BARNEGAT, NJ – Early yesterday, Board of Education President Michael Hickey seemed fairly sure board members would cast a decisive vote that evening on proposed changes in the district. As it turns out, that’s not happening until next week.
Only two items were on last night’s Board of Education special meeting agenda. The first called for a one-time suspension of the by-laws, allowing the board to adopt a new school organization policy in just one reading. With just a simple majority of 5-4, the motion failed.
Hickey introduced the motion, stating the reasons he felt the school organization policy should be passed with just one reading.
“This policy (calling for grade band reconfiguration) has been vetted and researched, using scientific decision-making analysis,” said Hickey. “The time is now to make the decision so that we do not delay the administration from taking the steps they need to do to begin implementing whatever comes from tonight’s vote.”
During the discussion on the motion, board member Sean O’Brien pointed out that Robert’s Rules of Order calls for a two-thirds majority when suspending by-laws. “It’s pretty clear that they should not be changed by a simple majority,” O’Brien insisted.
According to Board Attorney Martin Buckley, there are situations when the board can suspend operation of a policy. However, Policy 0131 states this avenue applies to emergency circumstances.
Hickey described the vote an important one to not hold up the school district, while not deeming it an emergent situation. He, therefore, agreed to the call for a two-thirds majority, which would have required six votes.
Subsequently, the board voted on the first reading of the school organization policy. It passed with a 5-4 majority. The second reading of the motion will be at next week’s regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting.
Leading Up to the Vote
Prior to the vote, Superintendent of Schools Brian Latwis began a presentation supporting his recommendation of the grade band model. He gave credit to everyone involved in the yearlong analysis and also spoke to those with opposing viewpoints.
“We are all here as part of the same team,” said Latwis. “Ultimately, this is about putting our students in the best possible position to get a thorough, rigorous, and relevant education that prepares them for life after graduation.”
Principals from each of the schools, as well as other members of the administrative team, led the board and public through a 45-minute presentation of the available options. Additionally, teachers and parents spoke up on behalf of the grade banding model.'
A long time teacher at the Donahue School, Sarah Jo O'Neill said that she would hate the prospect of potentially leaving her school behind. However, she saw the merits of the grade banding option.
"If anyone is concerned about change, it's me, " said O'Neill. "I have been at Donahue since it opened."
While sharing how much she loved her school and her classroom, O'Neill continued, "My job isn't about me; it's about the children. I am passionate about the kids I teach, When it comes to collaboration, I am the only Math and Science in the building. There's nothing like having someone to talk to about our students and how to help them."
Sue Mayo, a Barnegat resident, and teacher shared her experiences as one of two “instructional coaches” within the district. She described her position as moving between the four elementary schools to analyze data and find research-based effective lessons. Mayo then works with the teachers to implement them. This sometimes puts her in the classroom with them.
Although Mayo has met with 40 of the 68 general education teachers, her schedule doesn’t allow her to meet with the special ed teachers. She’s also involved in helping her colleagues with professional development.
“I’ve seen the positive effects so far, “said Mayo. “Even in a short amount of time, our data is showing increases in the standards we impact together. The teachers feel supported and have a resource for them when they reach out.”
One of the major components of the reconfiguration plan calls for the delegation of more instructional coaches like Mayo. Latwis has emphasized this as a key to improving education in the district. The coaches will also give guidance counselors more time to work with students faced with social and emotional issues.
“I want to know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to put my teachers in a position to have success,” said Latwis. “The grade banding model allows us to do all the things we want to do and is also the most fiscally responsible.”
Parents in opposition to the prospect of losing neighborhood schools primarily spoke out at the last board meeting. At yesterday’s special meeting, Justin Deemer, a father with elementary school children district, acknowledged that change was never easy.
“Last year, I uprooted my family from Harrisburg and moved here to Barnegat, “he shared. “We fell in love with a house that was within walking distance to a library and a public elementary school.”
Deemer, who says his job requires him to work with data, felt the report was slanted towards the grade banding option and questioned why only one other district’s results were included.
Chris Sharpe, another father, had issues with the way the plan was rolled out. He first heard about the proposal last year when his nine-year-old daughter informed him that she would be going to a different school next year.
Sharpe went through a litany of his disappointments, saying that the plan has been poorly executed and still leaves parents with many questions.
“It appears as if we’re gaining six spots with the reconfiguration,” said Sharpe. “This means eliminating teachers in grades K-5 and increasing class sizes. Common sense shows that bigger class sizes have a detrimental effect on learning.”
Board members also voiced their concerns about the reconfiguration proposal. Citing a study done by Ross Haber, O’Brien said the outside consultant prepared their assessment on inaccurate numbers.
According to O’Brien, he prepared his own analysis showing that redistricting was a viable option. He said that his numbers worked to free up between six and ten positions and allow the district room to add some of the additional positions. However, O’Brien also questioned the need for a coach in every building, stating that businesses collaborate all over the world by other means.
“We’ve done quite a bit in this district to make things better in the last fifteen months,” added O’Brien. “Why aren’t we not first giving those things a chance to come to fruition?”
Latwis agreed that the district has addressed a lot of the inequities and need for resources. “However, what we are trying to propose is to put our teachers in the best possible position for success. The RTI data program is now run by our guidance department, which also handles many other duties.”
Three of the board members expressed concerns on two particular issues. Doreen Continanza, Richard Quelch, and Robert Sawicki worried that putting the Pre-K in a separate building could prove troublesome if funding was lost. They also suggested there would be too many people in the Collins School.
Both Continanza and Sawicki said they were not opposed to grade banding if something was changed regarding the division of the grade levels.
Latwis reiterated his position that there is a bipartisan effort by the state to increase funding for early education programs. He does not see the potential of a school closing if the funds were to decrease. The district could then move to a tuition-based model for preschool.
As far as the enrollment at Collins, Latwis said the numbers are nowhere near capacity. Special events at the school would be planned accordingly.
In response to a question posed by board member Dave Sherman, Latwis estimated that the highest cost to taxpayers would be with the redistricting model. “All together, we’re talking about needing $1.7M,” Latwis shared.
After the meeting, Hickey expressed his disappointment that the vote didn’t go through allowing a decision on the first reading concerning the school reorganization. “I think the minority members used parliamentary procedure to delay operations,” he said. “I find this is both fiscally irresponsible and not beneficial to the students.”
Continanza, who sits on the board’s governance committee, disagreed. ” We would have set a dangerous precedent if we made such an important decision with just one reading.”
Final vote on the new policy is set for next Tuesday, February 25 at the Horbelt School.