What We Learned From the “AssessmentGate” Saga

On June 2nd, the school district formally ended it’s investigation into the unauthorized public release of district tests. The vote was 5-0, with David Cummings abstaining and Shelly Lombard absent. The decision, noted our new board president David Deutsch not made because of any new information:

The decision, instead, came after deliberating the potential pros and cons of leaving the suspended investigation open for revisiting, Deutsch said.

“I think that the board had the discussion and determined that the potential benefits for keeping it suspended, relative to the likelihood of us reopening it, when the bulk of the activity is in OFAC’s hands, it was not productive to keep it suspended,” Deutsch said.

The investigation had been previously suspended in January in a split 4-3 vote, pending the OFAC investigation. On June 4th, few days after the district terminated its investigation, OFAC released it’s findings:

In a letter sent to Montclair Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Penny MacCormack on Wednesday, June 4, The Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) of New Jersey states it has “completed its investigation into a potential data security breach,” and found, among other things that “The initial “release” of the assessments that allowed posting to a site accessible to the general public could only be accomplished by an individual/s possessing a district issued user name and password.”

That last point is tremendously important: despite the apologist talking points we’ve often heard, this release didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t a technical error by the district.  Someone intentionally broke the rules and likely the law here using their district-issued login information. That alone justifies the board’s decision to launch an investigation, and given that fact, we actually disagree with the board ending the investigation.

 

There’s a reason they had to do it though: they couldn’t functionally pursue the investigation and hope to get anywhere with it because they were stonewalled by some of our town council members. Unable to get information from their subpoenas of David Cummings and the blogger AssessmentGate, the district tried to access their own district email servers. As we’ve written before, it was town council member / NJEA Secretary Treasurer Sean Spiller and our vice-mayor/AFT Vice President (and occasional Montclair Schools Watch reader/editor) Bob Russo who blocked access:

In emails to The Times, both 3rd Ward Councilman Sean Spiller and Deputy Mayor Robert Russo opined that it was the Township Council’s responsibility to reunite the community in the wake of tension with the district.

“The decision to deny access was driven by the unfortunate fact that this issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor and has created a divide in our community,” Spiller stated in an email. “A majority of us on the Council simply felt that as leaders, it is time to look for ways to come together. This current process seems only to be pushing families further apart from one another and solutions further away.”

“It’s time to move on, stop spending time and mounting legal fees, and end the divisive conflict in town over these tests,” echoed Russo. “Let’s focus on teaching and healing our community.”

Mayor Jackson (rightly and reasonably, in our view) disagreed with their position:

“The Board of Education has a right to get its information from its server, irrespective of how one feels about the investigation or the Board,” Jackson added in an email.

Why did they lead the charge to block the investigation? At least in Spiller’s case, he was likely just doing his job – his other job that is. As NJEA Secretary-Treasurer, his responsibility is to advocate and protect the members of the NJEA, and given OFAC’s conclusions it’s now pretty clear that it was likely a member of the NJEA who actually actively leaked the data.

But Spiller didn’t stop with the stonewalling. He actually used city resources to have the board’s side of the shared system reviewed without their permission (the very same thing that he voted against allowing the district to do to continue their investigation). And the review didn’t address the question at hand, but instead just served to create a talking point for AssessmentGate and their allies in MCAS and the MEA:

Montclair’s computer system was not hacked, but the folder containing school tests that were later found on a public website was not properly protected, according to the township manager… Dashield said his memo was in response to a subsequent request from Councilman Sean Spiller about the town’s computer security. It was not related to the board of education’s investigation.

Board of Education president Robin Kulwin expressed surprise that town officials reviewed the board’s side of the shared system…”That’s the very thing we were told that we couldn’t do,” she said. “Here’s the municipal side seeing things on ours that they are not supposed to. There’s an expectation of confidentiality that goes both ways.”..Kulwin said the IT review doesn’t help the investigation because the board never thought the system was hacked.

Now, the investigation is over, and it’s unlikely that we’ll learn who violated the law and the trust placed in them as a district. But we did manage to learn something from the investigation about the loyalties of some of our council members. On this, as on other issues where Spiller and others have such clear conflicts, it seems obvious that they should not be involved. And, unfortunately, based on the OFAC report we’ve also now learned that there are folks inside the school system who are willing to break the law and violate the trust we all place in them in order to sabotage the system on behalf of their own political agenda.

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