Education

Millburn School Board Bids Farewell to Departing Members and District Staff

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Departing Millburn Board of Education president Jeffrey Waters addresses the school body and the public. Looking on are vice president Regina Truitt and superintendent of schools James Crisfield. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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MILLBURN, NJ - Monday night’s Millburn Board of Education meeting was the last for Board President Jeffrey Waters and board member Chase Harrison, both of whom did not seek re-election this year. 

In addition to honoring these board members for their service, their fellow school body members and members of the public congratulated Regina Truitt on her re-election and praised Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield, who will be leaving his district post in March, and special services director Juliana Kusz, who is retiring.

In his remarks, former board president and board member Michael Birnberg praised Kusz for doing a job that can be difficult because it requires dealing with emotional parents and children who need special help. 

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Balancing both these needs can be difficult, he said. The former board president worked with Kusz a number of years and he said he greatly appreciated her contribution to the district..

Birnberg, who has known Waters for about six and a half years, said that, when you get elected to the board you sometimes are thrown into a mix with people coming with different ideas, a different perspective and with different needs. 

“Jeff and I did not sit on the same side in the beginning,” he added, "but what brought us together was a common goal—what is best for the district and best for the students. Jeff did not come with any preconceived notion of what he wanted to accomplish. He just wanted to help out where he could. That’s what he’s done and he did it greatly,”

Birnberg noted that, during the district’s major budget crisis four or five years ago, when the state withheld aid to the district, Waters drove from Nebraska all night to be in the township so he could contribute to a 6 a.m. budget session.

During his time on the board, Birnberg said he became great friends with former board member Rona Wenik, and she, Waters and Birnberg, worked together for the good of the district. 

He added he valued Waters’ work as a board member, his leadership on the board and his friendship.

Of Crisfield, he said leaders lead and are not afraid to take action. They know there are times when their decisions are not popular, but as leaders they are willing to live with the consequences of those actions. Because Crisfield did this it made him a great leader during four and a half years with the district, Birnberg said. 

Birnberg said, Crisfield focused on putting students first. He added that the board faces a “Herculean effort” in replacing the superintendent.

Caroline Updyke, co-president of the PTO Council, said although she did not support Harrison’s bid for the board, she later came to appreciate that Harrison, who was only a senior at Millburn High School when he joined the board last year, was the “best Millburn has to offer” and believed he would do great things in his life.

She thanked Waters for his support and the work of he and his fellow board members with the PTOs. 

Updyke noted Waters and board finance chairwoman Emily Jaffe gave the PTOs “a productive and in-depth look at school finances.” 

She also said she found Waters to be a consensus builder as board president.

His fellow board members thanked Harrison for his year of service and for bringing a fresh student perspective to the board.

They also praised Waters for his mentorship, leadership and passion for helping students and thanked Kusz for her outstanding service to the district.

Harrison noted that, when he ran, some thought he would “take down the district”—it didn’t happen, he said, and a year later it is still standing. He was told  he could not get anything done in a year and (due to being under 18 years old when he filed to run for the board) his candidacy was challenged in county court and “no one felt the need to tell me.”

He added, that, during his term, he said what had to be said and, although not everyone agreed with him, at least they considered his viewpoint.

He said his election reinforced what he had preached during his campaign, that “listening to our students was essential to a productive, healthy and enjoyable education.” 

He said he was happy to use his experiences and those of his friends to convey how “difficult, insular and exhausting life in the high school can be.”

Harrison also said, “We know that stress, sleep deprivation and mental health are issues in the Millburn schools. Why are we not doing more to address them?”

Since being elected, he said, he tried to bring about more student life reforms. Because two committees on which he has served—finance and property—don’t deal with student issues he had to go outside the committee structure to get reforms accomplished.

The departing board member noted he had advocated strongly for a school psychologist open to all students and this is now available.

He advocated for homework reform, and now board policy discourages teachers from giving tests the first day back from a break. 

“This is non-binding and not enough,” he added.

He also fought for a student seat on the board of education because it would allow direct student input. 

Since this was not done, he added, the board should focus on strengthening the student liaison committee so it is “a resource for students and not just a resource for the board. The board needs to be accountable to liaison committee members, informing them what ideas are being used for and how they can affect change.”

He also said students not on committee need know it exists and who its members are, and the avenues for their personal input.

If students constantly bring up problems they must be addressed, Harrison said.

He also noted the district is moving forward with a student stress survey, which he suggested.

He thanked the community for their support and school business administrator Steven DiGeronimo, for helping him understand the district’s complicated budget process. 

