Millburn School Board Discusses Expanded Language Options, Spending Cuts, Diwali Holiday and More

Resident Jyoti Sharma presses for the closing of Millburn schools for the Diwali festival. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Douglas Cundey outlines his opposition to the Core Curriculum. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

MILLBURN, NJ—A goal to have all Millburn world language students up to Level II by the end of eighth grade through increased classroom time and introduction of the Middlebury Interactive Language Program as an alternative to Rosetta Stone were among recommendations made by Millburn Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield at Monday’s board of education meeting.

Crisfield noted that, in the face of the need to cut the school budget during the 2011-2012 school year the district formed a community committee to recommend how to trim the cost of the $280,000 world language program.

Prior to that year, he said, there was a program in either the second through fifth or third through fifth grades with either one 40-minute or two 20-minute periods with the fifth graders spending a half year learning Spanish and a half year learning French. 

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According to the superintendent, teachers believed the program was only marginally effective and students had to “start anew” on language training in the sixth grade.

This program, at the recommendation of a community committee composed of teachers, other staff members and parents, was replaced with instruction via Rosetta Stone language software in the third to fifth grades and a program exposing students to various cultures in the kindergarten to second grade.

Crisfield noted the cost of that program was $50,000 a year.

During the 2011-2012 school year, he said, problems developed with the new program because of problems introducing the software into township schools.

Further problems arose with the software, according to the superintendent, during 2012-2013 due to a corporate personnel turnover at Rosetta Stone and a decision by a new management group in the company to base the program more on the worldwide web.

He added that, during the 2013-2014 school year, the program has been made better, but it is not at the level it should be, with an Ipad application involving advertising on the system, inconsistent performance and a business model that did not prove advantageous for educational use.

As a result, according to Crisfield, Rosetta Stone has proven unreliable and students entering the sixth grade still must start language learning anew, while they don’t finish Level II by ninth grade.

He added that a change is needed because the state is defining progress in world language more in terms of proficiency.

Under the proposed program, the superintendent noted, students will be expected to master the first half of Level I in the third to fifth grades, begin the second half of Level I in the sixth grade and complete all of Level II by the end of eighth grade, with the emphasis in high school on more rigorous and advanced placement courses.

The amount of time for world language instruction also will double—from 40 to 80 minutes—in the fifth grade, with the help of an intinerant, highly-skilled teacher managing the program among all the elementary schools.

He added the $90,000 cost of the revised program would come from next year’s school budget.

If the expanded fifth grade program is successful, according to the superintendent, additional time may be added at other grade levels.

On another fiscal topic at Monday’s meeting, Crisfield outlined suggested changes in the proposed 2014-2015 school budget that would trim $1,435,000 from the spending plan.

These would include: not hiring three full-time-equivalent technical support staff members, for a savings of $175,000—instead hiring contracted employees at a cost of $50,000—eliminating all new peripheral technical materials, such as smart boards and projectors, for a savings of $315,000; postponing the Glenwood Scbool roof replacement project until the summer of 2015, for a saving of $240,000; cutting two replacement vans out of the buildings and grounds department budget, for a savings of $45,000; postponing purchase of new kindergarten to fifth grade mathematics textbooks until the 2015-2016 school year, for a savings of $145,000, and making more aggressive assumptions on contingencies for health benefit funding reductions, utilities purchases and tuition for those covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for a total savings of $150,000.

The superintendent noted these reductions still would leave the district with about a $500,000 gap to fill between revenues and expenditures in order to bring in a budget with a 2 percent tax increase.

On another budgetary matter, district school business administrator Steven DiGerolimo reported that capital projects currently planned for the district would just about deplete the $1,600,000 left in the capital reserve account for the 2014-2015 school year. This represents the district’s share of funding for the projects necessary after state Regular Operating Districts, or RODs grants is applied.

On another matter, a number of residents contnued to press for district schools to close in celebration of Diwali, the Hindu religious and cultural festival.

Board vice president Regina Truit, who chairs the program committee, said the committee would continue to discuss the topic of Diwali at each of its meetings until it comes to a conclusion on school closings for the festival.

Resident Jyoti Sharma said although she is grateful that her daughter studies Hinduism in her seventh grade social studies class the community should recognize Diwali out of the realization that the community’s demographics are changing and to give Indian children a greater appreciation of their self-worth while enabling them to gain a greater appreciation of their origins.

Another resident read off the names of several people of different nationalities who, she said, were among 500 Millburn-Short Hills residents who signed a petition in favor of a school holiday for Diwali, while another resident said it was unfair that the third largest faith group in the community was not recognized and he was pursuing the matter with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Resident Dierdre Silverman also supported Diwali as a school holiday, in order to recognize those cultural background of all in the township. However, another resident said the school district, although it should recognize and honor all, had a limited amount of resources during the school year to allow for holidays.

He added, however, that perhaps school vacations could be changed to accommodate the celebration of DiWali.

On another topic, resident Douglas Cundey said he was opposed to the Common Core standards embraced by many New Jersey educators because he believes they will lower the educational standards of Millburn students.

Cundey quoted from literature he handed out prior to Monday’s meeting that said that “the federal government is acting as the enforcer to herd states into the ‘one-size-fits-all’ Common Core—in spite of the fact that three federal laws prohibit the federal government from guiding the educational curriculum of the states.”

Calling the standards “corporate cronyism,” the resident asked the board if it knew the economic impact of the unfunded mandates associated with Common Core.

Board president Jeffrey Waters replied the board would research the topic and post an answer to Cundey’s question on the school district’s website.

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