.

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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Cynical Sally August 08, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Forget about paying for a NYT article, the text provided by DHerron says enough. What a joke of an investigation. The Vice principal, charged with investigating African American students living out of district scams the district into educating her own children for free. Claims to have "verbal permission" from the former Superintendent...a claim that has no merit...according to that former Supt and backed up by the BOEs own attorney. Why exactly was this individual given a golden parachute? Her VP salary is (was) 115k for 12 months = $9,583/mo Her new teacher salary is 100k for 10 months = $10,000/mo. How is this a punishment? She is apparently paying $5k a YEAR in taxes, which is less than I pay per quarter and this was all just swept under the rug. I understand $75k is a rounding error in a $110m budget, but still, at this point in time, I think on principe alone, she should pay back tuition, or have it deducted from her salary
Cynical Sally August 08, 2012 at 01:28 PM
The more I think of it, that $75k seems very low to have two students in the system for multiple years...At $15k per student/per year, I would think the number is closer to $100k. Also, I heard her children have been at Northeast for all this time. That has always bend popular school and tough to get into. Did she have an inside track? I would love to hear from a parent of a child that didn't get into NE and see what they think of this scam. "Oh, Im sorry, your child will have to g to school elsewhere, we are saving that spot for a staff members children, even though they live in Little Falls" Good grief.
Latifah August 08, 2012 at 01:40 PM
No, you can do a NYT Archives search for 2008 using her name-the article is no. 17; point being, she claimed to be a Montclair resident for the interview, contrary to her statement to the BOE.
tryintosurvive August 08, 2012 at 01:52 PM
I see it now, thanks Latifah. Perhaps her next excuse will be that she misremembered that she told the NY Times that she lived in Montclair.
D'Quan August 08, 2012 at 02:47 PM
When the NYTs wants a quote from a tech teacher...better to be from Montclair. When it is time to buy a house and pay $5K A YEAR! in property taxes..better to be from Little Falls When it is time to register your children for school...better to be from Montclair When it is time to select a school for Kindergarten...better to be from Montclair and an employee in the school system and get the inside scoop on a spot in coveted NE school...better to be from Montclair When you get busted...say you had permission then provide no evidence. The BOE will choose to believe you. How can this person continue to serve as a role model for kids? If the BOEs own investigation revealed NO EVIDENCE that she had permission...why is she not fired. Bring back Mr. Whitlock
Stu's Wife August 08, 2012 at 03:36 PM
(1 of 2) It seems a bit odd to me that there is no documentation anywhere in the district that backs up Ms. Morra's claim. Would one expect the Registrar, at the very least to have some documentation that Dr. Alvarez had approved the enrollment of her non-resident children? Since there is none, yet the district has not terminated her, I wonder why the District does not feel they are on solid ground to claim that her assertion is false. How exactly is the Central Office being run? Not passing any judgement on the merits of Ms. Morra's case, I still have the following questions. 1. How many other non-resident children are currently enrolled in the District by the grace of the Superintendent's generosity? 2. Why does the BOE not have to approve such enrollments since the taxpayers of Montclair have to foot the bill? 3. Is this a privilege limited to just employees of the District? Or is the Superintendent allowed to bestow this largess on anyone he/she chooses? 4. Are there any actual guidelines as to who would qualify for such a perk? Or is it entirely at the Superintendent's discretion? 5. If there are no guidelines in place, might the District be opening itself up to a lawsuit by someone who was denied the same benefit. For example, Ms. Morra is white. If an African-American faculty member made the same request and was denied, could then then sue the district and claim racial discrimination?
Stu's Wife August 08, 2012 at 03:38 PM
(2 of 2) 6. Did Ms. Morra's non-resident children receive the same priority in the elementary school lottery as resident children (assuming her children were indeed at Northeast, the answer would appear to be yes). 7. Why are the taxpayers funding the education of non-resident children while basic services such as librarians, foreign language teachers and benefits for staff are being cut?
Joel Schumacher August 08, 2012 at 04:05 PM
This mountain boy to you urban hicks: At the time of pupil registration don't you ask for their property tax bill as a means of verifying residency? Don't you have a paid official annually check on the residency of, especially, all new registrants? As to Alvarez: Verbal authority, with no paper work, creates deniability on his part. Hey folks, the crime is done. The perpetrator is punished. Her creds are tarnished. Giveitup, go back to educating the students.. Forgedaboutit Already!!
JohnstonMes August 08, 2012 at 05:19 PM
I think once Mrs. Morra pays back the $75k (or whatever the exact bill is), then we can say the matter is closed. Could you steal $75k worth of services from your company and then claim to have had permission, offer NO evidence that you actually had permission and then say "its not my fault...I never clammed to be from Montclair"? Except, of course, when the NYTimes interviews you.
Concerned Parent August 08, 2012 at 05:41 PM
I have been a parent at Mt. Hebron for the past two years. Sam Morra’s residency issue brings up many serious questions, but there are other unresolved issues as well. Ms. Morra’s worked closely with a small group of PTA parents, as a separate entity from the school community at large. PTA officers are supposed to represent the entire school body, not special interests, and the obvious need not be said in regard to the AP. A strong school has been made unstable and a dedicated principal was removed. In regard to the residency issue, sadly, I am not surprised.
Adam Lopez August 08, 2012 at 06:18 PM
In the end of the day, the success of the students at Mt. Hebron is the issue. A principal as well as vp must be established ASAP as school starts in a matter of weeks. Planning and preparation is vital to the instructional delivery.
jeanne scott August 08, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Ms. Morra should be fired for what she did and also to pay back tuition to the Montclair School system. There is no excuse for what she did and no one in there right mind not even Alvarez would give her permission to put her kids in school system. You blew your 18 year career of teaching.
