LIVINGSTON, NJ - Board of Education President Barry Funt met with League of Women Voters members on Wednesday night to answer questions pertaining to the Livingston school district.
LWV members Judy Friedman, Renee Resky, and Robin Weiss, as well as community member Denise McDonald, were on hand to discuss issues such as the school calendar, special education, state testing mandates and student stress.
Funt was open about the myriad challenges that face any school district, even a high-achieving one such as Livingston.
Funt on the changes to the school calendar
“We had professional development for the teachers on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Labor Day. Generally, school would start right after that. But since Rosh Hashanah began on a Wednesday (Sept. 4), and we always have off for that holiday, we lost a week of school,” he said.
He explained that in constructing the 2013-14 calendar, the Board tried to accommodate the parents who had complained about conflicts with summer camps that began in June. Ending the school year early, coupled with the late start, effectively eliminated the week-long February break. That break could have been useful in alleviating the district’s current scheduling difficulties, according to Funt.
While noting that the Board could have hardly predicted this winter’s unusual weather patterns, Funt promised that next year’s calendar would give the District more breathing room.
“We’re looking to start earlier, end later and restore the February break,” he said.
Funt on online teaching
Friedman asked Funt about the possibility of holding online school sessions in the event of excessive cancelled school days.
“We’re really not set up for that kind of thing, logistically,” Funt said. “Some families probably don’t have internet access at home. Those students would be punished unnecessarily.”
McDonald also noted that many parents telecommute and might require the use of the family computer.
Funt on increased testing, open enrollment and student stress
McDonald raised concerns about the amount of homework and testing that students, specifically students at the high school level, are subject to.
“My children are studying and doing homework all the time,” she said. “And that doesn’t even include extracurricular activities and sports.”
Funt explained that state mandates in recent years have gotten more rigorous and that he does not foresee that changing.
“Every [state] administration wants to put its own stamp on things—I understand that. [Governor Chris Christie] has kind of positioned himself as the ‘education governor.’”
Livingston’s open enrollment policy and its relationship to student stress was also a topic of discussion. Prior to the policy’s enactment, Livingston students required a teacher recommendation to move up to a more rigorous class (e.g. going from an Honors class junior year to an Advanced Placement class senior year). The open enrollment policy allows students to take any class with parental permission.
“Some students have an ability to handle seven A.P. classes—it’s just in their DNA,” he said. “Of course if you have the mindset of ‘my kid is going to Harvard’ you might pressure your child into taking on more than he or she can handle. In that area, pressure generally comes more from the parents than the teachers.”
“On the whole, that kind of thing sorts itself out,” with most students taking classes commensurate with their academic level,” said Funt.
Funt added that the district has added more members to its guidance department and trains teacher to spot at-risk students who may be susceptible to stress. He emphasized that the district continues to take student stress and workload seriously.
“It’s very hard being a high school student today,” he said.
Funt on hiring practices
Friedman asked Funt about Superintendent John Alfieri’s hiring of two of his previous colleagues, Matthew DeLaRosa and Barbara Linkenheimer. DeLaRosa serves as Director of School Safety, Energy Management and Strategic Construction Planning and Operations, while Linkenheimer serves as Interim Assistant Superintendent. DeLaRosa's position was newly created. Linkenheimer replaced the District's Assistant Superintendent for Special Services after he resigned.
“I know Dr. Alfieri has gotten some flack for hiring people he knew instead of conducting a broad search,” Funt said. “The way I see it, [the Board] hired Alfieri to be the CEO of the Livingston School District. We empowered him to make decisions like this. If the hires turn out to be mistakes, then [the Board] is accountable for hiring Dr. Alfieri in the first place.”
He added, “If the person being hired is a qualified candidate, then I don’t see a problem with making that decision based on personal trust and a healthy working relationship.”
Funt said that the level of cooperation and communication between the school and the police department since DeLaRosa’s hire has been unprecedented. He also praised DeLaRosa’s work in preparing the District for upcoming construction projects at each school.
“I believe that that position will end up paying for itself,” Funt said.
Funt also had unstinting praise for Linkenheimer’s performance, specifically in the area of special education.
“We recently underwent an audit for violations in our special ed department—improperly filling out forms and things like that. [Linkenheimer] cleared that all up and really transformed the place. It’s running very efficiently now.”
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