LIVINGSTON, NJ – At an emotional Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meeting this week, members of the board paid tribute to the two rising Livingston High School (LHS) seniors who tragically lost their lives in a drowning accident at Ramapo Lake and an iconic former superintendent of the Livingston Public Schools (LPS) who also died earlier this month.
Following a moment of silence for Matthew Poole and Isabella “Bella” Brodsky and former superintendent Dr. Robert Kish, LBOE president Pamela Chirls read an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem “When Great Trees Fall.”
“The reason I chose this poem is because when I was at Bella’s house, the person who was leading a service there reminded us that it’s most important that we keep Bella’s spirit in our minds and conduct ourselves, as she did, with kindness,” said Chirls.
LBOE member Ronnie Konner added that this past week has been one of the most difficult for the Livingston district.
“We mourn the loss of two beautiful students who would have entered LHS next month as seniors in the Class of 2019,” she said. “They were taken too soon and we, the Livingston schools, join their families, friends and neighbors and share in their loss.”
Konner took the opportunity to celebrate and share with those in attendance the many contributions Dr. Kish made to the district during his 12-year tenure as LPS superintendent. The impressive litany of accomplishments included reorganization within the school system that established two dedicated middle schools and moved the ninth grade classes into the high school.
As an advocate for strong curriculum, Kish incorporated assessment into the curriculum cycle, adding a supervisory structure to support the change. Kish was also the mastermind behind both the Alternative School and the career internship program that thrive today—resources that accommodate students who do not see college in their future but who still seek training and guidance to help them make the transition to occupations in the world beyond LHS.
Additionally, he oversaw the high school’s field conversion from grass to turf as well as the addition of a dedicated Livingston school bus fleet.
“Bob was a visionary leader in Livingston,” said Konner. “He worked collaboratively with the board, administration, staff, parents and students, as well as with community members who didn’t have children in the district. Bob Kish was a change agent in a thoughtful and a collaborative way.”
Konner added that Kish sets a standard for the board as it begins its search for a new visionary leader.
“He never raised his voice,” said LBOE member Buddy August who worked alongside Kish for nine years. “He was a person you could talk to. He was a gentleman all the time. He did such wonders for this district and he will be missed.”
The feel-good portion of the evening quickly followed, during which returning interim superintendent, Jim O’Neill, was voted in and welcomed back to the district he served during the 2014-15 school year.
Coming out of retirement in Alabama to assist the district while it searches for a replacement for superintendent Christina Steffner, who exited at the end of July, O’Neill is poised to lend is 40 years of experience in education to LPS without needing much in the way of ramp-up, thanks to his recent familiarity with the schools he’ll helm.
“[O’Neill] knows our children, our staff, our community, and most importantly, brings decades of experience in public education back to Livingston,” said Chirls. “While here, Mr. O’Neill initiated organizational changes, hired principals and supervisors, improved core curriculum programs and implemented the 1:1 initiative. He introduced a culture and climate that was respectful of the rich experiences of our teachers and administrators and the passionate interests of our parents in their child’s educational experiences.”
In thanking the LBOE for the warm welcome, O’Neill gave a sneak peak of what’s to come this school year by sharing his vision on modern education.
“You have to be careful in a day that’s a little obsessed with testing to not overlook what happens in nurturing a child’s spirit so that we make them so obsessed with what they’re not doing well that they forget to enjoy what they do well,” said O’Neill. “One of the obligations of schools is to provide experiences outside of classrooms so that they have many opportunities to feel good about themselves and to be rewarded.”
By way of healing the school community that’s been recently polarized over the revolving-door-of-superintendents environment that LPS has experienced over the past several years, O’Neill also provided a positive message as the community begins to move forward during this transitional period.
“It’s always hard for me to understand when school districts are not united in their good feelings because it’s one of the only places that every stakeholder shares the same goal,” he said. “Every parent wants a child to succeed; every teacher wants a child to succeed; school administrators want their schools to succeed; board members get involved because they want the kids to succeed. In the midst of that, there’s the greatest unifying feel and what happens sometimes is that we get sidetracked and get involved in issues that separate us, rather than unite us around that central cause.”
O’Neill will be integral in the search, vetting and hiring of the district’s next permanent superintendent.
“You will look at where we are, talk to stakeholders about where we want to go and make fair-minded, data-informed and always student-centered decisions and we welcome you,” said Chirls.