MILLBURN, NJ - After a year of negotiations, the Millburn School District and its teachers, secretaries and paraprofessionals are “only one short phrase away” from an agreement, according to MEA (Millburn Education Association) President Lois Infanger. This positive development had been indicated earlier in the evening by board negotiations chairman Mark Zucker at a Jan. 23 Board of Education meeting that was packed with teachers who waited patiently several hours before they had a chance to voice their repeated desire that “this process is concluded as positively and quickly as possible.”

Complaining that the teachers have recently been portrayed as “the bad guy,” and “out of touch” with current financial reality, Infanger declared “we get it…we live it every day.” She spoke of the cost savings her organization has offered the district over the past few years, and of the sacrifices made by teachers. Infanger told of the many teachers working two jobs to support themselves and their families, and of changes they’ve agreed to that will mean that “in four years we will be paying 35 percent of our health insurance.” 

She then introduced more than 20 MEA members representing all the township schools. Each came to the microphone sharing one piece of information about their life, their education and their work. Many mentioned all the extra-curricular activities they attend in support of their students. Others talked of colleagues having to postpone surgery for lack of funds, of single parents struggling to stay afloat, of many teachers working to earn higher degrees. One speaker said that because of cutbacks, she has the same amount of work as in the past, but fewer support staff. Another pointed out that a number of the teachers live in town, send their children to the schools, and pay taxes.

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“We continue to provide children an outstanding education,” said Infanger, and create “the # 1 school system in the state.”

Infanger concluded “As Mark said earlier, ‘we are very close.’ Friday let’s get it done!”

The main focus of the meeting was Superintendent James Crisfield’s power point presentation of proposed technology spending, first brought up Jan. 9 in the preliminary budget discussion.  

Determined to fix the network and bandwidth for district schools, Crisfield revealed a timeframe where equipment and engineering services would be ordered April 18, the day after the township budget vote. Work would begin district-wide July 1, 2012, the first day of the new fiscal year.

Crisfield anticipates the network will be fully functional Sept. 1, though he concedes that “we’ll have to adjust a little bit once all these bodies are in the schools.”

Seeing that the Education Center was filled with teachers, Crisfield said in his presentation, “The Case for the Network,” that “most everyone in the room has used it” and understands the need to fix it. Quoting from “The Partnership for 21st Century Skills” he declared that Millburn needs to “close the gap between how students live and how they learn in school.” 

To do this, Crisfield says that schools need “a reliable, high-speed, industrial-strength information network, and bemoans the “brutal” fact that the district’s network “isn’t even close to providing our students with what they need to acquire and hone 21st century skills.” As he said this, he looked out at the teachers and added “I see heads nodding. You know what I’m talking about.”

He then referred to Hartshorn School’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, in which students got to see and hear via skype Principal Ron Castaldo’s niece serving in Afganistan. Crisfield got a big laugh when he joked, “We had to close five of our seven schools that day just to make the technology work!” He then clarified that this was not really why the schools were closed, but that the Skype probably would not have worked if other schools were trying to get on the network.

Crisfield spoke of how teachers currently use technology in their daily lessons, like Smartboard, iMovie, Study Island, and Edmodo, but that “reliable connections and insufficient capacity create frustration (at best) and reluctance in any case to try new and innovative technology-based ideas.”

Stating that the need for a more efficient network only gets stronger “as we look into the future,” he cited the possibilities of online access to textbooks, which Crisfield says the district only uses “a tiny bit now.” He shared that according to state sources there will be changes in requirements in 2014, and that online state testing might be instituted. 

Of the $1.9 million allocated to technology in the proposed budget, $580K would go to fixing the network problem. That includes $400 for network installations, $75K to network integration services, $85K to bandwidth and $20K to tech staff. The remaining $1.3 million goes to supplies and materials, administrative costs, instructional programs, and internet services. In addition to refurbishment and replacement of existing computers, Crisfield is also asking for 100 new ones.

At the end of his presentation, Crisfield warned that “our schools can’t afford mistrust from the past to derail current efforts," and promised that “We are not just going to talk about fixing the network—we are going to get it done.”

