MILLBURN, NJ - In a meeting that moved from casual to laughter-filled to argumentative, the Millburn Board of Education explored a long list of issues at its June 6 retreat. No action items could be voted on in this session, which was devoted solely to conversation about such things as strategic planning, district goals, Board meeting procedures, community involvement and Board decorum.
Though the idea of a strategic plan met initial resistance from some Board members, once it was revealed the planning would be led by Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Christine Burton, who developed such a plan for Montgomery Township, there appeared to be agreement. Both Dr. Burton and Board member Lise Chapman described the plan as a “roadmap” that informs future choices. According to Dr. Burton, a strategic plan is “a clear path to where we will be going (in order) to improve what we do.”
New Board member Jean Pasternak suggested that the strategic plan might be one way of allowing the community greater input. She spoke of “an educated community” who want to become involved. Superintendent James Crisfield acknowledged the value of a conversation with the community, but feels that the strategic plan “isn’t really a good inlet for that.” When Pasternak suggested a survey, Board vice-President Eric Siegel responded that “real leadership doesn’t come from public polls,” and that in this town there are “no shrinking violets,” and “everyone with an opinion gives it to us.” Member Sam Levy added that professional surveys can cost as much as $30,000, and tend to be unreliable
Member Jeff Waters attempted to clarify the situation, by saying that many residents think the Board is running the district, when in fact “the people we hire run the district.” Waters feels it is important for the Board to “empower our administration,” and that “if our educators came to us and said they’d like to do a survey, we’d do it.” As for ways for the community to voice opinions to the Board, Levy stated that Board emails are published, as are phone numbers and that “there’s no shortage of ways to get in touch.” Newly elected member Regina Truitt suggested that this fact should be publicized more.
The conversation became more heated when Chapman suggested that the Board should initiate an audit regarding procedural business practices. Dr. Crisfield responded that “I’m a new set of eyes, along with Steve (Di Geronimo) and Christine. We have looked at everything and see nothing to justify an audit.” When Chapman persisted, saying “We need to clear the air,” Dr. Crisfield responded, “There is no air to clear.” Di Geronimo agreed with Crisfield, saying, “We have a well-defined set of business practices that is as good as I’ve ever seen” and complimented business associate Pat Balko for her work. Waters reminded Chapman that the new auditor hired by the Board was pressed on this issue and asked directly if she had any reason to believe a forensic audit was needed, “and she said no.” Siegel declared that “I’m not willing to give up funding for a teacher for an audit.”
Di Geronimo clarified that the business office has now instituted purchase order requisition forms and will require further justifications. At this point, Chapman backed off, saying, “Steve is putting in procedures, and that’s appropriate.”
Pasternak commented on the lack of decorum she felt she had witnessed during the course of the evening. “We don’t let people speak and finish their points.” She objected to the whispering and side-talking going on and urged the Board to “act professionally.” Truitt suggested that the Board Code of Conduct should be read before each meeting.
Other subjects discussed were whether to downsize the number of Board committees, and the fact that in other districts Boards have one work session and one voting meeting a month, as opposed to the two meetings in Millburn. Both Di Geronimo and Levy pointed out that sometimes something comes up that has to be handled quickly, and there tend to be too many things that have to be voted on for one meeting. There was a conversation about “budget buddies” who would inform another Board member what occurred in a committee meeting. Waters suggested it is the committee chair who needs to exercise judgment, and make sure the full Board knows a committee’s recommendations and finds out where everyone else stands. Member Rona Wenik agreed, adding that it’s “also incumbent on a person not on a committee to ask and find out what occurred during a meeting.”
Board President Michael Birnberg spoke of his interest in technology, and his wish for “every freshman entering to have a laptop. Dr. Crisfield agreed that “we’d like to migrate toward that,” but at this point “our network is not equipped.” Wenik warned that the “love affair with technology is seductive.” With the current 2% budget caps, she’d prefer to see the money go to “keeping teachers in the classroom and class sizes down.” Pasternak, who has children in private schools that provide laptops, sees their value and feels that these students are well-prepared for college and really know how to use technology for research and presentations.
Dr. Crisfield announced that at the next Board meeting the issue of World Language in K-5 will be addressed. He warned that this is a “zero sum game” and that “if we choose to do more of World Language, then by definition we have to do less of something else.”