SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield Board of Education (BOE) voted July 19 in favor of implementing or revising a handful of bylaws, policies and regulations but just one of the 14 presented garnered any attention and discussion.
A revision to Policy 9210, which was approved by a 5-3 vote and goes into effect immediately, means that BOE members can no longer 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’; members of the BOE, however, can still be active members of and volunteer their time and services to any district PTO, PTA, PTSO, or other parent organization.
The revised policy, as of press time, affects one, maybe two, sitting board members. BOE member Sharon Miller reportedly resigned last month from her position as co-president of the high school PTO, however, board representatives state they have no knowledge of a resignation letter and Miller did not respond to TAPinto South Plainfield's request for clarification. Additionally, as of the publishing of this article, BOE member Debbie Boyle would not comment on her position as president of the middle school PTO.
"Please be advised that the board of education has a policy that prohibits anyone on the board, but the board president, to give quotes to the press," said Boyle in an email to TAPinto.
While the New Jersey State Ethics Commission does not prohibit a BOE member from serving on a parent organization’s executive board, those in favor of the policy change feel it is a conflict to do so as it gives one ‘unfettered access’ to the schools and makes administrators, teachers, and other staff uncomfortable. Additionally, with a revised Policy 9210 in place, proponents of the change feel other members of the school community will now have the opportunity to step up and be involved.
“Anyone can participate in any way, but not as an executive board member with legal responsibilities. Groups will run if people leave; if they don’t run, people will fill the void,” said BOE President Bill Seesselberg, who along with Vice President Chere Glover and members Tom Cassio, Doug Chapman, and Jim Giannakis voted in favor of the policy change; board members Kim Anesh, along with Boyle and Miller, opposed and member John Farinella was absent.
“I have often heard it stated that parents felt ‘shutout’ and didn't know how or where to start to be part of the organizations,” Glover told TAPinto South Plainfield when asked why she voted in favor of the policy change. “When the community speaks to me as an elected official it’s my job, as a member of the board, to be their voice. I personally could not see how this policy would negatively affect the district.”
During the board member comment portion of the meeting, the BOE was granted an opportunity to present their views on a revised Policy 9210, with attorney Joe Roselle cautioning Boyle and any other member affected by the change to refrain from discussion on the grounds it could be ‘unethical.’
“There are lot of ethics violations here,” countered Boyle, publicly stating that the board’s attorney worked with just the four member policy committee to ‘formulate’ the policy change and that it wasn’t brought to the entire board for discussion. Additionally, she said, according to the Ethics Commission, being a BOE member and a PTO president is not a conflict.
“You are violating my constitutional rights to choose what organization I can be a part of and [in] what leadership role…” said Boyle.
“We have referred to the [ethics] commission on other matters but now we are just ignoring their rulings,” added Miller, stating that if one particular policy is going to be changed due to ‘potential conflicts of interest and impropriety,’ than other conflicts – including having a family member who works for the district or being employed by a vendor contracted by the district – should be addressed as well.
“My feeling is that this is just all very personal,” said Miller.
According to Anesh, a procedure put in place by Superintendent Dr. Noreen Lishak last month requiring board members to obtain prior permission before entering the schools should have been enough. “What is this policy really about now? If it’s to keep us out of the schools and keep us from intimidating the teachers and administration then we already had a new procedure in place to take care of that,” she said.
“I think the PTO operates just fine the way it is; I do not think we should be forcing anybody out…We should be focusing the referendum, we should be focusing on the needs of students and not on a policy that is trying to eliminate people who are just out there trying to help,” added Anesh.
Several residents in attendance Wednesday evening took to the podium to speak out against revising the policy, including Renato Biribin, Georgeann Cochrane, Jennifer Curtis, Alison Gibson, Jessica Spina, and Stephanie Wolak.
“I feel if someone wants to give their time and they love our children and our community that much it should not be taken away from them,” said Cochrane. “I think it is awful that we are telling these people that we do not want them in these positions.”
