MILLBURN, NJ - Superintendent James Crisfield opened the September 10 Millburn Board of Education meeting with a slideshow of  pictures from the various construction projects in the schools.

The bleachers at the high school will now permit handicap access.  Sidewalks were repaved.  A bench has been placed in front of the entrance, contributed by the MHS class of 1961.  The athletic field was filled in where last spring’s water main break had created a crater.  Work on the stadium will be completed before the first home football game on September 28.

The middle school roof was sealed, and the auditorium repaired while, according to Crisfield, the workers were able to “maintain the beauty of the original design.”  The chandeliers remain, but the pipe lights are gone.  The gold of the ceiling is open to view, and new doors were installed.

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Work was done in all the elementary schools as well.  At Deerfield the driveway in front can now be used as a play area, and at Glenwood, the gym has a new floor.  Hartshorn School had gym lights replaced, along with a chain link fence.  At South Mountain School, work was done on the sidewalks, and there are new lights in the Wyoming School Auditorium, which Crisfield called “ a neat space.”

A stair tread project was completed district-wide.

Crisfield referred several times with appreciation to the construction teams that had to labor in this  summer’s extreme heat. 

Crisfield has been a champion of improving the infrastructure from the time he first toured the schools.

Although the official enrollment count won’t be complete until October 15, Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo anticipates that there will be 40 more students than last year.  There was an unexpected increase in kindergarten enrollment.

Personnel Committee Chair Jean Pasternak reported that as a result of the higher numbers, aides will be added at Deerfield and Hartshorn Schools.  DiGeronimo explained that several years ago, state regulations were put in place that only permitted the district to hire special education aides.  This year the state will once again permit classroom aides for the general population.

The new aides will be part-time, and work “roughly three hours” according to DiGeronimo.  They do not receive benefits.  In kindergarten, they will be general helpers, while in Grade 3 the aides will be “more instructional.”  He said that the District has hired teachers adept in handling students.

Crisfield added that the aides will be involved as soon as possible, and that the Administration has been committed to finding high quality people rather than just filling in slots.

Enrollment is down at the middle school, but there are 50 more students at the high school.  Last year, 3 ½ teachers were added to prepare for this rise in numbers. 

When questioned by board member Regina Truitt about the class size at the high school, Crisfield acknowledged that it is an “unwieldy beast.”  There tends to be a good deal of movement in the first few weeks as students change levels.  Although the Administration does have a sense of trends in  student movement, “some years averages don’t play out,” says Crisfield.  Before taking any action, he is waiting for the “dust to settle.” 

Responding to a parent’s query in public comments about whether there is budget flexibility to add teachers and aides when necessary, Board President Michael Birnberg assured that “if we need a teacher or aide, we’ll figure out a way to do that.”

DiGeronimo reported that there are 50 more students enrolled in subscription busing than last year. The transportation office will be able to accommodate parents who missed the deadline, and this week those on the wait list will be added to buses.  He is planning an additional high school run to alleviate crowding.  DiGeronimo promised that at no time are there more than 54 students on a bus, and if there are more students waiting, a back-up bus is called to complete the route. Things have gone more smoothly than last year, and DiGeronimo says that when there are issues, they are acting quickly to identify and fix things.  He promised that things are “going to get better, and we won’t stop until they do.”

The results of the annual audit will be completed by “late October, early November,” according to Finance Committee Chair Lise Chapman.

One issue that occupied much of the board’s conversation was that of public access to the board in general, and public input regarding the upcoming budget deliberations.  Early in the meeting, Chapman commented that “since there’s no longer the opportunity for the public to vote on a budget with less than a two percent tax increase, the board finance committee and Dr. Crisfield decided it would be  helpful to hear from parents and the public in advance of this year’s budget process.”  Pre-budget “listening” sessions have been scheduled with all the schools’ PTO’s between October 11 and November 28.

Chapman also suggested that since some parents can’t attend meetings during the day, a portion of an upcoming board meeting be devoted to hearing the public’s thoughts about the budget. Birnberg clarified that “this is the forum” for people to express their views, and that he wanted people to know that “the opportunity is always there to comment at BOE meetings.”  Pasternak agreed with Chapman that there is merit to the idea of having one session that focuses specifically on the budget.

Resident Josh Scharf said that he thinks the public has less access to the Board than it did two years ago, and suggested that this coincides with the tenure of Crisfield.  Scharf was also a critic of former Superintendent Richard Brodow. 

Scharf listed a number of current actions he feels have restricted the public’s ability to connect with the Board, and complained that “things are being taken off our plate.”  When he was done, numerous Board members responded, but Scharf had already left the meeting.

Birnberg spoke first, saying that Scharf is mixing up the Superintendent and the Board.  Emphasizing that it is the board who had decided on all the issues to which Scharf referred, Birnberg said “This is a school board meeting and the agenda is the board’s…The Superintendent makes recommendations to the board, he sits on committees, but at the end of the day, we vote.”

Board Vice President Eric Siegel responded to Scharf’s complaint that the Board doesn’t rotate meetings anymore to go around to the schools, but only holds meetings at the Ed Center.  Siegel reminded the board and the public that the request to not hold meetings at the schools had come from the parents at those schools “because it was a hardship to them.”  He also said that when meetings rotated, everyone was confused where the meetings were.  

When the decision to keep meetings at the Ed Center was made over a year ago, reasons given for the change were that kids had to stay up too late, and that it was expensive and time-consuming for PTO’s to supply refreshments.  During the board discussion, Crisfield had said that if invited by a school for a special occasion or presentation, the board would happily plan a meeting there.