Latifah August 08, 2012 at 07:57 PM
There are extenuating circumstances where a non-resident student attends District schools-these involve DYFS/Courts/Homelessness. These students and their Families are known to the Superintendent, Registrar, and the student's school administration.
Stu's Wife August 08, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Latifah - Those situations that you noted are authorized under the State law regarding schools and residency. These are not subject to the discretion of the Superintendent. (d) A student over five and under 20 years of age pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1, or such younger or older student as is otherwise entitled by law to free public education, is eligible to attend school in the school district pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1(f) if the student’s parent or guardian moves to another district as the result of being homeless, subject to the provisions of N.J.AC. 6A:17-2, Education of Homeless Children. (e) A student over five and under 20 years of age pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1, or such younger or older student as is otherwise entitled by law to free public education, is eligible to attend school in the school district pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-2 if the student is placed in the home of a district resident by court order or by a society, agency orinstitution as referenced in that statute. “Court order” as used in this paragraph does not encompass orders of residential custody, under which claims of entitlement to attend school in a district are governed by the provisions of N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1 and the applicable standards set forth in this chapter. http://www.state.nj.us/education/code/current/title6a/chap22.pdf
Stu's Wife August 08, 2012 at 08:25 PM
The same statute also states: "6A:22-2.2 Discretionary admission of nonresident students Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to limit the discretion of a district board of education to admit nonresident students, or the ability of a nonresident student to attend 3 school, with or without payment of tuition, with the consent of the district board of education, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-3(a)" So if Ms. Morra or any other non-residents have been granted authorization to enroll their children in the MPS, why would this not need to be approved by the Board of Education? And why would we have an official policy to accept non-resident students for free, when the district has not accepted tuition paying non-resident students for years? Something doesn't sound right. The district does not currently accept out of district tuition paying students. “Superintendent Alvarez has addressed the class size issue numerous times in public settings. “We are answerable to our parent community, and to the students themselves, who are entitled to the best possible education we can provide,” he says. “Adding to our current population would result in even larger class sizes. That’s not something we’re willing to consider.” For this reason, tuition-paying students from other towns are no longer accepted into the district. Decades of dwindling state aid, combined with rising enrollment, ended the practice years ago.” http://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/Article.aspx?Id=557
A. Gideon August 08, 2012 at 11:19 PM
Thanks. Somehow, I fell into the trap of thinking that there would be no [public] meetings over the summer. Foolish of me, and I appreciate your reminder otherwise. ...Andrew
A. Gideon August 08, 2012 at 11:25 PM
"How many other non-resident children are currently enrolled in the District by the grace of the Superintendent's generosity?" Perhaps when the next students from out-of-district are caught, their families will all offer the same excuse. Dr. Alvarez will say that he has no recollection of this, and then...well, we'll see what happens. ...Andrew
A. Gideon August 08, 2012 at 11:29 PM
"PTA officers are supposed to represent the entire school body, not special interests" Aren't PTA officers supposed to represent the PTA? By definition, isn't that a "special interest"? First, not all parents join. Second, membership includes teachers. Ideally, all parents would be members, but that doesn't ever seem to be the case. If you've questions about the PTA, please join up, get involved, play a part. PTAs are generally starving for help, and even a little time donated can go a long way. ...Andrew
A. Gideon August 08, 2012 at 11:32 PM
"Adding to our current population would result in even larger class sizes." Is that necessarily so, given that these would be *paying* students? Wouldn't the additional income fund the necessary staff increase (as long as we'd the physical plant to support the additional class(es))? ...Andrew
Stuart Weissman August 08, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Just another case of the cowardly leadership in Montclair.
Montclair Tenured Teacher August 09, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Since my "majority bread winner" spouse left our family, I have struggled to live in Montclair on a severely reduced household income so that my children could continue to attend Montclair Public Schools. I'm a respected and well-loved teacher who works with some of Montclair's most vulnerable children. Why wasn't I given the option to keep my kids in Montclair while moving to a more affordable town? When I inquired about the possibility - even if I paid a supplemental tuition - I was turned down flat. Hmmm.
CuriousGeorge August 09, 2012 at 05:40 PM
MTT - Are you white or African American? Just curious?
A. Cathy Hawley August 09, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Laurie kroll Who advised you your her children could attend school in Montclair and did you get this in writing? That has not been allowed for many years. Back in the 80’s my daughter was attending MHS, a teacher had his daughter attending but would drop her off at Park and James Street. He was not given the option of paying tuition. I reported it, and out she went. Taxes have always been high in Montclair and it has been my opinion you want the Montclair School system then move to Montclair pay taxes or rent. Back in the 90’s a Bloomfield resident with a special needs child who wanted to enroll her child in Montclair and pay tuition but was told NO. She give her sister’s address on Wildwood Avenue but after a few months in the Montclair System a neighbor reported her and the child was removed. I do not agree with accepting a Property Tax Bill as proof of residency. That only proves you own the property it does not prove you live at the address. The BOE needs to come up with a better system for verification of residency. They also need to come up with a way for Mrs. Morra to reimburse the residents (pay total amount of $75,000 within 3 years) of Montclair for educating her children. Has anyone checked her certification to teach above the 4th grade? Just asking because if you were not truthful in where you live how can one be certain you are telling the truth about your credentials.
Shelley Emling (Editor) August 10, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Please dispense with any personal attacks. Thank you very much.
Marlis Dunn August 10, 2012 at 01:23 AM
Cathy Hawley, if you pay taxes you are entitled to the benefits, regardless. Apartment dwellers would need another type of proof, that would be a lease signed by the landlord.
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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