Education

Fear of Retribution, Secrecy Among Complaints Against Flemington-Raritan Schools from Staff and Borough Council

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Flemington Borough Council Credits: Curtis Leeds / TAPinto Flemington-Raritan file photo
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RARITAN TWP., NJ – Last night was a challenge for the Flemington-Raritan school board and its superintendent, Dr. Maryrose Caulfield.

At the same time that parents, teachers and former district staff were voicing complaints at the school board’s meeting, Flemington Borough Council members were voicing their own complaints at the Council meeting.

Complaints regarding the administration of the Flemington-Raritan School District have been mounting for months.

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Parents and educators have recently complained about mice in the school, a plan to eliminate Daniel Bland’s job as assistant superintendent that the community helped thwart, the possibility of larger class sizes and especially fear of retribution by those who criticize the school district.

Speakers at recent meetings have even included former district superintendents Gregory Nolan  and Jack Farr; Farr spoke again at last night’s board meeting.

A petition on change.org seeks Superintendent Maryrose Caulfield’s resignation. It alleges her “pattern of violating district policy.”

Marie Corfield, who is vice-president of the district’s teacher’s union, has complained that the presence of a police officer at recent board meetings “is about intimidation. They do not want you to speak freely.”

At last night’s board meeting, Corfield called the mice problem “disgusting. I have never seen it this bad.”

Retired Barley Sheaf principal Becky Hutto said, “The issue is leadership. The district is currently led by a superintendent ... who has failed to take the steps to build trust.”

At last night’s meeting, Flemington resident Caitlin Conway, who teaches fifth grade in the district, said she spoke “despite fear of retribution.” Conway said that although her evaluations identified her as an “effective teacher,” she was told she would not be granted tenure.

“I’m left to speculate that this must be something personal,” she said, and asked if she was “being used to send a message to the staff members of this district.”

Choking back tears, she said she felt inspired by her students and fellow professionals. “If I only teach my students one lesson in life,” she said, “it’s to stand up for what you believe in.”

Victor Sloan, a physician who lives in the district, instructed the board on its efforts to limit discussion at public meetings.

“You can’t tell anybody, including teachers, that they have to get permission to speak and to submit their remarks in advance,” Sloan said, after quoting the First Amendment.

In an apparent reference to the calls for Caulfield’s resignation, he paraphrased Harry Truman: “If you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen.” To rousing applause, one parent after another asked for the superintendent’s resignation or for the board to not renew her contract.

Parent Elana Korn said “staff and parents are being intimidated, and are fearful of retribution when asking questions and voicing concerns.”

Raritan Township parent Denise Collier also stated that many feared retribution and Jodi Ann Brush, a 29-year teacher in the district said, “I am afraid to speak.

“Where did the communication break down?” she asked. “I am mourning the death of the Flemington-Raritan School District.”

“We are afraid to speak,” said Anabela Tavares, a fifth grade teacher at RFIS.

Judy Marino, the district’s retired director of special services, described the district’s atmosphere as one of “intimidation, scare tactics, rudeness, coercion, fear, or pressure.”

Copper Hill School nurse Melanie Rosengarten – who is also the parent of a student in the district – told the board she was "shaking like a leaf” but, “I am tired, I am fearful of retribution. We have been ... demoralized. We have been stripped of our duties.”

Parent Mike Triano asked the school board, “What’s going on? We need answers from you guys. We’re not getting answers. I’m standing here talking to this wall, because that’s all it is. Because you won’t answer my questions.”

Meanwhile, Borough Council members were complaining at their meeting that they’re having trouble getting copies of the Flemington-Raritan School District budget.

Council member Kim Tilly, who is Council’s liaison to the K-8 school district, said she attended an April 24 school board meeting where the board presented an overview of the budget.

“I requested a detailed copy of the budget, and was told by the Business Administrator Stephanie Voorhees that I would have to ‘OPRA it’” under the state’s Open Public Records Act, Tilly told Council.

“I have all intentions of doing so, for the budget and few other items I need from them,” Tilly said.

“One government entity, requiring another governmental entity, to actually go through the expense of filing an OPRA request, is just outrageous,” said Joey Novick, a former Borough Council member. “And the mutual respect that should be there between different bodies – I cannot imagine anything more ridiculous than spending the public’s money on such a request. All of that should be shared.”

Novick, who is an attorney, added, “I am not even sure of the legality of such a requirement ... these are the records you need to conduct your job.”

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Council member Brooke Liebowitz. She said Council has invited school representatives “to come and speak to us and present the budget ... they couldn’t be bothered.”

“You should have access to that information immediately,” Novick said, “and not be required to  wait.”

School budgets are typically considered routine documents available for immediate inspection.

According to the state Government Records Council, “Immediate access ordinarily shall be granted to budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, including collective negotiations agreements and individual employment contracts, and public employee salary and overtime information.”

Emails and a voicemail sent to Caulfield and Voorhees this morning were not returned.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Kim Tilly's last name. We apologize for the error.

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