He also thanked his parents and family for supporting him in his endeavor on the board.

Truitt said that, during the past year, the board had moved forward on a number of high profile issues that were difficult at times.

“After careful and patient deliberation and collaboration the board tonight is set to adopt school calendars for the next three years by prioritizing education”  and by utilizing a fair and equitable process for school closures, she said.

She also praised the district for initiating an additional Algebra II level for eighth graders and and moving forward with many new cutting edge courses such as medibiotics, a middle school course constructed on medicine, robotics and information technology.

The student residency issue, according to the vice president, was handled this past year with thoughtful data gathering and reporting.

She added that the future is well underway with a facilities roadmap. and the student liaison committee has provided insight into student issues, while a freshman handbook has been accomplished.

She gave her thanks to the school administrators, the board and to Kusz, who, she said was “a class act in a difficult job.”

Truitt noted Harrison followed an outstanding career on the Deerfield School's stage, with outstanding performance in forensics, then became the youngest person in New Jersey history to serve on a board of education. 

“You impressed me with your logic, your striving for excellence and your wit. All  of us gained from your relaying of student experiences. I wish you well in all your future endeavors,” she added..

On Waters, she recalled that, in April 2011, although they first ran against each other for the board, they still helped each other in that campaign. 

Since then, she said, she has grown to admire Waters’ ability to manage stress and to organize people and tasks manage stress. 

She said she has been grateful to serve with him on the board and as his vice president and friend.

Waters thanked all the “fine, dedicated staff members,” with whom he worked. 

He said Crisfield has exhibited outstanding leadership during the last five years and will be missed. 

He also thanked assistant superintendent of schools Christine Burton for helping the district to move forward on curriculum matters in a fast-moving environment. 

He called DiGeronimo a skilled business administrator with “a keen and even-keeled temperament--a tribute to his extensive technical knowledge.”

Kusz, he said, exhibited skilled leadership in one of the district’s most difficult and challenging areas of special services.

He also praised communications director Nancy Dries, buildings and grounds director John van Teeckelenburgh, the principals, faculty, leadership of the PTOs, parents, volunteers and his fellow board members.

“The most important word in the English language is trust,” he added, and thanked the community members, PTOs and others for their trust in helping him with accomplishments for the township and its students.

He also noted he recently was chosen the vice-chairman of Let's Get Ready, which provides free SAT tutoring and college admissions advice to those whose parents cannot afford it. 

He added that 11 percent of low-income children graduate college and said as a society we need to address this. 

Waters said he was a strong believer in rotation and term limits and thanked the community for “allowing me to serve.”

In a presentation on district and board goals Crisfield noted the district has gone a long way towards integrating literacy and technology into the the curriculum in all subject areas. He also said the district took the opportunity to incorporate these goals into each teacher’s personal development plan. As a result, each teacher has the same overview goal which they tailor to their own circumstances.

On the strategic plan, Burton said that, in culture and citizenship, the community service fair was held Oct. 1 and the district website has links and a calendar to all district activities. Enhancement of character education is in progress throughout the district. 

Students - Revisions have just about wrapped up on the student life survey. The district is looking at integrative design and supporting and monitoring the 1:1 initiative at the middle school.

Facilities - A five-year review of the district’s facilities is under review by school board as is the possibility of acquiring the Millburn Regional Day School.

Finance - The district is developing a roadmap for pursuing alternative sources of private revenue, a strategy for pursuing corporate grants and partnerships to support curriculum initiatives such as middle school robotics and exploring monetizing district assets.

Technology - The district is developing a technology integration roadmap related to instructional goals to include integrative design, 1:1 pilot and technical support.  Also it is  reviewing a five-year objective for technology regarding hardware and software and the management of both.

The board, among its goals, according to Waters, has signed contracts with the Millburn Education Association and the supervisors’ association and his working with administrative staff toward settlement of a contract with the Communications Workers of America.

In her report on the finance committee approach to the structural budget deficit, Jaffe said that on the expenditure side, the administration has instructed each budgetary location to identify and implement cost savings and report back to the administration. 

“We are in budget season,” she added, and there has been direction from the administration to each of locations to work towards keeping budgets flat year over year.

The district also is reining in energy expenses by developing an energy savings plan, and the board, on Monday voted to appoint Johnson Controls, Inc. as the energy services company to work with the board to prepare an energy savings plan for the school district to bring about energy cost savings over the next 15 to 20 years.

On the revenue side, the finance committee is working on hiring an  asset monetization firm and hopes to have a decision soon. The commitee also is analyzing the impact of incremental tax revenue and the “banked cap” as well as looking at the implications for the community and district. 

