Residency Continues to be Major Issue for Millburn Board of Education

August 26, 2014 at 8:05 AM

MILLBURN, NJ - As it has for many meetings over the last year or more, the issue of non-resident students allegedly attending township schools drew accusations from a former board member and a strong response from a current board member at Monday’s Millburn Board of Education meeting.

Board member Raymond Wong, giving the property committee report in the absence of committee chairman John Westfall-Kwong, noted that the committee “felt comfortable” in moving forward with use of a Residency Gateway software program aimed ultimately at verifying the residence of every student attending public schools in Millburn and Short Hills.

School Business Administrator Steven DiGeronimo added that the district expected to begin phasing in the new software in October with a goal of full operation before the end of this year.

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Wong added that verifying residency also was a matter of safety for students because the district needed to have accurate contact information in order to notify parents or guardians in the event of a medical or other emergency.

Although Josh Scharf, a former member and frequent critic of the current board on residency issues, agreed with Wong on the importance of residency as a safety issue, he asked why, as he contended, a family was allowed to send its students to the township public schools over a period of five years when they only had a home as an investment property in the township while they were, in fact, domiciled in a wealthy area about 13 miles from Millburn-Short Hills.

Scharf wanted to know if the school administration was pursuing restitution from the family for, what he estimated to be, about $300,000 in lost non-resident tuition because the family members had been illegally attending township schools.

He also asked how Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield could avoid making public comments about such cases under the guise of confidentiality when the family reportedly had moved from the township this past May and, therefore, there was no continuing confidentiality obligation.

By not following up on the matter and possibly not fulfilling their fiduciary obligations to the residents of Millburn-Short Hills, Scharf said, was not fair to the residents.

During board comments, prior to which Scharf had left the meeting, Wong said the board took the residency question very seriously and has passed Policy 5111, which he called the most strenuous effort in five years to tackle the issue of non-resident students.

He added that, after residents had brought up best practices on illegal students in Kenilworth, Ridgewood and other districts board members had called officials in those districts and adopted those practices appropriate to the township district.

Wong also noted the board and administration, using the Verify Residency program, had compiled a list of more than 1,000 students whose addresses the software could not verify and Westfall-Kwong had explained on the district website how that number was narrowed down to the final number of addresses that required further verification.

This year, he added, the district required re-registration of students in two grades plus incoming kindergarteners—opposed to re-registration of only one grade per year that had been done in the past.

In addition, he reiterated the property committee committment to the Residency Gateway system and residency verification of every student in the township public schools.

If residents brought up any question of non-residency to the board or administration, he said, they would follow up on every report, He also urged residents with knowledge of illegal students to telephone school officials anonymously or contact him at his board email address—

Board member Rupali Wadhwa, however, said while it was great for the district to verify residency, the important question was whether reported domiciles were correct and legal.

She added that it was not fair if even one Millburn-Short Hills student was deprived of a college placement because a place was being taken up by a non-resident student.

On another matter, board president Jeffrey Waters praised school officials for introduction of a CPA algebra curriculum in the eighth grade.

Waters said that, previous to introduction of the new course, if students were not in the accelerated algebra program in the eighth grade they probably would not complete a calculus course before 12th grade.

Since introduction of the new program, the school body president added, there had been a 20th percentile increase in the number of sfudents taking accelerated algebra who had completed calculus by the end of 12th grade. He praised Crisfield, assistant superintendent Christine Burton and the school staff for undertaking the difficult tasks and class rearrangements necessary to make the new program work.

Board candidate Jyoti Sharma, however, said the board should give more details of the program and courses such as the expanded robotics curriculum touted as part of the increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Sharma also said school officials should keep a close watch on the possible expansion of the Middlebury language program from the fifth grade into lower grades.  She said she had purchased a Middlebury program for use with her home computer and it had crashed three times in an hour.

She added that, as an electrical engineer with a Ph.D. she still believed that human teachers were more effective in teaching language than software programs.

Wong, however, said the Middlebury program had operated successfully when demonstrated to board members. He also certified with Burton that the program had been successfully piloted in the district’s elementary schools for three months.

Similar successes were reported by board member Chase Harrison, who said he had observed the program in operation at Hartshorn School and had verified its success in helping students retain songs taught in the program.

Wong also disputed Sharma’s implication that students could not successfully retain language learning beyond age six. He said he had learned Spanish at age 13 and Mandarin Chinese at age 19.

He added that board members would carefully observe future implementation of the program.

Wadhwa replied, however, that studies had shown that the most effective language learning is accomplished at younger ages.

She said people should not generalize about a particular program and not judge only by opinions. 

However, in order to get state approval of its language program, she said, time was of the essence and a conclusion had to come quickly.

On another matter, Waters, Crisfield and other school officials praised the excellent work of director of special services Julianna Kusz, who is retiring at the end of this year after 14 years with the district.

Crisfield, in particular, praised her innovative approaches which, he said, worked in the best interests of children and often were accomplished behind the scenes because of the confidentiality required in the special education field.

However, former board member Jean Pasternak, a member of a state commission on special education, advised the district to look carefully for a replacement and work to improve the functioning of the department so it could more effectively deliver services to children with special needs.

Pasternak cited a court case, in which, she said, the judge decided that the district had failed to properly evaluate the student in question and had failed to provide a free and appropriate education and that the district had not properly compensated the student’s parents for not providing that education.

She said the district needed to carefully examine its gaps in providing education to its most vulnerable students.

The former board member also called “soft bigotry" a report of the program committee that noted that 16 students with individual education plans (IEPs) had moved into district classes this year. She believed these students were being singled out when students in other curricula were  not being highlighted, while there were no reports on students taking an overabundance of advanced placement courses, for example.

Board vice president Regina Truit, who gave the program committee report at Monday’s meeting, replied, however, that the IEP figures were used as a tool in planning classes, adding the committee also had noted the number of students taking advantage of advanced algebra courses.

On another matter, frequent Common Core critic Doug Cundey, president of Preserve Our Schools, announced Duke Pesta, Freedom Project education academic director, would be the guest speaker at a presentation to be sponsored by Preserve Our Schools on Friday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bauer Community Center in Taylor Park.

Pesta received his master of arts degree in Renaissance literature from John Carroll University and his doctorate in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature from Purdue University..

According ot Cundey, the speaker is one of the foremost experts in the movement against the Common Core Standards.

Among other charges, Cundey said the Common Core was devised by the Moscow Declaration, a multi-national attempt to take over world education. He also said the Obama Administration may be seeking to influence school board elections in Millburn-Short Hills and asked school officials to report how school election ballots are counted and report if the results are audited. He also said background checks should be required of all potential board candidates.

However, when Cundey attempted to announce his group’s endorsement of Sharma’s board candidacy, Waters informed him that public endorsements were not permitted at school body meetings.

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