MILLBURN, NJ - In a unanimous vote, the Millburn school board approved a three-year contract with the Millburn Education Association (MEA) at the May 29 meeting. The vote was greeted with long applause from an assembled audience of blue-shirted teachers, secretaries and paraprofessionals, all represented by the MEA.

Negotiations chair Mark Zucker announced at the top of the meeting that the contract had already been ratified by the MEA, and said that “it is the opinion of the Negotiations Committee that the contract should be approved at tonight’s meeting.”

Agreement was finally reached after 16-18 months of negotiations, accusations, impasses, mediation and eventually one successful fact-finding session. The new contract will run through June 30, 2014. 

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According to Zucker, the agreement provides for a two percent annual increase. Lois Infanger, President of the MEA, clarified after the meeting that this increase is for the overall fund, and gets disbursed to teachers in proportionate amounts based on the salary guide approved by the board and the union. 

The contract also includes a $1,750 one-time/non-recurring/non-pensionable payment to the MEA membership to offset the cost of excess out of pocket expenditures incurred by members in the aftermath of the changeover to the state health plan that took place last summer.

Holding up the agreement for several months were what both parties had described as “three little words” regarding any further adjustments to health benefits. The language finally approved assures that new benefits would be “materially equal to“ those in effect at the time a change is made.

The agreement doesn’t reimburse teachers for their state-mandated contribution to health benefits. 

There is a cap on the amount teachers are paid if they opt out of the state plan. As Zucker states, “Whereas formerly the dollar figure was a percent of the premium without a cap, it is now a percent of the premium up to a maximum of $5,000, whichever is less.”

Michael Birnberg, board president, thanked Zucker and Sam Levy for their work on the negotiations committee, along with Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield, Infanger, and the union itself. Acknowledging that concessions were made on both sides, Birnberg said that “if no one’s happy, maybe we’re at a good place.”  He emphasized that “now is the time we come together and we move forward.”

At this point, the MEA is already one year into the new contract. Since negotiations usually begin the January before a contract expires, that means there is only a year and a half before talks start again. Infanger says she starts “prepping” six months before negotiations, so she only has one year to “focus on what I really do—teaching.”

In other BOE news, Crisfield admitted it had been a “challenging” day in the schools as a result of a power outage that had begun in late morning at Millburn High School. He described the situation as a “no win” since some parents were upset the school didn’t close, but others would have complained if students were let out early. 

Just before the meeting, Crisfeld had sent out a note to all school families refuting a complaint that there were mold issues in the middle school. Crisfield had planned to send the email sooner, but power was off in the Ed Center till early evening.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, local listserves were filled with parent dialogues responding to a letter from a music teacher claiming her tests had revealed mold in a middle school music room.

In his letter, Crisfield emphasizes that there is “NOT a mold epidemic at Millburn Middle School, nor are there any other IAQ (indoor air quality) concerns that are out of the ordinary.” 

He proceeded to explain that when he first heard a complaint from "one particular employee" in December, the areas in question were tested by a certified IAQ testing firm. The firm made some “cleaning/maintenance recommendations” which Crisfield clarified are typical outcomes from such testing protocols. After following the recommendations, the areas were re-tested and the results were in the “normal” range for such spaces.

In May, responding to an anonymous complaint submitted to PEOSH, the public employees version of OSHA, the areas were tested again by a different certified IAQ firm. This time “multiple staff members” were interviewed, and “the results were similarly within normal tolerances.” Crisfield said that this information has been submitted to PEOSH, which will issue a report soon.

Board member Jeff Waters spoke up to re-state the fact that all tests came back in the normal range. Levy cautioned the public about relying on blogs and innuendo. Alluding to the community emails about the mold issue, he said that they were based on claims “not close to being true.” Birnberg agreed, saying that it is wrong “to create a panic situation where there is no need for panic.”

Crisfield noted that the most recent inspection report mentioned that water is penetrating several places on the roof, a fact already known to the administration. There is already a $250K roof replacement project planned for this summer intended to address this issue. 

Early in his tenure as superintendent, Crisfield advocated for infrastructure improvement. One of the two largest expenses in this year’s budget is maintenance and repair to school buildings. Crisfield said the roof issue “highlights the need to pay attention” and “the importance of carrying out such ‘invisible’ maintenance projects, even those with a high price tag.” He promised that “we remain committed to doing just that,” and that he will continue to give progress reports on this and other building improvement projects.

