Good evening. My name is Tessie Thomas and I am the President of the Montclair Council of PTAs (PTAC) an elected body that represents and supports the whole community.
I hope everyone managed well through the toxic smoke last week and are now making the most of the clean air around us.
As the year draws to a close, I can’t help but be reflective. It is just amazing how quickly this year has gone by. It was an eventful year but somehow seems to have gone through even faster than other years. For that matter, the last 2 years have gone quick. The last 2 years – following Covid have by definition been unprecedented as none of us have had the playbook for how to recover from a pandemic. I would like to share a few observations of our post recovery period and some of PTAC’s accomplishments tonight.
2 years back as President of PTAC, we decided to do things somewhat differently. We wanted to be more efficient with meetings, we wanted to be more impactful, we wanted to ensure that we leaned on lessons learned from the past, we wanted to sharply focus on powerful advocacy and learn from each other. In keeping with these thoughts, we adopted 6 themes that most of you have heard before–
- Diversity of faces and diversity of voices
- Connecting with all
- Encouraging volunteers
- PTAC Brand
I must say that we adhered very closely to all of the above. The last one – PTAC Brand was one which is likely to be misinterpreted. So I would like to read from what I said in the first PTAC meeting 2 years back when we adopted these themes, I quote –
“… – we want to make sure that when PTAC acts, makes a statement, makes a point to the district, or to anyone – it is one that is thoughtful, impactful, relevant, unbiased, timely, and actionable. It is very easy to be in our situation and react to everything that happens around us. I am going to be strong on vetoing issues that don’t fit this structure. We are going to make sure that we do not make any statement for the sake of public posturing alone. I want to ensure that PTAC is influential that we are given a seat at every table for no other reason than being seen as a valuable contributor. I will watch out meticulously to not dilute the PTAC brand. Our focus will be on better outcomes for our children and if something doesn’t quite fit, let’s make sure we don’t overstep our scope as when we lose focus or try to get too many things done we may end up not doing much at all.
In terms of our focus, I want to ensure that we don’t start assuming that it is our mission to run the district. We need to leave that to the district professionals, and the BOE. But it is our mission to bubble up issues and get commitments to fix the problems we highlighted. Let’s hold their feet to the fire. There is a fine line between that mission and actually running the district. Let’s not cross it…”
Given this initial outlook, I must say we carried it out to a tee. How we at PTAC decided to conduct ourselves makes a lot of sense under any scenario, but it was especially well suited for where we were 2 years back, coming out of the pandemic. We were in an acrimonious environment coupled with the instability of having seen a number of superintendents go in and out of the district in the last few years. It was a time when it seemed like the stakeholders had concluded that the way to get anything done in the district was to be shrill at the BOE meetings and take shots. It also seemed like when that failed the solution was to be even more pointed and louder. Additionally, the revolving door in the superintendent’s office was conducive to kicking the can down the road. Even under the best of intentions, given the significant and deep-rooted problems, kicking the can down the door was many a times the expedient outcome. Systemic problems festered.
In this environment, we decided to hit “reset”. We decided to try something new – “collaboration”. We decided that we will start by trusting every stakeholder’s intent – we believed and still do that every stakeholder in this is trying to do right thing. When we adopted this approach, we were surprised with the reception and I think to some extent, the stakeholders were also surprised that we trusted their intent and were willing to talk about ways to make progress. I have to say that this approach has enabled all of us together to actually get things done.
We are not naïve to think that acrimony is dead, or that everyone buys into collaboration – but it is clear that there is consensus that collaboration has been more effective and impactful over the last 2 years.
One of the proudest moments for us was on May 16th this year when the BOE, MEA and PTAC together went to the town council meeting to raise the issues of overall operating funding proportion allocated to the schools and the issue of no Payment in Lieu of Taxes money flowing through to school funding. This was a follow up to the joint letter that the BOE, the District, and PTAC sent to the town council raising these issues. This is collaboration in action – it is no longer just talk – let’s keep at it, our children deserve it.
