MILLBURN, NJ - In a show of unanimity not otherwise demonstrated during the Millburn Board of Education meeting of September 13, all Board members present voted to accept the offer from the PTO Conference for a bench and plaque honoring former Superintendent Richard Brodow. This issue had been tabled in June during Dr. Brodow's last meeting before retiring, reportedly because the Board was already working on a district naming policy. Since it has now become clear that the proposed policy does not include benches, Board member Scott Kamber made a motion for the Board of Education to accept the bench.
There remains the issue of just where the bench will be placed. The PTO Conference requested it be positioned in front of the Education Center, but Kamber, in an exchange with member Lise Chapman, pointed out that once a property is accepted by the Board, it is up to the Administration to determine where it is placed. Several Board and audience members, including Ms. Chapman, were adamant the bench be placed at the Ed Center, while others felt there could be other appropriate places. It is now up to the new Superintendent, Dr. James Crisfield, to determine exactly where the bench will go.
Dr. Crisfield opened the meeting by introducing Dr. Christine Burton, who has recently commenced work as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction, replacing Elaine Vislocky.
Dr. Crisfield proceeded to report the "good news" that the opening of school "was carried out in fine order." He was particularly impressed by the new orientation program for incoming freshmen at the High School in which a "wide spectrum of seniors" volunteered to introduce new students to the building.
The "bad news," according to Dr. Crisfield, was that downtown traffic, given the Millburn Avenue construction, has "thrown some curveballs at us." Dr. Crisfield urged the community to get the word out to pedestrians, particularly students who walk through downtown before and after school, to be cautious given the change in traffic flow.
The "ugly news," Dr. Crisfield says, is that New Jersey lost out on $400 million in Race To The Top funding, and "that will affect us here, not that we were counting on any of that money, but it would have been nice to have, and I'm just sorry to say that's an example of not being able or willing to compromise and perhaps having an approach of hostile discussions instead of civil, respectful discussions." Dr. Crisfield's ensuing comment that the money went to the State of Ohio drew rueful laughs from the public.
Dr. Crisfield spoke of civility again later in the evening when there was bickering between Board members. He cautioned, "I'd like us to set a good example to those in Trenton who don't know how to compromise, to young people, and to everyone in between."
In the Assistant Superintendent's report, Dr. Burton told of her visits to all the school buildings this summer, and of encounters with kindergarten students the first week of school. She said she was proud to announce that the results are in for No Child Left Behind, and all schools in Millburn have met adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements. The schools have also met AYP requirements for the NJASK and HESPA exams, as well.
Much of the remainder of the evening was focused on the proposed changes to Naming Policy 7250. All members of the public who spoke opposed the policy, particularly the sunset provision, which states that after ten years, names will be removed from the "buildings, rooms, fixtures and structures" unless someone asks at that time that the name be continued.
Board member Deborah Fox, who has previously spoken in opposition to the policy, read a prepared statement in which she said that she takes comfort in the fact that the proposed policy, should it pass in its current form, could be short-lived. She suggested that even though the public can't vote on this, they could vote three Board members in or out in the coming spring election. The terms for Ms. Fox, Mr. Kamber and Jeff Waters are coming up this year. "That gives you, the registered voters of this community, the ability to elect up to three new Board members who will better represent what you believe is the community's opinion…This would give the new Board the ability to alter 7250…I hope this helps you to know what you need to do."
When Ms. Chapman said she feels that the Board should let go of this policy change and focus on the important financial issues the schools are facing, she was met with prolonged applause from the audience. Board member Rona Wenik agreed with Ms. Chapman. Referring to Millburn's "dismal financial situation" as a result of "draconian budget cuts from Trenton," Ms. Wenik said she's heard no Board discussion of suspending courtesy busing, exploring user fees for activities, or similar cost-saving measures other districts are initiating, because all focus has been on the naming policy.
Board Vice-President Jeff Waters responded that "we are working on issues." But, he said, the new Administrators are just starting their jobs, and "this is only the beginning of September…It's too early for the budget process."
In Public Comments, former Board member Ronnie Brown called the sunset provision "disrespectful, whether intended or not." She added the policy is hurtful and humiliating to those who have been named and their families. Ms Brown asked what the Board felt it was accomplishing by establishiing a 10-year limit to names. "A school naming policy should provide inspiration. What is an honor with an expiration date?" she challenged.
Another issue raised by Board President Michael Birnberg was that of whether the assembled audience represents the community overall. Birnberg said he makes his decisions not on what is said in public comments, but by what he perceives 20,000 people in the township want. This prompted resident and former Board member Abby Kalan to state that she has never seen a Board so disrespectful of those who attend. She thinks that simply by the fact that "they've taken the time to come here, the Board should listen to them."
Jeff Waters responded that "I respect and listen to every comment in the room." However, he said he saw similarities between the public's reaction to the naming policy and the numerous negative comments last spring regarding redistricting.
Rona Wenik retorted that to draw a comparison of the people reacting to the naming policy and those who were opposed to redistricting is "wrong," because with redistricting most people speaking had a vested interest. She continued, "The vast majority, in fact I'd say 100% of the people who have written and commented against this policy are those who have no personal interest in the outcome of the vote on this policy. They just have a visceral reaction as community members of various stripes and ages that this policy is wrong for our community and for our school district."