FLEMINGTON, NJ - A retired Copper Hill Elementary School nurse has been appointed to fill the vacant seat on the Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education. 

Melanie Rosengarden, who recently retired after 17 years as an elementary school nurse in the district, beat out two other candidates vying for the appointment to the open seat at the last Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education meeting.

The board interviewed each candidate in public, met in closed session and then voted unanimously to appoint Rosengarden to the seat, representative of Raritan Township, and vacated by former board member Chris Walker in June.

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“Most people would think that a retired nurse would be running away from this, however, during this unprecedented time in our lives dealing with COVID, I really believe that I can help the district with my medical knowledge and be an advocate for our community as a whole,” Rosengarden said during her interview.

The seat became available after Walker resigned June 22, less than a year into his second three-year term, because of plans to relocate and an “exhaustion” from alleged pushback over district finances. He was first elected in 2016, and then again in 2019 as part of a campaign team alongside current board members, Dr. Marianne Kenny and Ed Morgan.    

Rosengarten, who once had children in the district, will serve on the board for the remainder of this year.

At the meeting, she announced that she had filed her petition to run in the upcoming general election. If she is victorious in November, she will remain on the board for the entirety of 2021 and 2022 until the seat expires Dec. 31, 2022.

The board is comprised of seven Raritan Township representatives and two Flemington Borough representatives. Rosengarten will not be the first new face to join the board this year, as current board member Jeff Cain filled a vacancy earlier this year.

Unlike Cain, who was the only applicant, Rosengarden beat out two other candidates, Caitlin Ryan Persche and Karen Finnerty. Board leadership did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the unanimous selection of Rosengarden over the other candidates.  

Persche is a former English teacher and former supervisor at North Hunterdon Regional High School, and has additional professional experience in fundraising. She is a former member of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

Finnerty is a substitute teacher in the district and has additional professional experience in quality assurance. If appointed, she was told that she would not be able to serve as a substitute teacher any longer, because it would be a conflict of interest.

Both Persche and Finnerty currently have children in the district.

All three candidates received the same series of questions at the evening meeting.

Each candidate had the chance to introduce themselves, and then received questions pertaining to the reasoning behind seeking appointment, understanding of the board member role, specific skills, community/nonprofit experience, potential conflicts of interest and areas wanting to see strengthened in the district.

Having been to a “good 80 percent” of the board meetings throughout her time in the district, Rosengarten, in addition to her contributions as a former school nurse, acknowledged her love and pride for the district having motivated her to want to give back post-retirement.  

She identified herself as a “critical thinker” and a “team player” with experience in policy writing, both in hospital and school settings, who enjoys “streamlining things in a creative, effective and consistent way” and “likes to redesign things or just find a different way that might work for more people.”

When asked about areas she would like to see strengthened in the district, she said, “I would like to help ensure that we have equity within all our buildings related to curriculum and materials to support all of our students educationally, socially and emotionally during this very uncertain time. It’s going to be a very tough year, and there’s going to be a lot of changes.”

She added that she would like to see more training for staff in order that they can “identify abuse, hunger, parent frustrations” in a virtual setting – all “hot button” issues in mental health.

“I really think that our staff is so amazing and they know their children so well in the classroom,” she said. “It might be a little bit harder to see a mark on somebody virtually, and then, because you’re not in the classroom with the child, and you can’t pull them off to the side to ask them a simple question like, ‘What happened?’, I just want to make sure that our staff know what to do with that.”  

During the interview, Rosengarden said she was not aware of any conflicts of interest in serving on the board, now being retired and no longer a member of the NJEA.

However, the former board member, who Rosengarden is replacing, indicated on social media why he believes she is currently ineligible.

“Board leadership should not have interviewed Melanie nor selected her due to state pension laws,” he said. “An NJEA union member has to be retired for at least six months before serving on the same board of education where one was recently employed. Ms. Rosegarden just recently retired this past school year. She would not be eligible to serve until January 2021. The Comegno school district law firm should know these state pension rules and guidelines. The same law firm last year told me that I could not serve on Hunterdon Central’s board of ed until 6 months after my retirement from HCRHS (Hunterdon Central Regional High School).”  

According to Janet Bamford, with the New Jersey School Boards Association, there is no waiting period for how long someone must be retired or separated from their employment in a school district before they are eligible to serve on the board of education. Candidates cannot be a current employee of the district and serve on the board.

But, Bamford said, there is a six-month waiting period to go from being a member of the board to being an employee of the district.

Rosengarden is expected to take the oath of office at a future meeting this month, pending fingerprints being taken, and other forms of due diligence being conducted.

“I would really like to take a moment to say thank you to the board members for this great opportunity,” Rosengarden said in remarks after the appointment. “I’m excited to get started, and Mrs. Finnerty and Mrs. Persche, I truly hope that you continue to attend our meetings and support our wonderful district.”