The committee also is working with the strategic plan fundraising committee in pursuing a fundraising campaign, grant-writing and an endowment effort working with other board members, the Millburn-Short Hills Educational Foundation and members of the community.

The committee is continuing to inform the community about the financial health of the district. There have been presentations to six of the seven PTOs, the PTO Council and the educational foundation. Future presentations are slated for the middle school PTO, Old Guard and Short Hills Association. 

Jaffe also said the commitee has provided a quick review of budgeted revenues less expenses, despite having not yet reviewed all locations, which shows a budget shortfall of roughly $2 million, assuming a 2 percent tax levy increase.

In his president's remarks, Waters announced that John Westfall-Kwong had left the superintendent search committee due to scheduling conflicts and a newly-constituted committee would be appointed after the New Year.

Truitt announced the district IT group had reviewed results of days of personal observance balloting and confirmed results showing greatest support for Rosh Hoshanah, Good Friday and Yom Kippur as school holidays. The board voted on Monday to confirm calendars for 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 taking into account these holidays.

More definite information on PAARC testing dates will be released to parents early next year, she said.

Property Committee - Westfall-Kwong, who is the chairman, noted the committee spent some time brainstorming on potential uses should the district acquire the Millburn Regional Day School, that would “enhance the district’s ability to further education and realized that a more thorough business plan needed to be laid out.”

He said committee member Michael King would work with him to flesh out the Plan outline to be further analyzed by the administration for final input.  

Questions regarding the state of the roof and the overall building were posed, and the committee requested that they seek out estimated costs for repairs and renovations as well as other enhancements would be needed for plumbing, electricity and / or technology, the chairman said.  

Preliminary ideas discussed did not show a strong rationale for proceeding with a purchase, he added, but further ideas will be explored before a final recommendation is made.  VanTeekleburgh agreed to reach out to the state regarding keeping the building maintained while empty and also work with the township.

Needs that may be addressed with the purchase of the day school include a permanent home for self-contained kindergarten-to-fifth-grade special education classrooms (most likely at South Mountain); better/safer traffic flow and additional park at the high school; additional sports fields or green space; science / robotics labs; or maker spaces for 21st Century Learning.  

Potential uses for the day school include a permanent home for the pre-kindergarten program; an expanded tuition-based pre-kindergarten program; administrative offices; maker spaces; labs for special projects; a district-wide kindergarten; more fields, or the sale of the property for a profit to fund other Building projects.  

Potential uses for the Education Center space include keeping it as is or using it as a parking lot with improved traffic patterns and maker spaces.

Truitt and Birnberg, during their remarks in public discussion, both advocated for a possible swimming pool in the Education Center building.  Westfall-Kwong indicated that might be considered.

Birnberg also suggested a hockey rink, due to the high per-pupil costs the district now bears for renting hockey facilities.

On the facilities roadmap, Westfall-Kwong said there were some “lumped together” items that needed to be divided up in order to get clarity on each item.  

For example, security vestibules were sometimes included in broader lists that included swipe card access or a toilet room.  Also, some items such as air conditioning have more than one potential solution – the property committee has been pressing for the viability of a lower cost solution involving window units, but there’s also a more costly option that would entail installation of central air units; so they want to make sure that each option is considered and ranked.  

“We are also moving the swipe card system to the Ed Center items, since it is a district-wide item,” he added.

The chairman added the committee is keeping a list of all facility-related items that cost $10,000 or more, but for the streamlining of discussion and rankings, the committee will be circulating lists focused on items / projects that have not been completed.  

Over 90 items received a PTO Ranking of 1 or 2 with some other items receiving a high ranking from the Administration and/or Building Principles.  Over 340 items are currently on the list with 103 ranked as completed and forecast not to be in need of significant update for at least another four years. 

Next steps include 

  • Clarify rankings from schools that did not include air conditioning or 21st Century learning in their ranking items.
  • Westfall-Kwong will be circulating the updated list that now includes administration rankings to the property committee for their ranking input.
  • After each committee member submits their ranking, an average number from the the four committee members will be placed in their ranking column. 
  • The ranking list will be provided to all board members to evaluate, rank and ask questions of property committee members.
  • The committee recommended that further and final public input besought out after these key data points are provided.

The property committee hopes to complete the data / ranking collection for review of the incoming 2015 board in order to have informed discussions about priorities and funding for projects listed on the road map, Westfall-Kwong said.

On the superintendent search committee Jaffe said they have gone over an initial list of search firms, will be interviewing shortly and expect a decision by the end of January on a firm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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