SPARTA, NJ- Security was front and center, and in the back as well at the Sparta Board of Education meeting on Thursday.  Following the social media threat made by a man from Wall Township, seven security guards and four police officers were in the cafeteria where the meeting was held.

The meeting was subdued.  Aside from a couple of people from the community getting vocal during the public portion of the meeting it was like any other board of education - with security guards stationed behind the board of education members.

Board of education members parked in the front of the building, with the exception of Robert Zywicki and were escorted to the meeting while the public was admitted through the side door.  There were approximately 25 people in the socially distanced audience.

Det. Jeffery McCarrick opened the meeting, reading a statement, thanking the district and the community for allowing him to speak, pointing out the close relationship the district has with the police department.

“With some recent events that have been brought to our attention, regarding threats made in an online capacity, it should be known that this incident was taken very seriously and investigated as such with our team of detectives,” McCarrick said.

The detective explained they had identified the person “within minutes of the reported threat.” He told the board members and public police spoke with Mike Cortese and “worked with a multitude of law enforcement agencies to ensure that our Sparta Township community was, is and will be safe.”

McCarrick encouraged people to report such activity as they will continue their “obligation to investigate any such type of threat.

“I would also like to express caution when posting online,” McCarrick said.  “Often time thoughts are easier to put into words behind a screen without forethought.”  He suggested it is human to be passionate about “specific areas of our lives” but reminded the public “there will be no tolerance when those passions prompt the threat of violence.”

The board of education members worked through the agenda without much discussion.  The community got involved in the second round of public participation with several people coming to the microphone. 

Public Comments

Heather Donnelly was first to speak, also thanking the board of education members for information about the schools reopening before criticizing the lack of transparency.

“If you began working on this January 19, why not tell people on January 20,” she said...”Can you imagine the frustration level as parents watch their children struggle…not everything has to be a secret and not everything needs to be a rumor. It took just a few moms to speak out to get the lines of commutation open…I am literally sick to my stomach about how parents with genuine concern for their children who just tried to get answers were treated…”

She told board of education members they should have “thick skin and be open to criticism and able to handle pushback from the community without panicking and running to the news media to tell on the citizens who have elected you.”

Cut off by the “three-minute” rule Donnelly yielded to others, despite cries from the public to allow her to finish, to return at the end to complete her remarks. “Do the job you were voted to do and be leaders for the entire community and students you represent.”

Tammy Healy asked for a poll of board members to see who wanted students to remain in remote learning, so they would be able to know how to vote in the next election. 

“The letter stating board members were threatened was a crock of poo,” Healy said, “leading to character attacks on Heather Donnelly.” She went on to talk about “propaganda” showing flyers that asked people to wear a mask, maintain a safe physical distance and get vaccinated, labeling them propaganda.  She then quoted Hitler, a German Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Albert Einstein to prove her point about propaganda she said. 

Later in the meeting Sparta High School student Kyle Neuwirth called in to comment some of the statements made were “abhorrent” and he felt “the need to defend his school and community.”  As “a stakeholder” he praised members of the teaching staff and administration.  He said the comments directed at board members are not constructive criticism and  are “not something they should have to deal with.” That people would “defend the threat of violence just because the person who made the threat does is from a different town is ridiculous.” He said there is “a police investigation and that people would dismiss that is disgusting.” The person quoting Hitler should “be ashamed of herself.” Neuwirth said, “There are more than 500,000 Americans dead from this disease, it is not a lie…”

Lenore DiStefano thanked McQueeney for his efforts and board of education for appointing Frank Ciaburri as middle school principal and commented to the board of education members “over the year the amount of the conflict that you have created has been outstanding.”  She pointed to the pandemic, the “chase against Dr. Rossi, talking about nepotism, posting things about Executive Order 107, you left this district in a state of disarray, where you moved around administrators, where you created more administrative positions yet our sole number one issue should have been reopening schools.”

DiStefano said the schools should have opened in September, “when the cases were significantly lower,” but they did not because of a “campaign” by president of the teachers’ union.  She said she respected Sue Sawey but she “did not allow us to open our schools in September.” DiStefano called the situation in Sparta an “in-person divide” that “put our students at a complete disadvantage” while other area schools are open.

Sawey said “feelings run very strongly on both sides of the return to school issue” and no amount of discussion would sway entrenched opinions.

“Recent events have also served to remind us there really should be no sides in this debate,” Sawey said. “We are one community and we need to stand united. 

She said “vitriol on social media’ has “distracted us from the real enemy in this story, the virus.” Sawey said the decision to open “seems to be final and not  really open to discussion.”  She said despite the county superintendent giving advice “to hold off on making any major decision,”… “ no consideration will be given to the status of the regional risk matrix,”…”social distancing recommendations cannot possibly be followed”...“Sparta schools will be open and Sparta educators will be there.”

Other parents spoke about their children’s specific situations with regard to remote learning, mask wearing and the impact on special education students.

Diane Nocerino wrote in to ask about the possibility of the school district partnering with a private business to provide vaccines in the schools. 

Board of education members' comments

Board of education members had their turn to speak during the “For the good of the order” portion of the agenda.

Board of education member Robert Zywicki went first announcing the regional risk level moving to “yellow” and thanking McQueeney and Michael Gregory for their work on getting students back in school.
“Who wants to be back in school. Everyone of us wants to be back in school,” he said.“People need to understand we’re not Lafayette, we’re not Andover, we’re not Pope John. We have 4000 individuals across five buildings.”

Board of Education member Jen Grana shared her experience of getting an in depth 40 minute tour of Alpine Elementary School with McQueeney and Joe Leone.  “The space is so engaging and such a warm place to be” but it "really shined a light on what’s been the elephant in the room for the past 25 years at the elementary level. The elementary facilities have been de-prioritized many times over the past many years." She said the trailers had been added about 30 years ago. She said year after year the discussion starts but never goes anywhere.  She asked board of education members to begin a discussion about addressing the elementary facility needs, considering building a new school or making significant improvement.  “Being that this board is action oriented” she asked if any other board of education members felt the same. 

Zywicki said he concurred and that the new architect was hired and they plan to do a facility appraisal, “once things get back to normal.”

Board of education member Michael McGovern also agreed there should be a discussion. “There is a way to press this in a fiscally responsible way.”

McGovern also congratulated the students for having spoken at the meeting.

Board of education member Kate Matteson used her time to address communication.  She said “communication is not getting better,” even with the establishment of the communication committee the board of education is “still reacting to circumstances instead of being proactive in communication.” She said if the community had known ahead of time about what was being done to get the schools open behind the scenes “there would have been so much less tension.”

Matteson concluded by congratulating the C3 committee for releasing their blog and Lydia Selitto on her retirement after teaching Sparta for 30 years.

Board of education member Christa Sorenson echoed Matteson asking for the board of education to be proactive in communication.

Board of Education Vice President Niamh Grano thanked the police department and was critical of community members who would discount the threat made to the board of education on social media because it was made by someone from outside of Sparta.

Board of Education President Kim Bragg congratulated Ciaburri, Ronnie Spring and Adrian Castorina for their new positions., She also thanked McQueeney and the staff. 

Thanking her fellow board of education members Bragg said, “Being a board member is a choice… we are regularly faced with making very difficult decisions…this has been an extraordinary year and an extortionary year to be a board member.”

The next board of education meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night at Sparta High School where they will vote on hiring the new superintendent. 

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