BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Monday night's Reorganization Meeting of the school board was a long one. The public session, which began at 7:30 p.m., ended about 11:30 p.m.
When meeting attendees arrived, they were greeted by sign-carrying members of the Berkeley Heights Education Association (BHEA) outside the school. Inside the multi-purpose room used for the meeting, more BHEA members were on hand, with more signs. During the meeting, their presence couldn't be ignored -- they rattled their signs when a board member or speaker mentioned the excellence of the teachers or their cooperation in some matter, and from time to time, someone would call out "enough is enough," or other short phrase. The BHEA stayed until almost the end of the meeting, applauding BHEA President Pam Wilczynski, who read a prepared statement on the status of the negotiations, and some residents who offered comments on the status of the contract.
Before that issue even came up, however, the new board member from Mountainside, Dante Gioia, and returning members, Doug Reinstein and Chris Reilly, were sworn in. Reinstein and Bill Cassano were chosen to be board president and vice president, respectively, roles which they held previously.
Interim Superintendent Richard Noonan congratulated the the GL Highlander Marching Band on being the 2018 Tournament of Bands New Jersey Group II Open State Champions and Aaron Wang for being named Best Drum Major in Group II Open. There was a brief performance by a portion of the band, Reinstein read, then presented Band Director Nicholas O'Sulllivan a proclamation honoring the GL Highlander Marching Band, and distributed copies of the proclamation to each band member, while the group took a brief break and enjoyed some refreshments.
The formalities taken care of, the meeting proceeded with an update on the superintendent search, and two slide presentations -- one on the Parent Technology Survey, the second on a proposal to update the libraries/media centers in the the middle and high schools into more up-to-date media centers. The presentations generated a number of public comments, not all of them positive, on: the use of technology in the classrooms, especially at elementary schools; the timing of, reason behind and cost of the proposed changes to media centers, and the significance of the written comments on the technology survey.
Superintendent Search Consultant Dwight Pfennig, of Hazard, Young & Attea, who said he has participated in 35 or more superintendent searches, presented a list of characteristics stakeholders want to see in those being considered for the position of superintendent.
The top three leadership characteristics were: Being an experienced educator, with "administrative and teaching experience that spans a significant number of grade levels within a successful educational environment; political and educational savvy in dealing with difficult decisions and varying opinionated personalities; excellent understanding of strategic planning, technology integration in curriculum, long and short-term budget planning and implementation supported by a strong sense of financial acumen and responsibility."
The more complete analysis of the superintendent survey can be found on the district website here.
Advertisements have been published for the position and, so far, 29 applications have been received. More are expected to arrive before the deadline. Pfennig said the candidates would be evaluated and a slate of candidates presented to the board on or about Feb. 11. The interviews will be held on Feb. 19 and 20, he said. The plan is to have the new superintendent in place by July 1.
Noonan, School Business Administrator Donna Felezzola, GL Assistant Principal Tara Oliveira, and architect Frank Messineo presented a report, accompanied by a slide show on "Reimagining our Media Centers," plan, which is part of the district's "Good to Great" five-year strategic plan. The almost $3 million plan involved only the Columbia Middle School and Governor Livingston High School Media centers. The elementary schools will be have their media centers redesigned, also, but were not included in this presentation. A more complete article on that plan will follow, but for those who are interested, the slide show can be found on the district website here. It features floor plans of the current media centers and renderings of the same spaces reconfigured to contain fewer books, more flexible seating, charging and printing stations, quiet spaces, spaces for collaboration, room for large gatherings and classrooms. As part of their preparation for this project, board members visited 21st century media centers in several communities, including New Providence.
Noonan and District Technology Coordinator Mike Skara then presented a slide show on the results of the parent Technology Survey. About 24 percent, 405 of the district's 1,700 families, responded and, of that number, one in three respondents provided written comments. The survey was taken to "better understand parents' perception on our use of technology at all grade levels," according to one of the 22 slides in the presentation.
One thing that was apparent from the responses, is "we need to provide more information on what and why technology is being used," said Skara. A number of parents questioned the need for so much screen time, especially in the elementary schools. The complete presentation can be found on the district website here. A more detailed story will be written on this subject later this week.
Bill Cassano read a prepared statement summarizing the Board's position on the teacher contract negotiations. He said, the board is "extremely" supportive of the teachers, and has been for a long time. He continued to say, "We have an enormous amount of respect for the job they do each and every day, and their dedication to our students." Adding, "The current impasse is not about how much of an overall salary increase our teaching staff should receive… because that was jointly agreed upon by the two negotiating teams during a mediation session back in October. This impasse is about the allocation of the salary increase between lesser experienced teachers (i.e. those lower on the salary guide) and those with more years of experience (i.e. those at the top of the salary guide); and the percentage difference between these two groups is quite significant. --The Board always has been interested in attracting, motivating and retaining top talent so Berkeley Heights can be a great school district. We continue to be hopeful that the Board and the BHEA can reach an agreement on the distribution of salary raises either before or at our next mediation session on January 29th."
As the meeting drew to a close, Wilczynski spoke to the board about the need to reach a settlement on the single issue dividing the BHEA and the Board of Education -- the salary guide. There will be a mediation session on Jan. 29, but the two parties agreed on Oct. 10 to the percentage increase. The dispute now is how the actual money should be distributed. "It doesn't cost the board one cent more to fund our current salary guide structure and improve them in accordance with what has been the tradition in Berkeley Heights," she told the board.
As it is currently set up, "it takes a teacher, counselor and/or nurse 19 years to work their way to the maximum salary," she said.
Berkeley Heights is surrounded by "higher paying districts" but staff members stay in this district rather than leave and those who chose to stay here will be "hurt," she said. The mandatory health care contributions mean, "many of our staff members continue to take home less pay each year ... and the way the system is set up, some of our employees can't afford to get a raise because it results in further crippling contributions. Support for association members was loud, enthusiastic, and thoughtful from those who spoke.
There will be an open Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 30, a 6 p.m. at Columbia Middle School, in the Music Room. Members of the public are invited to attend.