Councilwoman Shapiro Comes Under Fire for Letter to NJ Department of Education Supporting Charter School Application in Livingston

Livingston Mayor Rudy Fernandez, left, Township Clerk Glenn Turtletaub and Councilwoman Deborah Shapiro begin discussions at the May 23 Livingston Township Council conference meeting

LIVINGSTON, NJ - Livingston Councilwoman Deborah Shapiro found herself at the center of attention over charter schools at a conference meeting of the Livingston Township Council on May 23.

At issue was a proposed resolution to put the council on record as opposing the creation of a charter school in Livingston after Shapiro wrote a letter to the state Department of Education supporting the creation of a charter school application for the Hanyu International Academy.  The school, which would offer immersion in Mandarin Chinese, has caused controversy in Livingston, generating opposition from many township residents who are concerned about tax money supporting a school that appears to be aimed at a particular ethnic group with immersion in its own language.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Santola, who opposes support for any school catering to any specific ethnicity, believes that the resolution would avoid the appearance of a township council endorsement of Shapiro's support for the school.  Councilman Gary Schneiderman noted the opposition of many residents  to seeing tax money going to a school not part of the Livingston school system.

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 Shapiro found herself re-iterating many of the same points she made the day before on her blog about the issue.  Noting that a good deal of opposition to Hanyu is based on the idea that the quality of Livingston's public education doesn't require a charter school as an academic alternative, Shapiro re-asserted her point that charter schools are meant to provide school choice in affluent suburban areas as well as in urban municipalities with failing school systems.  She also stated that the Board of Education has the responsibility of handling the application, and that the Township Council has never meddled in the board's affairs.  She was also afraid of the council undermining any support for Hanyu from the school board when both the board and the council answer to the same voters.

Santola insisted that Shapiro's public support for Hanyu International necessitated the resolution, which also endorses more public input in charter school applications, to avoid the appearance of her letter to the state suggesting the council had endorsed the school.  Shapiro disagreed.  "It was not my intent," she said, "to speak for the rest of the town council.  If that was seen as the intent, I will do whatever is necessary to rectify it."

Shapiro stressed that she has no financial interest or direct connection to Hanyu, and that she only wrote that letter to the New Jersey Department of Education as a private citizen and as an advocate of school choice.  Hers was the lone dissenting vote against moving the resolution out of conference pending modified language to avoid the appearance of singling out Chinese-Americans or any other ethnic group.

The Council also discussed another issue Shapiro has championed, the creation of a Community Outreach Committee.  She argued that there was no down side to the Committee, which was suggested as a method of bringing in more of the town's growing but socially reticent Asian population in civic affairs.  Shapiro said it has the support of the town's diversity committee, whose activities are more celebratory in nature - marking Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the like - and that getting more people involved by the outreach committee would be a different mission.  "They are sanguine about having this Community Outreach Committee," she said of the diversity group.  "They don't see it as something that crosses their purposes."                

While Santola was supportive and suggested that publicizing such a committee would diminish the appearance of it being viewed as a vehicle to involve Asian-Americans in Livingston, Schneiderman was not so convinced.  "Why would we need a committee to get people to bring issues to the township?" he asked.  "We've got a public meeting every other Monday where people can bring up anything.

"I moved to town.  I got involved," he concluded.

"That's you, Gary," Shapiro countered.

The council endorsed preparing a resolution to create the committee and have the Council vote upon it.

Monday night's meeting had actually begun with a less esoteric issue - clarifying the tree ordinance, which the Council members discussed with members of the township Planning Board and members of the Livingston Environmental Committee.   The specific rules under review would require permits for removing front-yard  trees more than five feet away from a house and for removal of trees on property lines without a neighbor's consent.  Front trees less than five feet from a house and up to three trees in backyards could be removed without a permit; a fourth tree or more removed from a backyard would have to be replaced. 

The Planning Board and the environmental community representatives sought to address the need to contain soil erosion and storm runoff through these regulations, and numerous hypothetical situations, such as how to cap permit fees based on lot size and the cost of removing more than three backyard trees for private pools, were debated, with Councilwoman Shapiro expressing concern that permit applications and reports could give the engineering department more paperwork to handle than necessary.   The council gave consideration to caps on permit fees regarding front trees of less than six inches in caliber and fees covering properties of one acre or less. 

Mayor Rudy Fernandez said that the council should seek guidance from Township Manager Michele Meade in formulating a final ordinance.       

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