VERNON, NJ - A dull moment there was not at Vernon’s Board of Education meeting at the high school Thursday night.
Students were recognized for their achievements in both reading and poetry before the meeting took a turn to an in-depth discussion on the feasibility of enacting a combined solar panel and roof repair project at Vernon Township High School. The Board brought in attorney Anthony J. Pannella to give his legal advice, on whether it would be cost effective for Vernon to attempt such an endeavor.
But before the evening succumbed to a legal conversation about solar panels, there were literary festivities to be had. Vernon’s Superintendent Dr. John Alfieri began by honoring students in preschool through fourth grade who had “won” the Mind Traveler’s Library Fund Reading Incentive Award. Award recipients Teagan Ressler, Bradley Kurdziel, Jack Austin, Ayden Sibbern, Anthony Gallow, Cynthia Schneider, Bella Brooks, Madison MacPherson, and Jonah Revelant, were presented with both a certificate and a book, for their achievements in reading.
“This is clearly one of the best things we do, this is what education in Vernon is all about,” said Alfieri.
“With a good book, you can be lying in bed, perhaps on a snow day, and your mind can travel a million miles away, but you’re still in the same place,” said Alfieri.
After the young students accepted their awards, Dr. Charles McKay, AP English teacher at Vernon High School, had warm words of congratulations to the three finalists for the 2013 Poetry Out Loud competition. A program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud supports our nation’s youth in their exploration of poetry, by way of memorizing and reciting poems from a plethora of time periods and genres.
Out of 76 participating students, judges MaryAnn Kaicher, George Lightcap and Jeannie LaBlanc chose Eli Brock, reciting “Self-Portrait” by Chase Twichell, for third place and the bronze medal, Mariajesus Valdes, who recited “Bilingual” by Rhina Espaillat, for the silver medal, and finally Julia MacDonald, reciting “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand, for the much-coveted honor of the first place gold medal. As goal medal winner, MacDonald, a senior at the high school, will perform her selected poem “Eating Poetry” in Morristown, for the North Regional Poetry Out Loud competition.
Quoting a Latin phrase, McKay said medalists Brock, Valdes, and MacDonald were “libens volens potens” or “ready, willing and able.” McKay invited the three selected students to recite their poems of choice from memory on stage Thursday evening, to give board members and the audience a sampling of Poetry Out Loud.
After pressing pause for celebratory cake and coffee, the board resumed the meeting to hear from Pannella on his recommendations about the possibility of a combination solar and roofing project at Vernon Township High School. Pannella was blunt.
“The words ‘solar energy savings’, to say it diplomatically, are an illusion.” Pannella began. “There is no solar system on earth that is cheaper to buy than the price you will pay at an electric company.”
“It’s all about the subsidy. It’s always been all about the subsidy. There’s no spinning gerbil tank, there are no solar systems that pay for themselves. But if you throw enough subsidy on it, it looks like you’re saving money,” said Pannella.
Pannella explained to the board that in his legal opinion, the reason solar projects were easy for school systems to justify in years past was because the federal government was offering irresistible monetary incentives for schools to adopt solar initiatives.
“We were stunned by how easy it was to get the money,” said Pannella. "In 2010 the grants expired, and the cash was converted to tax credits.”
Once the tax credits were subject to competition in the free market, Pannella elaborated, their value drastically deprecated.
Furthermore, Pannella warned Vernon board members that solar consultants often overstated the amount a school district was currently paying for their electric bill and understated the amount they would pay under a new solar plan, in order to “make your do-nothing scenario look as bad as possible.”
“Now if you want to do a solar project, we have to graduate into being accurate, because you’re never going to get a solar estimate at less than ten cents,” said Pannella. “It is exceedingly difficult to get a solar deal done in this environment, because the money is gone.”
“I would never encourage you to do a solar project unless I was one thousand percent positive you could get a good deal,” Pannella finished. “It’s only about the subsidies. If the subsidies are high, you can save money. If your subsidies are low, you’re paying an electric bill.”
“Thank you, for being here,” said Board member John McGowan in response to Pannella’s advice. “You saved our neck.”
An absolute conclusion on the future of the project was not made on the spot, but the Board agreed to consider Pannella’s recommendations in their final decision.
In non-solar news, Alfieri recognized Lounsberry Hollow Middle School’s sixth grade Critical Thinking students for taking first place in the Eracism Project, which, “joins diverse cultures and includes authentic debate for global competence and international mindedness.” The sixth graders made it through three rounds of debates, triumphing in the final round over Quality Schools International Bratislava, Slovakia.
Alfieri also congratulated students qualifying for the NJAC Fall Academic All-League Team, and the VTHS Theater Arts program, which will be competing next year in Edinburgh, Scotland for the International Fringe Festival. Senior Ryan Ward was honored as December Athlete of the Month in wrestling, and senior basketball player Julia MacDonald will represent Vernon at Seton Hall University on January 27, for New Jersey Celebrates National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
Recommendations of staff appointments and transfers were approved by the board, as well as recommendations for December’s 2012 Current Operating Fund. A motion to dedicate January 2013 as School Board Recognition Month was also unanimously approved.
“Do I hear a motion to pat ourselves on the back?” joked President Robert Hughes. The proposal was moved by board member Cynthia Auberger, and seconded by member Lori Parrott.
Additionally, the board acknowledged the Executive School Community Association as a “quasi-entity” of the Board of Education, and rescinded approval of the lighting contractor EMSA Energy, LLC. due to the fact that they erred in their initial bid proposal to complete a lighting project at the high school. Business administrator Steven Kepnes was approved to explore other contractor bids in order to find a qualified company to move forward with the lighting project.
When the meeting opened for public comment, Robert Oliver, a 20-year resident of Vernon Township, assumed the floor.
“I’ve started to get interested in what you guys [Vernon Board of Education] were doing, well, because my taxes were going up,” said Oliver. “My perception is that the board of education is caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
Oliver compared Vernon with other school districts in the region such as Sparta, Mount Olive, Jefferson and Randolph, where cost per student was less than Vernon’s, according to his calculations.
Addressing the board, Oliver said, “You’ve got to look at ways to either explain this to the community, or you’ve got to make some tough decisions.”
Alfieri addressed Oliver’s concerns, which had carried over from the most recent meeting of Vernon’s Board of Education.
“We’re beginning to take the per pupil thing and dissect it,” said Dr. Alfieri. “There are factors for why our numbers are higher, in some cases.”
Board member Doug Castellana expanded on Alfieri’s statement, stating one of the reasons the cost per pupil was high in Vernon was because of the large number of senior faculty members on the staff payroll.
He said, “As we see our senior members retire, you’ll see our cost per pupil go down.”
“But that’s just one factor, “ said Castellana.
“We’re studying up to 15 different factors,” added Alfieri.
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