ELIZABETH, NJ – Last Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting capped a week of re-scheduling, cancelling, and changing agendas that left parents angry and several board members questioning the legality of the change in a sometimes emotionally charged meeting where at one point a board member accused another of “political grandstanding.”
The June 18 event was publicized as a special meeting to discuss governance team retreat, personnel actions, authorizations, reorganization, and public participation. President Ana Maria Amin’s first order of business was to announce that this was a regular meeting, which was re-scheduled from June 11 to June 15, then cancelled 25 minutes before it was scheduled to start. The reason given was lack of a quorum of five members. Four board members, Jose Rodriguez, Maria Carvalho, Charlene Bathelus, and Stan Neron, attended Monday's meeting. Missing board members were President Amin, board members Elcy Castillo-Ospina, Tony Monteiro, Paul Perreira, and Carlos Trujillo.
Board member Jose Rodriguez asked for clarification of Thursday’s meeting, saying, “Mr. Lehman (board lawyer) perhaps you could help me on this. Tonight is a special meeting. According to the Open Meeting Act, when we put notices about tonight’s meeting, I believe we can only talk about what is posted. In that posting, there was nothing about these matters. Can we still talk about these?”
Marvin Lehman responded, “At the special meeting, certain items would be placed on the agenda. If it is on the agenda, it is there for action.”
Board member Stan Neron also questioned the legality of the meeting, “Does this specifically state that it is there for action?”
Said Lehman, “It doesn’t have to be.”
Neron continued to question the meeting status and abstained from voting on all business matters. Carvalho and Bathelus also expressed reservations about the legality of the meeting and frequently abstained, often saying they did not enough time to study the issues. Said Carvalho, “I agree this meeting should not take place. After last Monday, there were things that needed to be acted upon, teachers, summer programs. So some things I passed, some I said no, others I abstained.”
Later in the meeting, Neron apologized to the public about Monday night’s cancellation. “Everybody’s time is valuable including the staff, superintendent, as a board commissioner I want to apology. Everyone had to re-arrange their schedules to be here. I just want to formally apologize for not having the necessary quorum.”
Board member Monteiro responded, “All our time is valuable and that is true, but so are our lives. I myself was caught on the Parkway and so were others trying to get to this meeting There were flooding conditions. I think safety and lives matter, instead of sitting here and make a show of political grandstanding.”
This prompted members of the audience to shout, “Were all five of you in the car?”
“This is not personal,” replied Neron. “I refer to the public about the cancellation, and everyone has their own reasons. I don’t think you planned not to be here. This is not political grandstanding, but I think the public needs to hear an apology from here.”
In the public comment section of the meeting, Christina Moreira, a member of a parents’ advocacy group Elizabeth Parents and Students Care, commented on this exchange. “I fear for my safety as did many others but I was here. I find it offensive for a board member to say he was afraid for his safety because it was raining. While that would preclude you from coming, I don’t know what happened to the other four. I think we are owed an explanation as to why the Thursday meeting was re-scheduled and why five members did not show up.”
In other business, board member Carlos Trujillo moved to shelf a vote on the parking situation for several schools sending it back to the properties committee for further investigation. The board also acted on a number of personnel issues, among other business.
Another issue to surface in public comments was what Moreira called “the stadium size Colombian flag” that was raised at the May board meeting. Former board president Carole Cascio addressed the issue, saying that veterans were upset about this. “I am a proud Italian American. I know you can be proud of being a Colombian, but you were elected to the board of education in the United States of America, and you should not have at any time another flag holding precedence over the flag of the United States.”
Her remarks elicited applause from the audience.
In other business, Latin teachers Robin Kieff-Koch and Lorraine Harwelik came to the meeting seeking re-instatement of their program that was cancelled the previous month. The three Latin teachers have 485 students from first year through advanced placement. Working together, they claim to have developed a solid program that has resulted in increases in scores. Said Harwelik, “Latin as a base orders the mind to a deeper level of thinking. The more progressive schools have either re-instated or introduced it.
“Grammar is no longer taught,” she continued. “Latin is the only place where they are getting a solid background in grammar.”