SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After his contract was not renewed at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, former Columbia High School choir director Desmond Moulton requested a Donaldson hearing, which allows nontenured teachers to make their case before the Board of Education. The South Orange–Maplewood BOE did not take action at the hearing, which was held July 19; Moulton’s contract remains terminated.
The past school year was Moulton’s first in the district, as he took over when Jamie Bunce, the previous choir director at CHS, left to pursue a doctoral degree. At the meeting, students in the choir program and their parents said Moulton subjected the students to belittling comments and made them feel uncomfortable in class.
During the hearing, Moulton said he learned that his contract would not be renewed in May in a letter from Superintendent Ronald G. Taylor. Taylor cited a lack of assimilation and acculturation and declining enrollment in the choir program as the reasons for the termination. Moulton said some of the students who dropped out of choir classes did so before the beginning of the school year; he also said parents and students complained about his decision to focus on music theory rather than performing.
“I have a folder with 1,586 recordings that were turned in by students singing the diverse repertoire I introduced to them,” Moulton said at the meeting. “So it should be clear from this that the class was not a music theory class.”
According to Moulton, he spent the first week of class giving students assessments on their music theory, sight reading and singing ability. Of the 160 students in the program, he said five passed.
“At the end of the year, 89 percent of the students enrolled in the class had a grade of 93 or higher, including students with IEPs,” Moulton said.
During the hearing, Moulton read several supportive messages from students who had been in his classes and their parents. But Moulton said he has received negative feedback as well, including from parents who Moulton said verbally abused him; Moulton said he did not receive support from the school administration.
“I came into a clearly hostile environment, and the principal and fine arts supervisor did nothing to support me as far as I am aware of,” Moulton said. “I don’t feel I am an inferior teacher. However, as I read Dr. Taylor’s letter, I started to understand why a parent would think it is OK to tell me to take my black self and my accent and go elsewhere. You will be hard-pressed to find a teacher who will challenge the students and who will do anything to help a student learn, even when it is different from what they are accustomed to.”
Kelsey Stone, who graduated from CHS this year, said Moulton’s teaching style was belittling and patronizing.
“Music has always been a safe place for me, as I have struggled with mental health for years,” Stone said at the meeting. “Dr. Moulton completely demolished the safe haven and left me dreading choir whenever I had it.”
Stone said that during her time at CHS, she was also in the North Jersey Region Choir, the Harmonium Choral Society and sang with the South Orange Symphony.
“He was teaching us what a quarter note was. We weren’t singing, we were learning basic theory that we had all known since elementary school,” Stone said. “One day he was putting us on the spot to sight-read something, and while we all had the ability, he made us so uncomfortable every class period that we didn’t want to participate.”
Stone eventually dropped the class after having a panic attack after she said Moulton called on her when she wasn’t expecting it; Stone said other students expressed concern in the virtual class’ chat while Moulton stayed quiet.
Scott Sinkler, a parent from South Orange, asked the district for greater oversight of teachers at the meeting.
“This past year’s chorus program was a catastrophe,” he said. “It should never have happened that way, and we need to make sure that this kind of thing does not happen again. Why was absolutely nothing done for nine months while students dropped the classes at an astonishing rate? We need accountability.”
The BOE members largely did not address the comments directly, but President Thair Joshua condemned comments about Moulton’s accent. Moulton is from Jamaica.
“That accent is very familiar to me,” Joshua said. “Not liking a teacher is one thing, but when we start criticizing accents, it’s totally unacceptable.”