MILLBURN, NJ - All seven township residents seeking seats on the Millburn Board of Education on November 4 supported more open communication between the school body and residents as they addressed members of M-Spec -- the Millburn Special Education Committee -- at the group’s meeting on Tuesday.
However, audience members and M-Spec officers in attendance at the session made it clear that they feel current township school officials and board of education members have not been responsive to the voices of those supporting students with special needs.
Candidates appearing at the meeting were: Board vice president Regina Truitt, who is completing her first term on the school body, and first-time candidates Jane Gomez, Richard Gray, James Kasdon, Jesse Liu, Milton Resnick and Jyoti B. Sharma.
Although the impression was that Monday’s session was to be a forum for candidates for the school body, Sondra Kasdon, who is the wife of James and co-president of the group with Gomez, said M-Spec had invited the candidates to a regular meeting of M-Spec so that what they learned about the group and its purposes would help them in their deliberations when three of the seven take seats on the school board in January.
The candidates were, however, given a chance to introduce themselves and make short statements about their backgrounds and positions.
Gray, a township resident since 1994 and a retired attorney, said, although he did not know a great deal about the special education group, he had been doing much to familiarize himself about the board and the various issues.
He added, however, that is is important for the board to be going in the right direction.
Gray also said that “all of us want the same for our kids”—full access to the best free public education they can get.
Kasdon, who’s older daughter, Bailey, is dyslexic, said he and his wife had to work particularly hard to get a program in Millburn to address his daughter’s needs.
He added, “The current board is not holding school administrators accountable for programs they are bringing into the schools. The board is accountable to the taxpayers for its decisions. If it is not accountable it is wasting taxpayer dollars.”
Kasdon also said he wanted to see a more collaborative style on the education body—one which encouraged the voices of the public to be heard.
Liu, a principal at a New York hedge fund who also served as the board chair of the Huaxia Chinese School in Livingston, said he had learned through that experience and through coaching sports that listening to members of onc’s team is a key to success.
Resnick, a certified public accountant and 43-year resident, whose three daughters graduated from township schools, said he would like to see the vote on the school budget “returned to the populace.”
He also said, when his children attended Millburn High School, the school was ranked first and he wanted to see it returned to that status.
Sharma, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering and teaches computer science, said she is dedicated to advancing STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—in township schools.
When the candidate, however, said Common Core and the PAARC testing that will come out of it did not accommodate those with special needs, Sondra Kasdon replied that the standards and testing did, in fact, make accommodations for special needs students.
Truitt, who currently chairs the board property committee, noted she has served on a number of other board committees in addition to volunteering in the community with the Girl Scouts and as a Parent-Teacher Organization officer in addition to serving on the Cora Hartshorn Arboretum board.
She noted she promoted more elective courses for students with special needs while on the board in addition to pushing for the wide use of defibrillators in all township schools.
The candidate, who has an extensive nursing background, noted she backed the creation of a lead nursing position in the special education department of the schools so educators would have to back up their decisions with research. She also said she had advocated the availability of the school psychologist for all schools.
Gomez, a volunteer for special education causes for 13 years, previously chaired M-Spec in 2000 prior to her current position with the organization. She also has held a number of positions in Parent-Teacher Organizations.
As M-Spec chair, she said, she has fought for a quality education for the township’s most vulnerable students and would continue to fight to keep the doors of the school district open to all.
During the general portion of the meeting several of those in attendance said superintendent of schools James Crisfield and the district’s retiring director of special education, Juliana Kusz, recently had closed M-Spec, a leading group of township advocates for those with special needs, out of many decisions involving special education and out of the use of school facilities.
Gomez said that, in 2012, Crisfield and Kusz decided to cut M-Spec out of district decisions, appointed a new parent-advisory group, taken M-Spec off the Miller Mail list and stopped the group from using school facilities.
Truitt, when pressed by those in attendance for reasons why Crisfield favored the appointment of a new parent-advisory group over continued communication with M-Spec, said she was aware that the superintendent had his reasons for moving away from M-Spec, but, due to advice from school board attorneys could not go into specifics on the matter.
Sondra Kasdon said that, as an attorney, she believed school district actions in the matter, in effect, were discrimination.
She added it was her personal observation that the current board appeared more interested in listening to “cheerleading” than in listening to valid matters of concern.
Resnick responded, “We pay 95 percent of the funding for the schools and it is not acceptable for groups such as M-Spec not to be heard.”
Although Truitt said she could not speak for the superintendent, she said, "...sometimes relationships are so damaged that they cannot ever be repaired but if we put our heads together, we can figure out a way to move forward."
She added, regarding M-Spec, "You don't build bridges by throwing darts."
Former school board member LIse Chapman told the M-Spec group that the entire community was watching how M-Spec was cut off.
She said the group should continue to raise the issue publicly because “your silence will make the public think that nothing matters.”
Former school board member Jean Pasternak, appointed by Governor Chris Christie to a state taskforce on special education, said the taskforce would be holding three public hearings on education for those with special needs and she urged all Millburn-Short Hills residents to appear at the hearings.
Pasternak said many parents in the township were not happy that special needs children “were sent hundred of miles from their community” rather than being educated in the township.
She added that, with the education and intelligence of Millburn-Short Hills residents, “we should be a shining light for the state.”