Board of Education Tables MJS Lighting Replacement After Parents Demand More Information

“People are unhappy with the project because they don’t know what the project is,” said Joann Spigner of Garfield Avenue. Credits: Lindsay Ireland

MADISON, NJ—The Board of Education voted Tuesday to table the approval of a lighting replacement project slated for this summer at the Madison Junior School auditorium after parents complained they were not included or informed.

Several parents spoke about the Board’s process in the evaluation of the current lighting situation, as well as the plan for a new design which involved engineers, according to the Board, but did not involve members of the public or school officials who are most familiar with the auditorium’s lighting system.

“Who designed this system?” asked parent Jaime Conroy. “Was it a lighting designer? Was it somebody who designs theatrical lighting plans or was it an engineer? Who consulted on what the needs of the space actually are?”

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“These are questions that deserve to be answered,” she said.

Conroy, who has under her belt seven years of experience as the lighting designer for the Junior School’s musicals, said she was asked last summer by the MJS Parent Teacher Organization to conduct a walkthrough of the auditorium with Principal Coster and explain the status of its lighting system.

“I was told by Mr. Coster that I would be included in any conversation concerning the lighting since I was the ‘expert,’” she said.

That walkthrough was the last Conroy said she had to do with the project until she emailed former Superintendent Dr. Rich Noonan on March 2, asking for an update. She said she received a response four days later, and was told the situation still needed to be assessed.

Conroy said she brought the issue up again in a subsequent Board meeting, and was told the lighting replacement was on the “long list of projects” that the Board was looking into.

“Yet here we are (tonight) with something on the docket to be approved,” she said. “There has been no presentation to the public, and there has been no information gathered from the stakeholders.”

Process Versus Project

Some parents have complained about the Board’s perceived "lack of transparency" at several past meetings.

At Tuesday's meeting parents said they were not as upset with the projects as they were with the process by which the projects are assessed, approved and completed, including Joann Spigner of Garfield Avenue.

“Don’t get us wrong,” said parent Amy Marinovic of Niles Avenue, “we’re very happy that a very dangerous system is being addressed.”

Marinovic called it “ridiculous and unconscionable” that the Board wanted to move forward and vote on the project without the involvement of people who use the equipment and have expert knowledge of the Junior School auditorium in particular, and said many parents would be “very upset” if the Board did not table its decision.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Tom Ficarra said the current transition in Madison’s district leadership is the likely cause of this disconnect.

Madison has had three different superintendents this year, and has officially hired Mark Schwarz of Sparta to fill the position full time. He will likely begin work in August.

“The job of the superintendent is to create a process that the parents, the faculty, the board and the general community are happy with and believe in,” Dr. Ficarra said. “You have a new superintendent that I am confident in and so is the Board. I think you should give the new super and the Board a chance.”

Parents said the project announcement was last minute, but the Board said there was a reason for the way it handled things.

“Every year at this time of year we wait and see if there’s money left to tackle these much-needed infrastructure capital projects,” said Board President Lisa Ellis. “It has never been contentious until now. We can correct that going forward.”

Looming Deadlines

The Board will reconvene June 27 to vote on the Junior School’s lighting project at its next meeting. Some Board members said they were worried that a June 30 deadline to submit project plans would not allow enough time to complete the project this summer if Tuesday’s vote was tabled.

“Part of my fear is we’re going to have 14 days to try to get people into consensus and if we fail to do that, this money goes away,” said Board member Gary Lane. “Then you’ve got a guttered out auditorium with new wires but no lights, no system, no nothing.”

“You might not be able to get somebody that is on a state contract that can give you $100,000 worth of product that you want, and in the meantime we may lose our spot in line to get that part of the lighting project done,” he said.

The project comes with hefty expenses: more than $100,000 to replace the auditorium’s infrastructure and about $175,000 for a completely new lighting system. Though Board voted to table approval of the lighting system after a long debate, it did vote “yes” to the infrastructure improvements.

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