Controversial personnel changes also were approved by the board. Popular Millburn Middle School music teacher Fred Czarnecki has been transferred to the elementary schools, and will be replaced by elementary school music teacher Adrienne Blossey.

Some parents have voiced concern on a local listserve regarding this personnel change, saying that they felt Czarnecki's transfer to the elementary schools will be a great loss to the middle school music department.  Others have advocated a letter-writing campaign to attempt to alter the administration's decision.

Board member Lise Chapman questioned the impact of these changes on the music program, and complained that this wasn’t reviewed in the program committee. She abstained from the vote.

Crisfield referred to the two recent national polls that gave high marks to Millburn High School. In the Newsweek Report Card on schools, MHS is #83 in the country, and #4 in New Jersey. Among traditional public schools with open enrollment, as opposed to specialized schools who select their students, MHS is #20 in the country and #1 in New Jersey.  In the US News and World Report rankings, Millburn received a “gold star” and was ranked 12th in the state and 214th in the country.  Although Crisfield didn’t mention either poll by name, he said he was proud Millburn was recognized and that this is a result of  the “outstanding achievement record by students and staff.”  He then turned to the audience of teachers and said, “That means the people in this room.” This prompted the evening’s second outburst of applause.

Assistant Superintendent Christine Burton announced that the book selected for The Big Read, a new high school program, is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." For the first time, all grades will be reading the same book.  When asked how the book was selected, Burton explained there were four books under review, and that the high school committee was looking for a book that would provoke rich discussion across a wide range of reading levels. Parent Amy Talbert added that there is a plan in place for members of the Lacks family to speak at the high school next year.

The appointment of Dr. Michele Gilsenan as sports doctor prompted a discussion of how to track injuries. Waters declared it a “great issue,” saying that things have changed in the past decades. Kids now specialize at a younger age and play year round. He warned that this can lead to repetitive stress injuries.

Member Regina Truitt wondered if there is a way to track whether students are cleared to return to sports too soon after an injury, and are made to run in pain. Chapman said she gets emails and calls from parents whose kids get injured in sports, and that there needs to be more information going forward.

Truitt praised a recent event where Millburn graduates returned to speak of their university experiences and the ways the Millburn schools prepared them for college. The students spoke highly of their Millburn education, but they did name certain courses they wish they had been offered.

Board member Jean Pasternak, who had also attended the event, brought up innovative programs in neighboring districts. South Orange/Maplewood schools offer courses in robotics, and their teams are state champions. New Providence has initiated a program called “solar sprints” in which students design, build and research solar racing cars. According to Pasternak, this gives students more expertise in solar energy.

Pasternak also cited an article by former MHS Principal Keith Neigel, in which he talks of giving students greater control over issues that directly affect the quality of their education. He mentioned the student government association and the student liason committee, and the ways they were engaged in projects that made “significant changes in Millburn’s curriculum, instructional program, and regulations governing student behavior.” Neigel described how each year, “student groups select a problem to research and study, conduct full investigations, recommend changes, and propose their ideas to the faculty.” The process then culminated with students presenting their findings to the BOE and the public for approval.

The board voted to accept donations from Hartshorn School PTO for $5,398 to go toward the purchase of an ATV 4X4 vehicle to be used for removing snow, transporting materials and general maintenance purposes.  Also approved was $7,959 from the Wyoming School PTO for the purchase of new risers with guardrails for the school auditorium.

Zucker read a statement saying that he will not be running for another term on the school board. Zucker, who has served two terms, says his decision is based upon his belief that "school districts and townships or communities are best served by a constant infusion of new ideas and perspectives.  It is time now to pass the baton to a new enthusiastic, community minded citizen..."  Sam Levy and Eric Siegel, whose terms are also up in November, have not officially declared whether they are running again. 

Candidates for Board of Education must submit their petitions to the County Clerk in Newark by June 5, 2012 at 4 p.m. Candidates may still download the packet from the school district website at http://www.edline.net/pages/Millburn_Township_PS/School_Budget_2012-2013/School_Board_Candidates_Packet