SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The agenda for the South Plainfield Board of Education’s (BOE) June 21 Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting included a first reading on the revision, elimination or addition of some 14 policies, bylaws and regulations. But one policy revision in particular, however, garnered a great deal of attention and sparked a more than two-hour discussion only to be tabled, along with the others, until further notice.
Last Wednesday’s COW meeting began at 6 p.m. and featured an athletic awards presentation followed by an executive session that spanned close to an hour and a half. Upon return – and until around 10 p.m. – a discussion on a revision to Policy 9210 ensued while a large crowd sat, waiting, for the scheduled 8 p.m. regular public meeting honoring district retirees to get under way.
The revision to Policy 9210 states that while BOE members, could still be active members of and volunteer their time and services to a PTO, PTA, PTSO or other parent organization they could not serve as a member of any parent organization’s executive committee or in the role of officer (such as president, vice president, etc.) due to ‘potential interference or conflict of interest.’
According to BOE President Bill Seesselberg, issues surrounding board members who also hold other district position have been ‘festering for a while,’ and causing ‘controversy’ among the board and within the town. “You are always a board member and if you are in any of the buildings or walking around town you are a board member first. …People act different around you if you are a board member and may feel uncomfortable.”
Board member Jim Giannakis, a member of the policy committee, added, “As a member of the board, we are never perceived as a PTO board member or even as a parent…people always look at us as board members and it makes people uncomfortable…We have new employees, new principals. Why should we put them in that position? Being an executive member gives us unfettered access to those buildings and I do not think that is fair to the staff.”
BOE member Debbie Boyle, however, stated that the New Jersey State Ethics Commission has ruled it is not a conflict for a board of education member to also be a member of the PTO executive board. Boyle, who currently serves as president of the South Plainfield Middle School PTO, feels the BOE’s focus on this policy is a ‘misplaced priority’ when there are more important things going on such as the recent passage of the bond referendum and projects that need to get under way.
Board of Education Vice President Chere Glover, specifically questioning Boyle’s contention with the revision, added, “How does it harm the district to give someone else the opportunity to run for an office or be on the executive board?”
“I would like to see as much participation by parents, guardians, and adults within the school. In general, I do not believe in dual office holding, whether it be in politics, schools, business or other things like that…If you are on the board, you are on the board,” added Seesselberg. “Open up a spot for someone else to step into a position and be involved; this goes for all things, not just parent organizations, within the town.”
Boyle, however, stated that multiple people have been asked to serve in executive positions but no one has stepped up to do so. “I have a text on my phone that says ‘oh hell no I don't want anything to do with it,’” she said. “People can step up at anytime.”
Sharon Miller, chair of the BOE’s policy committee and current president of the South Plainfield High School PTO, added, “If anyone has been to any of these meetings…they know there aren’t a lot of people who volunteer. A lot of people cannot or aren’t willing to give the time that others are willing to give.”
Additionally, said Miller, the policy’s revised wordage makes reference to reasons such as ‘potential interference’ and ‘conflict of interest’ and nothing about ‘providing others with the opportunity to step up and be involved.’
Some members of the BOE also had issue with why 9210 – along with the other polices – was put up for a second reading and vote during back-to-back meetings that night. In the past, Miller said, policies have been discussed at COW meetings with first readings taking place at the following week’s public meeting and a vote rendered the next month.
Doing it this way, she said, enables the public, as well as BOE members not on the policy committee, to ask questions and make comments before a final vote is rendered. “That is the way it has been past practice… that’s why this little group of policies and changing our past practices is kind of questionable,” said Miller.
“We never done it this way before…What is the urgency that we have to do this all in one night and not give people the opportunity to come back with questions?” asked board member Kim Anesh.
“I think that by doing this we are being deceptive to the public,” said Boyle.
According to Seesselberg, the board’s attorney advised that the two votes could take place that night because both the COW and the regular public meeting were advertised as ‘public meetings where action will be taken.’ Additionally, he said, the policies were included in both agendas in order to ‘move forward and move on’ and so they wouldn't ‘sit’ for another month.’
Giannakis added, ‘Time is of the essence. Because this may directly affect two of our schools, we want to give them enough time to reorganize themselves as well.”
The revised policy, said Boyle, is an ‘attempt to improperly restrain‘ current members, noting that this isn’t the first time her role as PTO president and BOE member has been challenged. She said that Seesselberg recently called the new attempt at the revision ‘ludicrous’ while, on a separate occasion, fellow BOE and policy committee member Tom Cassio said he did not and would not support it.
“Now you are supporting it. So what changed?” Boyle asked.
Cassio, who had remained silent until this point, responded that his stance has changed because he is ‘tired of the distractions and the games.’ “I am voting for this because I was elected to do a job up here…If I can limit the distractions, limit the access to the schools, and limit the games that are being played and we can get real work done then I am for this,” said Cassio, adding that, in support of the policy revision, he resigned from his position with the South Plainfield High School Baseball Association.
“We’ve had a lot of good things [happen] in the six months I’ve been on this board. We need to continue moving in the right direction and I’d like to continue moving forward not backwards…” he said. “It is not personal, but I am just done. I am tired of all the games. That is the truth.”
After a nearly two-hour discussion, a vote was cast with Seesselberg, Glover, Giannakis, Cassio and fellow board member Doug Chapman approving all the policies upon first reading; Anesh, Boyle, Miller and fellow board member John Farinella approved all but 9210. Members of the public were then granted the opportunity to discuss the policy change, with all those who spoke opposed to the revision.
“I am very confused as to why you would want to push someone out who is willing to donate their time,” said Riley mom Jessica Spina.
Georgeann Cochrane added, “We have people in this town who are willing to give back to the community and I think it is disgusting that you want to take this away from people…and make them stop doing something that other parents do not have the time to do...”
Madeline Cristilles agreed. “In a perfect world we wouldn't need our board members to run our PTOs. It would be wonderful if the parents would step up and do it but they don’t…” said Cristilles, who currently sits on the high school music booster club board and is a former member of the Franklin, Grant, and middle school PTOs. “The only reason I see this policy coming up in the first place is that there is a personal thing going on here.”
“I feel terrible that there is fighting and bickering because there a lot of good people [here] who do a lot of good things…” added Stephanie Wolak. “The state has already said this isn’t a problem and [you are] arguing about good people who do good things.”
Fellow resident Shannon Jefferies added, “If we have people who are passionate about helping our students why are we kicking them out? We don’t tolerate bullying in our schools, we wont tolerate bullying on our board.”
Seesselberg, looking to clear up any confusion, reiterated that the policy change would, in no way, mean board of education members could not still join and/or be involved with any district parent organization. “They can still participate; they just cannot be named executive officers,” Seesselberg said.
Giannakis added, “If you want to be an effective PTO member you can still be an effective PTO member…you can be as active and effective and held as much as you want to. You just don't have the moniker of president, vice president, secretary or treasure. That is all.”
A complete list of the policies tabled at last Wednesday’s, including 9210, can be found online at http://spboe.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=8915&dataid=11353&FileName=Supplemental%20Tabs%20for%20COW%20%20June%2021%202017.pdf.
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