CHATHAM, NJ - An overflow crowd packed the Board of Education’s meeting Monday night to hear a detailed explanation of the district’s social studies program and express support for the board, Superintendent Dr. Michael LaSusa, teachers, and the district’s curriculum in the wake of negative news stories in recent weeks that portrayed Chatham Middle School as over-emphasizing the teaching of Islam and under-emphasizing Christianity.
Board President Jill Weber addressed the controversy, noting that several statements in the media drew negative attention to the district, in particular that no other religion besides Islam is being taught, which she called “patently false.” She also disputed a reported statement that none of the district’s curriculum meetings are held in public. “Not true,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t come, but they’re there. We have six, sometimes seven open curriculum meetings.”
The CMS supervisor of social studies, Steven Maher, and CMS social studies teacher Stephanie Lukasiewicz gave a presentation that described the district’s K-12 social studies curriculum, from kindergartners learning about various religious holidays to high school AP classes that examine the impact of religion on world history. Maher stressed that the school's approach is academic, not devotional.
“I assure you there is no confusion," Maher said. "Students know they are studying not practicing religion."
He went on to note that every district in the state has to meet the standard of teaching the five pillars of Islam and “nothing we do is different from the other districts.”
Lukasiewicz noted that Chatham students are first introduced to the basic tenants of Islam in 7th grade, but they also cover other religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, for example. They discuss how religion impacts the daily lives of people who live in different countries in many regions of the world, including Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
One high school assignment Maher described was to compare Hinduism and Islam in order to understand the origin of the Sikh religion.
“Chatham students will know that a turban is associated with the Sikh religion and not Islam,” said Maher, noting that recent hate crimes had been perpetrated against Sikhs who were mistaken for Muslims. Students also explore the foundations of Judaism and Christianity. “There is no way to understand world history from 1450 to today without understanding the Catholic Church,” he stated.
Maher also said that he was “proud to be associated with the teachers in this district, particularly in social studies, and I stand by them.” The speakers received two standing ovations.
Weber concluded there is “no evidence of one religion being valued over the other,” and no changes were recommended for the curriculum.
At least 18 members of the community, including current students, parents and senior citizens, went to the microphone to express support.
Mali Cassak, president of the new Young Progressives Club at CHS, described a letter in support of the board and LaSusa that she began collecting signatures on at 10 a.m. Friday. “My goal was to get around 60-70 signatures. Today we have 422. That’s one-third of our school.”
Fellow student Julia Contorno said that “to remove Islam or any world religion or culture from a SDOC curriculum would be doing the students of Chatham a disservice.”
Laurie DeBiasse of the Chatham Education Association said, “We are unwavering in our support of the board-approved curriculum.”
Jane Devlin noted: “I can’t imagine how much more the board could do to allay concerns.”
Lori Read was supportive of the district, but also stood up for the two Chatham mothers, Libby Hilsenrath and Nancy Gayer, who appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight program on Feb. 20 and were critical of the middle school’s curriculum. Read said calling the two mothers “poor White trash on Facebook was shameful.”
Beverly Lapuma also noted that the community needs to be supportive of free speech. “When people have a different opinion, it’s important to not bully them.” She also commented on the fact that Tucker Carlson stated on his show that LaSusa declined to comment and asked if a similar situation arose that he make a comment to clarify the district’s policy.
Weber interrupted to explain that LaSusa was only given a two-hour window before the show to comment. In an interview after the meeting, LaSusa expanded on that. “I got an email from the producers of Tucker Carlson’s show that night,” he said. “I responded with a comment, but my response was not included.” He also said that he was never invited to appear on the show.
Bob Higgins referenced the financial costs for the “many threats made against school officials, including against specific individuals in this room,” which led to an added police presence at Chatham Middle School and its attendant costs.
The meeting began with a discussion of the 2017-2018 preliminary budget. LaSusa noted that the three factors affecting the budget are state aid, enrollment, and health insurance costs. State aid is basically flat again, for the sixth straight year, so it is not keeping pace with either inflation or enrollment. Chatham has the largest enrollment growth in Morris County, surpassing 4200 students this year.
The health insurance increase is 14.5 percent, and LaSusa said he didn’t have any “magic sauce” for the coming health insurance problem. “Our rates are still lower than the state’s employee benefits plan, but with this increase in July we will surpass some of the state’s plans,” he noted.
The maximum tax levy increase the board could propose is 3.20 percent, but the working number is 3.09 percent. At that amount, LaSusa says there would be “minor” class size increases at the high school, but an additional counselor could be hired at CHS to keep pace with the influx of 50 more students there next year. In addition, $20,000 would be available for security cameras that principals have stated they need.
The 3.09 percent increase would add $293.23 to the average house assessment of $670,694 in the borough and $271.36 to the average home assessed at $792,971 in the township. It does not include any additional money for extracurricular programs, specifically sailing or paddle tennis, which parent groups have been advocating for. The existing sailing team is currently financed by parents. The board asked for a list of what cuts could be made that would get the number down from 3.09 percent to under 3 percent. The board must approve the budget by May 1.
In other business, due to the lack of snow days used this year, LaSusa said it was possible the Monday after Easter, April 17, would become a day off instead of a delayed opening, and April 18 would be the delayed opening; additional days off could also be added to Memorial Day weekend.