and will be in place for the start of the school year. The interview process for a permanent principal is progressing. We hope to have this position filled in the fall."

Indeed, Monday night's demotion was just the latest in a string of personnel twists and turns in the Montclair school district.

In addition to Alvarez, is leaving the district to take the position of business administrator for the Westfield school district. also is leaving Montclair for a job with the Maplewood-South Orange school district.

At Mount Hebron, the position of principal is still being advertised—a process that will be closed on August 17.

 in May—to the surprise of many parents and teachers—that Mount Hebron Principal Guy Whitlock would be transferred to the district's Central Office this summer.

Terry Triggs-Scales has taken over as interim principal.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below. More on this story on Montclair Patch on Tuesday.

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A. Cathy Hawley August 10, 2012 at 02:05 AM
Marlis Dunn I agree to a certain extent. Yes, if you pay taxes you are entitled to the services such as garbage pick-up, plowing of your street, right to other sorts of benefits that come with being a tax payer. However; some that purchase a house whether in this community or another might do so for investment purpose thus making them a property owner but not necessarily a resident. I own property in PA and pay taxes there but I’m not a resident of a PA community. Thus, my argument is a Property Tax Bill only proves you own the property it does not prove you live there. Yes, renters show a lease from the landlord or from the agent (Realtor, Management Co., etc.) and along with utility bills etc., I have no problem with that. I might add that back in the 80’s I had to verify residency for my children based upon the local of our residence 4th Ward and attending Nishuane. I was required to show utility bills, driver’s license and car registration my mortgage statement, Tax Bill and deed were not enough proof back then. Now the requirements have gotten lacks. The BOE needs to tighten things up. So, yes you are entitled to benefits provided they come from the town in which you pay your taxes.
M. McGowan August 10, 2012 at 12:13 PM
As a dedicated teacher it's hard to hear that someone is being "demoted" to a teacher. Poor choice of words...
Laurie Kroll August 12, 2012 at 01:44 AM
It all had to do with the zip code of the house- my realtor and my attorney concurred at the time but it was the early 1980"s. I also have been aware over the years that many districts allowed their teachers to have their own children in the district but not sure when this changed and is probably a district by district issue. In Glen Ridge where I have lived since 1983, some GR teachers from around essex county had their children in the district into the mid 90's at least.
Laurie Kroll August 12, 2012 at 01:46 AM
totally, totally agree; this wording is just another example of how teachers are considered non professional and expendable, especially by the parents of the children they teach.
John Kirkwood August 13, 2012 at 05:41 PM
John Kirkwood Let me get this straight... she was demoted to a tenured teacher position??? This is a perfect example of where tenure should NOT be granted.

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