RARITAN TWP., NJ – This week’s meeting of the district’s K-8 school board was unlike any other in recent memory. And it was the first to be led by Flemington-Raritan School District Interim Superintendent Dr. Johanna Ruberto.
Many previous meetings have been raucous and marked by complaints from the public. There were complaints about student safety and a shortage of nurses in the schools; there were demands from parents and some school board members that board president Anna Fallon resign from that post; that previous district Superintendent Dr. Maryrose Caulfield was secretive, vindictive and ignored district policies and should be removed from the district immediately; and health concerns because of mice at Robert Hunter School.
There was none of that on Monday.
“I hear the thunder,” Ruberto said of the evening’s threatening weather. “Let’s keep it on the outside.”
Ruberto got her wish.
Ruberto said her brief tenure in the district “confirmed what I knew as a citizen. This is a fine district.”
She acknowledged, “There is an imbalance right now.” But she promised, “If you just give us a little time, we’ll get things back in balance.”
Ruberto repeatedly stressed the value of communication among staff and the community.
“A year from now you’re going to have a new superintendent. Isn’t that exciting?” she asked. “We want to be ready for that person ... So all of us, we have a tremendous amount of work to do here.”
It’s important “that as a district, we all take ownership for the way we all work ... We should all treat everybody with kindness and respect, even when you do something wrong,” she said.
Notably absent from the dais was Fallon – who is on vacation – and an attorney from John B. Comegno II’s law firm. The board was asked whether the attorney’s absence marks a change in policy.
The “attorney is legal counsel for the district,” Ruberto said. “The attorney is not the superintendent’s attorney – I have my own – and it’s not even the board’s attorney.
“I don’t usually bring an attorney in unless they’re giving legal updates to the board concerning litigation,” Ruberto said. “I don’t like to spend money on things we don’t need,” she added, a remark that brought the loudest applause at the meeting.
That’s not the only change Ruberto has made. She sought, and the board approved, an increase from $150 to $175 per day for substitute school nurses. She’s also pursuing a “systemic approach” to the nurse staffing problem, including adding three additional nursing agencies to the pool the district uses to hire the substitutes.
Ruberto is also seeking parents cooperation in supporting a “chain of command.”
“Everything starts with our teachers,” Ruberto said. “If you have an issue with your child, you start with the teacher. Having been a teacher for 16 years, I never met a teacher who didn’t serve the parents.”
Ruberto said that, “If a parent calls me, I refer them right back to the teacher” and remarked that school board “members will not solve the problems your children have in school.”
There were so few speaking during the public comment period that board member Michael Stager, who ran the meeting, said at the end of the first public comment period, “I don’t feel right moving forward. Normally this takes longer.”
One who spoke was Barbara Simoncelli.
“We’ve talked over and over about the house that we’ve built by all the people that have been here for 35 years and what we value,” she told the board about the district and its problems. “You have demonstrated that you heard us.” To applause, she said, “It’s a pleasure.”
Rachael Ladd, who has been active in seeking change in the district, acknowledged, “It does feel like a breath of fresh air. It does feel like we can go back ... to be being parents again.”
Ruberto stated repeatedly that she sees her role as one of providing service.
“I’ve been in 10 districts not because I’ve been thrown out. I’ve chosen to leave,” she said. “If I can’t work for my children and the people I service, what’s the point?
“Did you get that for the paper?” she asked of her remark. “It’s a good quote.”
The board’s next scheduled meeting is Aug. 28, when Ruberto said she expects to have a candidate to name as the new Copper Hill School principal. One additional meeting may be held before then to vote on personnel issues, she said.