By TALIA WIENER
Parent Mfreke (Monk) Inyang is the newest member of the Montclair Board of Education, chosen by board members Wednesday to fill the seat of the late Dr. Alfred Davis Jr.
Inyang and three other candidates — Brian Fleischer, Aminah Toler and Richard Reynics — were interviewed during a public meeting of the board held remotely Wednesday, Jan. 12. Board members took turns asking the candidates questions about their views of public education, the board and pressing issues facing the Montclair school district.
After about two hours of closed-door deliberation, the board announced Inyang as Davis’ successor.
The seat formerly held by Davis and now by Inyang will next be up for election this fall, under the schedule set after Montclair voters opted to convert the township’s Type I district with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to a Type II district with an elected board of nine members. Inyang will serve the remainder of the current term, until January of 2023, but could also run for reelection this fall.
The Montclair board has a lot on its plate in the coming months, in addition to navigating the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The board will adopt its 2022-2023 budget, create a strategic plan to guide the next few years and put a capital improvement bond in front of Montclair voters to upgrade the district’s aging buildings. And after a March 8 election, the board will gain two new members, to fill the slots created in the conversion to the Type II system.
The job of the board is “incredibly difficult,” Inyang said Wednesday during his interview. The board needs to take into account all the information available and make collaborative, transparent decisions that allow people to feel comfortable, he said.
“You send your kids to school and essentially, you’re hoping for the best,” Inyang said at the interview meeting. “You’re hoping that the people who are charged with raising your children in this educational space are doing everything in their power to do that as effectively as possible.”
Inyang is a father of two children at Charles H. Bullock School — a second grader and a third grader — where he has served as both vice president and president of the PTA. He has also led the Bullock community in its annual day of education and service, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Inyang and his family moved to Montclair four years ago, he said Wednesday.
“We’re all a collection of the experiences that we go through,” Inyang told the board. “The reason that I’m very passionate about the board, since moving to Montclair and kind of jumping into the community, is I feel that I can bring that social justice and activism view to the board.”
Inyang grew up in Newark, the son of working-class Nigerian immigrants. As a high schooler, he and his classmates demanded updated school facilities, organizing protests and publishing satirical journalism to keep their message alive, he said Wednesday. Shortly after he graduated, a new school was built, he said.
In 2009, he co-founded Brick City Alumni Group, pairing high school seniors in Newark with local college graduates.
The state of Montclair’s aging facilities is among the biggest issues facing the Montclair school district, but they will only be addressed through strategic budgeting and stakeholder involvement, Inyang said Wednesday. Talking with the community, school staff and students will help to ensure everyone feels confident in the board’s decisions, he said.
“We’re not going to be able to do everything all at once,” Inyang said. “We’re going to have to prioritize, and people need to feel confident in the decision to prioritize one thing over another.”
As director of marketing strategy and finance for Michelob ULTRA at Anheuser-Busch, Inyang said Wednesday, he works with budgets similar in size to that of the Montclair school district. In his position, he is tasked with balancing the needs and desires of national, regional and state-level stakeholders.
“Strategy is your overarching vision, it’s your overarching plan,” Inyang said. “It guides you in those difficult decisions, and it keeps you from being as reactive when things don’t go the way that you planned.”
The board’s job is to collect and disseminate information — board members themselves are not the experts — Inyang said Wednesday. Parents are the experts on what their kids need and teachers are the experts on what’s happening in classrooms, he said.
“We have an incredible amount of talent and resources and people who can solve extremely intricate and difficult problems here in the town,” Inyang said.
The board should invite the community into their problem-solving processes, sharing roadblocks and possible solutions in a proactive manner, he said.
“When it comes to restorative justice, when it comes to environmental issues, when it comes to the safety of the buildings, when it comes to how the students are feeling with their mental health on a day-to-day basis, [the board] should never have the feeling that we know the answer,” Inyang said. “We’re all in this together.”
All four candidates had stressed the importance of investment in the district’s buildings, and working with community members to develop plans moving forward. Fleischer, a former business administrator for the Montclair school district, said the board must lead with empathy to help alleviate the stress and anxiety in the district. Transparent, measurable goals will enable stakeholders to feel informed and hold the board accountable, he said.
The community and the board must come together to resolve differences and to better the district, Reynicks said. Despite being new to Montclair schools — his eldest child is in kindergarten at Edgemont School — Reynicks said has already heard a lot of frustration and anger about decisions made in the district.
“There’s more tension in this community right now than feels completely healthy,” Reynicks said Wednesday.
Toler, a member of Montclair Mutual Aid involved in several community efforts, suggested additional restorative justice work, with greater community outreach to ensure the needs of all families are met.
“If you’re going to work as a board member here in Montclair, you have to be a community person,” Toler said during the interview. “You have to be a person that’s willing to roll your sleeves up, get involved, and not just attend one event.”
Petitions to run for the March election are due to the district by Tuesday, Jan. 18 (the district originally announced a date of Monday, Jan. 17, but that is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when district offices will be closed).