Gibson said that as a teacher in another district, she'd be 'excited' if a BOE member came to her school. She added that as a mother of a daughter entering the middle school she also doesn't want a new person in charge come September. “If you are doing a good thing for your town, if you are giving back and you are helping why upset the apple cart?" Gibson asked.
Curtis, who ran for the seat on the BOE last November, said she doesn't agree with the policy and feels ‘the message it sends and the damage it has done publicly to the reputation to board of ed is bad.' “What no one has mentioned is our children and what is best for them…" said Curtis. "I urge you to remember why you are here.”
Spina added, "I feel like some of you are trying to put this policy through to get to other members. You are here to do a job for our students, our children, but instead you are attacking each other and it is horrible."
On the other side of the aisle, proponents of a revised Policy 9210 – including former board members and current and past PTO officers – voiced their support.
“You never take the hat off as a board member. When you mix members of the [school] board with an organization’s executive board a lot of problems can arise…” said Pio Pennisi, a retired Dunellen superintendent and former BOE member who sought a seat back on the board last year. “Just because it is legal doesn't mean it is the right thing to do...There are too many ethical problems with it.”
Retired board of education member Carol Byrne, who served on the Franklin, middle school, and high school PTOs over the years, agreed. “You cannot, in any way shape or form, divorce yourself from being a board member, even when you are a parent and that’s all you want to be,” Byrne said, adding, "It is not illegal and the board of education has the right to set the way their district runs...and do what is best for their community and their schools."
Kim LaCross, whose son attends the middle school, stated she was in support the policy change if it will eliminate – if not reduce – what she calls ‘an appearance of impropriety.’
“Whether it is legitimate or not – there is an appearance and it’s the board’s job to do something,” said LaCross, adding that, last year, when a problem arose between herself and a PTO officer who also happens to be a member of the BOE, she had no ‘recourse of action.’ “Where do I go?” she asked.
Resident Georgia Lambert, a longtime PTO officer at Franklin, spoke to what she feels is a ‘lack of transparency’ at the middle school. “I feel like once our kids leave Grant School we no longer have the opportunity to run for any of the other boards,” said Lambert. “I’ve had a child in the middle school for three years now and I cannot tell you how an election is run or what is happening there. It is not transparent and as a parent I don't know where to begin to find out that information…”
Lambert said she feels the lines of communication with the middle school organization should be more open in terms of meeting dates, information on elections, finances, and bylaws. “Things seem to be done much differently [there] than how we run our PTO at Franklin,” said Lambert, adding, “You may not like how we are doing things but there is nothing hidden. It is all out there for you to see."
For Chapman, the lack of disclosure by the middle school PTO, is what led him to support the policy revision. Last year, he said, a PTO members requests for financial reports were denied, the member notified by an attorney that they would not be produced.
“While I don't think there is any financial impropriety, I started thinking, what if a member of the board of education who was also an executive for a PTO and something problematic financially [occurred]. The headline you would read in the newspaper would [say] ‘Board of Education Member Found…’” said Chapman. “I found that to be very problematic and that’s what turned me to be in favor of saying maybe we shouldn't be in executive positions on a PTO. We can still be involved, do everything we want to do, but just let somebody else be in the executive positions.”
“It is our responsibility to ensure that no harm or undue consequences come to our school district, schools, or students…” said Seesselberg in his concluding comments Wednesday night, adding, “It goes without saying that we encourage the parents and guardians to get involved in their children’s schools…”
As it currently stands, members of the South Plainfield Board of Education may continue to be members of a parent organization but may not serve as an officer or on the executive committee; anyone who fails to comply with the newly adopted revised policy could be subject to ethics charges.
“At this time, all we can do is work under our policies and monitor the situation,” said Seesselberg. “If concerns arise, the district administration, building principals, and, if necessary, the board of education will look at options to move forward.”
According to Glover, the goal now is to move forward. “Our district is on its way to doing great work,” she said. “Our focus now needs to be on the work ahead of us so that we may continue to live up to our mission statement.”
TAPinto South Plainfield is South Plainfield’s only free daily paper. Sign up to get all the news as it happens at www.TAPinto.net/enews and follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SouthPlainfieldTAP/ and on Twitter at @SoplainfieldTAP.