Siegel added that attendance at BOE meetings has gone up since they’ve been held in one place. “We’ve actually had an increased participation rate at the Ed Center.”

Another subject Scharf brought up was that the district went from #1 to #8 in the recent NJ Monthly Top Public High Schools issue.  A parent at the Monday meeting, Mr. Patel, also wondered about the drop in rank and asked why the board and Dr. Crisfield think it is ok.  Crisfield responded, “What is ok to me is when our student achievement remains as high as it can be.  And there is no other school in the state that can match us.  That is what I find to be ok.”

Siegel said that in NJ Monthly “we were #1 in the state in every academic category.”    He explained that the only thing that changed was the metric the magazine used. This year, they put an emphasis on class size average, which lowered the Millburn ranking.  Siegel explained, “We didn’t drop.  They changed the way they did their survey.”

Board member Jeff Waters added that if the slip in the ranking had anything to do with academic achievement, “it would be the only thing we’d be talking about right now.”  Waters said he hadn’t realized how much stronger Millburn’s achievement data is today versus two years ago.  He feels it is unfortunate that there was a bump in high school enrollment at the very time NJ Monthly changed their methodology, and reminded the public that new teachers were added in the high school this year in response to the bump.   Waters emphasized that further staffing changes would be made “if we think it is educationally appropriate, not because of what a magazine says.”

The one issue Scharf brought up that resonated with some board members was his complaint about the changed policy in terms of public comments at board meetings.  In the past, residents could comment on any subject at two separate comments periods during the evening.  Soon after Crisfield arrived, a decision was made by the board to limit the first public comments to agenda items. 

Chapman and Pasternak say they have heard from parents who complain that it is difficult for them to have to wait to the second public comments period to make statements and ask questions of the board regarding things they’ve heard or read.

Siegel said the reason for focusing the first comments session was that in the past there were “filibusters on the podium on every subject.”  Birnberg concurred, adding that the comment session often “went on for hours.” 

Waters was emphatic:  “We changed this method of doing public comments for a reason. We couldn’t get our business done.”  He continued, “The core of why the board meets is for the board to pass policies to approve things so our Administration and teachers can teach our kids.  We had a period there for a couple of years where it was a circus.” Waters said the board couldn’t legally meet past midnight, yet crucial votes hadn’t taken place.  He referred to a comment of Chapman’s that the tone of meetings has changed, and said that the reason for the improvement is that the board limited the first comments period.  “Over time, a businesslike tone has come into these meetings.”

Waters, Siegel and Birnberg all gave assurances that board members are available to the public by phone and email.

Chapman suggested the board could make the first comments session not only for agenda items but also for old business.  Birnberg wondered how you define old business, and said he feared that could mean business from years ago.  Pasternak persisted, saying that “if we’re hearing feedback it might be worth a try” and Chapman agreed asking “Is there some compromise?”

Board member Regina Truitt said that when she was waiting to speak at meetings, she never knew when that would be, and suggested that the board consider officially having public comments at a specific time, say 8:30.  She then conceded that “it is a business meeting first, and we need to get through the agenda.”

Birnberg offered the idea of starting meetings earlier than 7:45, to accommodate the young families Chapman had said want to come and participate.  When hearing from other members that an earlier time would be a problem for commuters and working parents, he concluded that “whatever we do, a group prefers the alternative.”

The board returned to its discussion of several weeks ago about board goals.  Truitt proposed a subcommittee be formed.  Birnberg said that it would be better if an informal group met to reflect on at the issues.  He feels that there are basically two goals everyone seemed to agree upon.  One is to look at the board committee structure, and the other is to explore policies.  He suggested that members email him with ideas.

Pasternak asked about Millburn’s policy regarding tutoring and how it is enforced.  Crisfield clarified that “every teacher who tutors a Millburn student must clear it with the Principal.” It was also noted that no teacher is permitted to tutor a student in his or her class.  Chapman said that there is concern in the community about Millburn teachers tutoring other teachers’ students who are in their grade, or tutoring students who might be in their class in later grades.

Birnberg suggested that the most extreme policy would be that no Millburn teacher can tutor a Millburn student, a policy Scharf says has recently been implemented in Springfield.  Board member Rona Wenik quickly commented that there is no consensus about this on the board.  Crisfield informed the board that the existing policy is on the docket for review, and when questioned, said that it will apply to both teachers and coaches.

Assistant Superintendent Christine Burton announced that two carts of iPads will be going to each elementary school and the middle school.  She explained that the iPads will be used in the elementary schools to aid in development of fine motor skills and writing.  She praised a science app for middle school that shows the periodic table.  According to Burton, Apple will consult with teachers to advise them on usage of the ipads and apps.  Eric Siegel said that the district is already seeing a return on its investment in a better network, and teachers are seeing the benefits of having better conductivity. 

Pasternak is concerned about the stories she’s read about school cheating scandals, notably at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School.  Given the proliferation of smartphones and the addition of ipads  cheating becomes easier. She said it is “worrisome,” and asked “what steps do we take to keep those things from happening here?”

Pasternak feels that all items discussed during the evening can be looked at in the Strategic Plan.  She confirmed with Dr. Burton that interested residents can still get involved, and should look at the website to see possibilities for participation.  Pasternak concluded that she thinks the board can get a lot of focus by hearing “real hard information from the community about how we actually are doing across the board, not just on test scores but in other aspects of the education system,” and that the board can use that information as a base for moving forward.