MILLBURN, NJ – Since September, Millburn Board of Education meetings have been shorter, even during the early busing controversy. Much of this is due to a variety of efforts to streamline the meetings, with the board appearing to be more familiar with agenda and personnel items ahead of time, and a choice by both administration and school board members to have public comments be just that—comments. Most questions from the public go unanswered at meetings, occasionally leaving residents feeling frustrated. However, as Superintendent James Crisfield explained, administrators then have time to research answers and post them later on the newly established question and answer section of the Board of Education link on the district website.
At the Oct. 10 meeting, which ended by 9 p.m., the issue of respect came up on a number of occasions. In fact, all township schools had just held a Week of Respect, encouraging students to deal positively with one another. The initiative was in part a response to recent state guidelines on Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) and included presentations in assemblies and conversations in classrooms.
Dr. Crisfield read a pledge students at Wyoming School were encouraged to sign:
"We pledge to give and get respect.
We will listen without interrupting.
We will make family rules about friendships and relationships.
We will talk it out and compromise to solve conflict.
We will step in when others are mistreated."
Former Board member Josh Scharf brought up a recent interview of middle school students by local parent Jaleh Teymourian Brahms which indicates that kids don’t take the new HIB policy seriously. According to the article, students do not believe that consequences will be implemented when HIB events occur.
Michael Birnberg, Board President, responded strongly, saying, “I just want to say one thing with regard to bullying. There will be penalties for this. If a child feels there are no teeth to this, all I can do is dare them to commit a bullying act and then they can see what happens…they can deal with the consequences.”
Birnberg himself brought up respect in terms of his tenure as president. Saying that he is usually not one to “air dirty linen in public,” he acknowledged that there have been some questions “with regard to me and my respect for my fellow Board members.”
“I want to put myself out there in case there are any concerns about me, my leadership and my role on the board,” he said. He emphasized that he has repeatedly said that he is just one vote out of nine on the board, that items on the agenda are given by the administration, and that he as president just sits “in the middle.”
As to a complaint that he doesn’t let people speak, he emphasized that “I go out of my way to have everyone weigh in.” He then asked the board if anyone had any issues with his behavior as president, and no one spoke up.
After the meeting, Birnberg told The Alternative Press.com that his comments were prompted by a call he received from a fellow board member during the Week of Respect. He wanted to bring the issue out in the open, and give the board an opportunity to weigh in if they chose to. Board Member Regina Truitt added “I think he’s doing a good job this year. He’s really reaching out to us during meetings and making eye contact.”
Scharf questioned the administration’s decision to allocate $5,500 for teachers to receive flu shots.
This prompted Lois Infanger, President of the Millburn Education Association (MEA) to take the microphone to thank Dr. Crisfield and the Board of Education “publicly” for providing the teachers flu vaccine.
When Scharf said that the teachers have “rich” insurance policies and “can get it free,” there was a chorus of “no’s” from a large group of blue-shirted teachers attending the meeting, who were adamant that their insurance policies do not cover flu vaccinations.
Board member and Finance Chairman Lise Chapman defended the choice to vaccinate, saying it was cost-effective, and would prevent absenteeism and substitutions. Board member Eric Siegel, a doctor, concurred, saying this was a “pennies on the dollar investment,” and “the right thing to do.”
When Scharf persisted in asking for the policy number that permitted a budget transfer for this purpose, Chapman responded that there is a health line item, and that it is within guidelines to transfer funds to necessary projects.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “We cannot forecast everything.”
Birnberg further clarified, “the law allows us to be flexible” and that in fact there had been “a transfer tonight of $8,200” (for repairs at Hartshorn School) and “if we went by the letter of policy we would never be able to do that.”
The board returned to the issue of the entrance age of children into kindergarten. In the previous meeting, board member Jean Pasternak had brought up a New York Times article that quoted studies finding that some students benefit from entering school at an earlier age. The current Millburn policy is that a child must turn five by Oct. 1 in order to enter kindergarten. Discussion at that meeting had centered on the possibility of pushing the date back to Nov. 1, or even Dec. 31.
At the Oct. 10 meeting, Dr. Crisfield said he and Dr. Burton, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, had discussed the matter and saw no reason to change the date. Board Member Sam Levy also opposed a change, stating that for the choice of date not to be arbitrary, “an awful lot of research would have to be done,” and that the district would have to find a way to fund it. Chapman said that research results on the subject have yielded varying results. Birnberg added that “historically we have hold-back issues rather than push forward issues.” Agreeing that the policy could be altered at any time in the future, the board voted in favor of maintaining the current entrance date.