When asked by finance chairman Lise Chapman about $230,000 in engineering services, Crisfield explained that professionals are needed to integrate the network with existing applications and to overhall and monitor the server room. This work will be done by Dynetech, a firm Crisfield says has an excellent track record in Essex County and throughout New Jersey.

Member Jean Pasternak inquired why there is no exploration of outsourcing the network. Crisfield replied that he feels student data should be kept in house. He also explained to her that he is not in favor of a 3G option, in part because there are dead spots in town, but also because it will be more viable for schools once the industry has had time to develop a 5G option.

Board vice-president Eric Siegel agreed with Crisfield that it is a wise choice to be “investing in our own infrastructure."

Responding to an inquiry by resident Abby Kalan, Crisfield said he knows of no grant opportunities at present. When another resident suggested that some but not all of the tech expenses be implemented, Crisfield conceded that perhaps purchase of some of the new computers could be delayed.

Former board president Noreen Brunini questioned whether some of the funding could be pulled from reserves. Crisfield replied that they could have used some monies from the Capital Reserve fund for the $400K portion of the tech budget. However, he said, so many facility programs are backlogged that it was decided to use that money for some of those programs.

Millburn High School senior Matt Taylor, who videotapes meetings for HomeTowne TV, applauded the effort to put in a new network. He spoke of his frustration with the current network, especially in his film classes. He would like to see the network improved so students could have greater access to YouTube and Khan Academy, a free virtual classroom which he used to study calculus. 

Board president Michael Birnberg initiated a conversation about the new state legislation regarding school elections. He explained that as a result of the recently passed bills, there are three ways to move board elections from April to the general election in November: by School Board resolution, by Township Committee resolution, or by a vote of at least 15 percent of the people who voted in the previous election.

Birnberg has heard of other towns who have already chosen to move their elections to November, thus eliminating the budget vote as long as the tax levy is beneath the state cap, presently two percent. The schools' attorney has shared with Birnberg the pros and cons of this decision, and said that none of the boards he represents have taken action yet. When asked if there is a the deadline for choosing for this year, Crisfield replied that the state would need to know by the middle to the end of February.

Pasternak said she’s on the fence about the change. On the positive side, she thinks more people will vote in November, and it could save the district the money and time of holding an April election and promoting the budget. She added that the district could vote to change back in four years. The minus is that she feels that there’s a discipline that comes from needing to account for each budget line in order to have the budget approved by the community.

Siegel sees the up side, saying, “We still have to keep the budget under two percent--still have to do the work.” He also thinks more people would come out to vote if the school board election is in November.

Birnberg concurred, saying that one safeguard is that the budget still has to be approved by the county even if there is no vote, and that “I’m held accountable every three years.”

Former finance chairman Jeff Waters noted that this idea “has been floating around for several years.” Originally, he had a “strong visceral feeling” against it, believing the public ought to have a right to vote.  His thinking has changed now that the cap has gone from four percent to two percent. His concern though is that moving the vote to November might cause the school board election to get swept up in partisan politics.

Member Sam Levy added that while the current April board election brings out voters well-informed about school issues, the voter pool in November is different. He sees a risk that these people will vote for candidates who have "pandered to the mood of the nation."

Resident Jeff Diecidue said in public comments that he thinks this is “a poorly constructed bill.” Noting that there’s a long history in New Jersey of voting on school budgets, Diecidue does not want to see that right taken away. He echoed a concern voiced earlier by board member Regina Truitt that the legislation is “questionable constitutionally” and requested the board let the public vote on the final decision.

Diecidue and Kalan both brought up the fact that so far there is no World Language curriculum in elementary schools. The board and administration eliminated World Language teachers last year stating their intention to institute an online program like Rosetta Stone for this year. At the previous board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Christine Burton explained that although she had expected to try out several programs this winter, she and her associates still have not found language programs they would want to pilot, but that they are still researching possibilities.

Crisfield announced the annual open forum at Millburn High School Sunday, Jan. 29 from 2-4 p.m. Board members and administration will be present in a less formal format than that of regular meetings. The public can ask questions and get the answers they seek from the BOE. The first half-hour will be a brief summary of the upcoming strategic planning process. Crisfield clarified that everybody who expressed interest in participating in the planning process will get to do so starting with the kickoff in February or March. Pasternak urged residents to attend the forum, and warned that this would be a “missed opportunity” if people don’t come.