Crisfield: Millburn 'Not Out of the Woods' on Charter Schools, Vouchers

Dr. Christine Burton and Dr. James Crisfield discuss charter schools during Monday's meeting. Credits: Sara Lazarus
The board of education discussed vouchers during the meeting Monday night. Credits: Sara Lazarus

MILLBURN, NJ - Even though the two charter school applications involving Millburn have been denied by the New Jersey State Department of Education, there is still considerable cause for concern, according to Dr. James Crisfield in his Superintendent’s Report at the Oct. 24 Board of Education meeting. 

One of the schools, the Hua Mei Academy, has submitted a new application, omitting Millburn and Livingston from its geographic area.  Maplewood-South Orange and West Orange continue to be designated as the sending districts for Hua Mei. Crisfield cautioned that this does not keep Millburn and Livingston from being impacted financially by the charter.

“Should their application be approved, and should they be unable to fulfill the total quota of students needed to open from those two communities, they can then reach out to any neighboring communities, including ours, to fill the rest of their quota," said Crisfield. "The funding for this would be the same as before, and would be skimmed off the top of our budget.”

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He added that another problem is that Millburn and Livingston were two of the most effective towns in mounting opposition to the proposed charters, but now have no standing with the DOE and therefore cannot formally object to the application.

Crisfield also warned that there may be efforts to push through a variety of new bills during the upcoming lame duck legislative session.  In addition to several charter bills, Crisfield is concerned about a possible voucher bill. He clarified, “This is not a commentary on vouchers or charter schools per se.  It’s a comment on how they’re proposed to be funded.” 

Stating that he will be monitoring the situation carefully, Crisfield announced that in the near future he will host an update session for the public, featuring legislators and educators. He encouraged residents to keep informed and continue to pressure the politicians who represent this community in Trenton. 

Board Vice President Eric Siegel and member Jeff Waters spoke of their concern about the impact of charters and vouchers on the budget and the district’s ability to provide a quality education. Siegel said  that this is “probably one of the biggest issues we’re facing,” and urged everyone to “please stay on top of that situation.” 

Member Jean Pasternak offered her perspective, saying that “sharing ideas is important” and that given the upcoming District Strategic Plan, the Board has an opportunity to take the ideas of the charter founders and explore them.

In other news, Crisfield presented his official enrollment update, using figures gathered by Oct. 14. There are a total of 4,927 students, a decrease of 14, or 0.28 percent. He acknowledged that the board had projected an increase, and were off by 40 students. There were 20 fewer incoming kindergarteners, and “for whatever reason” there were 20 fewer ninth graders moving up from eighth grade.

Crisfield clarified, “Just as we do with standardized test score reporting, we don’t jump into some kind of reflexive action on one data point, one year’s worth of data.”  He did promise that if over two or three years he and the board see a trend, they will start letting that impact their actions.

The Superintendent also provided annual statistics on violence and vandalism. In the past school year there were 11 incidents of violence, 3 of vandalism, 0 weapons and 5 of substance abuse. Actions included 1 in-school suspension and 13 out-of-school suspensions. Six victims were students.

Property chairman Regina Truitt and Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo both reported that transportation problems are easing though there is still room for improvement. Truitt said that they are looking at more efficient and safer ways to pick up and drop off students at Hartshorn School.

Pasternak warned that there are no adult chaperones when kids get off the bus at Harshorn, leading to confusion and chaos. Truitt assured her that this was one of the issues being addressed.

A parent who identified herself as Sha Sha spoke in Public Comments, and told of how her 7 year old son’s school bus from Glenwood School arrived at her home 20 minutes early. She had received no notice of any change in the time of arrival. When he didn’t see her, the bus driver kept her son on the bus, but was later told by his dispatcher to leave the boy off near his house on busy Route 124. Sha Sha, who had gone to Glenwood to search for her son, found him crying behind the backyard gate when she returned home.

When she complained to the Administration, she was told that it is school policy that first graders and older can be dropped off from a bus without a parent or guardian present. She challenged the policy, saying that this creates a serious safety issue.

Several residents objected to Crisfeld’s announcement earlier in the evening that regular board meetings will no longer be held in schools.  Abby Kalan said that meetings in schools allow parents to see other facilities, and give children the opportunity in their presentations to “show what they can do.” 

Member Lise Chapman agreed that holding meetings in the schools, a policy initiated approximately six years ago in an effort to enhance board-community relations, was a great idea, but one that has turned out not to be practical. Chapman explained that parents don’t really show up, except to see their children perform, and then they leave. She added that many people get confused as to where a meeting is. 

Jeff Waters reiterated something that Crisfield had said earlier, that feedback from the schools indicated that having meetings there was an inconvenience for students and families. Truitt added that she had heard that it was becoming a financial burden for PTO’s to provide refreshments.

Board President Michael Birnberg suggested that if a school wanted to show off a student activity or special program, they could invite the board to have a meeting there.

Siegel objected to a complaint by Kalan that this board has not been interested in developing relations with the community, saying that the School Board, who live and are active in town, attend numerous school and extra-curricular events. Calling it a “non-issue,” he declared that “I disagree with the comments at the podium.”  Birnberg assured the public that the board values input and doesn’t ever intend to “shut anyone down.”

Pasternak asked if there was some way there could be a conference call option, where those residents not able to attend meetings could make comments via phone.  Member Sam Levy replied that board members cannot legally participate through telephone conferences. Truitt spoke up saying that she liked the idea of a radio broadcast of meetings, even if there couldn’t be a dialogue.

Pasternak brought up her interest in a STEM curriculum, one which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. She pointed to a recent national ranking of high schools in math and science, in which Millburn was #163.  Saying that tech skills are “a common currency of the labor market," she spoke of data forecasting that careers in stem fields will represent 5 percent of the work force by 2018.

Birnberg asked Pasternak if she is saying that the schools shouldn’t focus on English and History.

Member Rona Wenik suggested that this is something to be discussed in the Strategic Plan, but cautioned that "every time you give more focus to one academic area, you lose another."

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