LIVINGSTON, NJ – Members of the Livingston Public Schools (LPS) community turned out in force at Wednesday’s Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meeting to voice their opinions both in support of and opposition to the pending resignation of LPS Superintendent of Schools Christina Steffner.
Although the resignation was added as a surprise agenda item only hours before the meeting began, the room was packed with Steffner supporters and detractors who stood in line during public comment to offer their thoughts.
The division of the LBOE reflected the community’s division with longstanding board members President Pamela Chirls, Vice President Charles “Buddy” August and member Ronnie Konner voting to accept the resignation and members Samantha Messer and George Chen (elected in 2016) voting against the motion.
The acceptance of the resignation by the 3-2 margin confirms the exit of the seventh superintendent to serve in the district within an 11-year period.
Several members of the public expressed concern over the lack of communication and transparency between the LBOE and the community.
Common questions asked included why such a crucial item was not announced well enough in advance to give members of the public ample opportunity to attend and have their voices heard; if the LBOE could confirm or refute rumors that the board had recently reached out to the New Jersey State Department of Education to get approval to release the superintendent from her duties; why the change was coming so close to the start of the new school year; what the succession plan would be; and what a search to replace the superintendent would ultimately cost Livingston taxpayers.
As LBOE policy prohibits board members from commenting or discussing any aspect of personnel issues in a public forum, members of the board cited this reasoning as to why these questions would need to remain unanswered. They did, however, leave the door open to providing partial answers on the items they could address during a special meeting being added for Monday, July 30 at 7 p.m.
Although the LBOE members declined to comment, members of the public remained convinced that Steffner’s exploration of the feasibility of implementing random student drug testing, which remained the focus of many LBOE meetings earlier in the year, contributed to the friction that led to Steffner’s resignation. Steffner shelved the polarizing issue midyear in favor of hosting more parent information sessions on drug use and prevention instead.
Several of those who spoke mentioned the strife and lack of support demonstrated by the LBOE for the superintendent.
“There were a lot of taxpayers that were happy with the direction this administration was taking the district,” said one attendee who described the growing animosity between select members of the board and Steffner as palpable. “We had consistency for the first time since 2013. We are now back in neutral.”
Another member of the public said that “the culture of this board needs to change,” and was concerned that most of the school community was not aware that the LBOE was intended to vote on Steffner’s resignation this week.
“In less than 24 hours, we have a list of over 150 names in support of Mrs. Steffner,” one parent said, reporting that a letter in support of the superintendent was submitted to the LBOE by the Parent-Teacher Council in March.
Reading from her own letter of support, the parent said, “I believe that Christina Steffner has been a great asset to our district providing strong and consistent leadership. I believe that Mrs. Steffner’s dedication to our students’ overall well-being provides a new, fresh and positive atmosphere for our schools that we have not had in years.”
One town official added that in his time as a juvenile detective, he has worked with four or five superintendents and that Steffner “is hands down the best one [he has] ever had a relationship with.”
“We work very closely,” he said. “I call her and she calls me. We run things by each other. She cares about the kids to the level I haven’t seen with other superintendents. She is a benefit to this town.”
Some did not agree, however. One detractor took the podium to state his opinion that the district has “a superintendent who thinks that policy comes from her and tells the board what to do.”
“We voted for the board and we have a board that makes policy, not a superintendent,” he said. “To the board members who’ve taken this brave step, I applaud you. I think you’re doing the right thing for us.”
Several commented that they recognized the increasing importance of attending board meetings to ensure that parents have a say in the forthcoming superintendent search and other important matters impacting the schools. Many also said that they would take the opportunity to state their position when casting their votes for the two open LBOE spots that will become vacant in November.
To read Steffner's farewell address given on Wednesday “with a great deal of thought and very mixed emotions," click HERE.