Continuing down the path of summarizing some of the accomplishments of the last 2 years. I would like to highlight a few “concrete deliverables”. Since we emphasized “concrete deliverables” from all it is only appropriate that we hold ourselves to those standards. Here we go –
- Getting the community investment plan passed. We worked hard, we worked together, and we all went above and beyond. In the process we got the bond referendum passed and won the national PTA award. But the true award is that we now have the much needed $188M investment going into schools that will be transformational and will last several decades for the current and future Montclair community. We all should be very proud of this.
- Reflections, a national competition – we were able to put Montclair on the map. We went from “what is it; how do we participate in it” to having two national winners this year. To anyone who is looking for an answer to the question – why do we do this – one look at the kids beaming at the award celebrations where their work was displayed – you will have your answer. We created a lasting memory and who knows, we may even have reinforced their confidence in themselves and added to their resume.
- When coming out of Covid there was confusion on how to get back in schools and the “mask-mandate” – we conducted a highly effective and timely survey of the families that provided clarity for decisions.
- We conducted a survey around effective communications that has resulted in several changes that the district adopted. I know we have ways to go, but our survey got it started.
- We engaged with the district on scheduling, start times, and busing discussions.
- We jumped up and supported the B&G crew in the recovery efforts from hurricane Ida. We got Montclair restaurants to donate food and our great community did what great communities do – we helped each other out.
- We ran several town halls and discussion panels covering pre-schools, budgeting 101, transition to middle school, transition to high school, and entering the Elementary Schools.
The list of what we have accomplished is much longer, but I wanted to highlight a few to remind ourselves that what we do together has real and lasting impacts.
Speaking of impact – we asked each of the school PTAs to provide us with some overall dollar numbers on the PTA support for our teachers and the students. We have consolidated these numbers across our schools and here is what the overall impact looks like –
Our PTAs collectively raise, on an average, about $600,000 across the schools every year. About $120,000 of this money is directly contributed to the teachers in the form of grants, teacher appreciation, and special projects. About $350,000 of this money is directly contributed to the students and the community in the form of events, scholarships, and special projects. Remember – all of this is done by volunteers – a truly herculean task that speaks volumes about the volunteers and our community. The dollar amounts represent just one of the ways in which PTAs have an impact. The advocacy and the other efforts that don’t necessarily involve dollars are even more valuable and can’t be measured in dollar terms.
As the end of the year approaches, the transition to new PTA Boards also gets underway. The PTAC Board for 2023-25 elected in by all the PTAs is:
- Gretchen Devinsky, President
- Linda Kow, VP
- Stacy Ann Greene, VP
- Obie Miranda Woodley, Treasurer
- Shameah Kinch, Secretary
Congratulations and thank you for raising your hands and taking this on.
July 1 is when this new Board will get started. I am thrilled to be passing the baton to this capable group.
It has been a great run and I want to thank a few folks who have been instrumental in making our efforts a success over the last 2 years.
I want to thank the BOE, Dr. Ponds, and the central office team. You have always been responsive to us and have attended all our meetings and addressed concerns live during the meetings and after that. We know you have been dealt with a tough hand. So thank you. A special shout out to Nina De Rosa without whom none of this can get done.
I want to thank Cathy Kondreck and her team for attending our meetings, working collaboratively with us, and lifting us up by the “above and beyond” contributions to the Reflections program. I know this must not have been easy and we are grateful to you for your responsiveness to us and support.
I would also like to thank each and every member of the current and the past PTAC Board – Courtney, Reggie, Yvette, Gretchen, Diane, and of course, Brain who moved on to the BOE but continued with his valuable insights. This is the team that has always engaged in open, honest, respectful, and many a tough discussion. Those discussions and the work together made us a better PTAC.
Likewise, I would like to thank each of the PTA Presidents and volunteers with our endless text messages and constant communications. I know each PTA President and volunteer puts in countless thankless hours while managing all other demands on their time while keeping a sane head on their shoulders. They are the frontline where the rubber meets the road. Thank you.
Over the last 2 years, working together with all – BOE, District, MEA, and all the other stakeholders in town, has been a stark reminder – we are all in this together. Our individual success is completely tied to our collective success and the only way we can have a real and lasting impact on the lives of the young ones graduating from the Montclair School system is by working together. Future generations will remember not only what we did, but also how we did it.