Education

Gloria Ron-Fornes Takes Reins of Summit School Board; Celia Colbert Elected Vice President; James Freeman Joins Education Body, Katherine Kalin Takes Oath for New Term

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Gloria Ron-Fornes gives her acceptance speech after being elected president of the Summit Board of Education Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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Members of the Summit High School Chamber Choir perform at Thursday's school board organization meeting. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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SUMMIT, NJ - Gloria Ron-Fornes, a member of the Summit Board of Education since 2008, was unanimously elected Thursday to succeed George Lucaci as board president. Celia Colbert, who joined the education body in 2009, was chosen to succeed Ron-Fornes as vice president.

Katherine Kalin, reappointed by Mayor Ellen Dickson, waa sworn in for another term on the board, as was newcomer James Freeman, an editor at The Wall Street Journal.

In nominating Ron-Fornes, Kalin called the new president, who came to this country from Cuba through Mexico after a “Freedom Flight,” a “consensus builder” and a “maven for the democratic process. She praised the new board leader for learning to speak English after speaking only Spanish in her early years and for working her way up through the education system to graduate with a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken

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The new board leader then joined IBM where she has attained an executive position in sales and marketing after being with the company for many years, Kalin said.

Ron-Fornes, in nominating Colbert, noted that the graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School retired last year as senior vice president and general counsel for Merck & Co. Inc. after 26 years with the pharmaceutical firm. She also noted Colbert, who last year chaired the board’s education committee, is a past president of the Summiit African American Action Association.

In opening her acceptance speech, Ron-Fornes said “The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.”

She praised her father for instilling in her that she could achieve any dream and that she had the opportunity to define her own goals and success. She added her parents taught her, by word and example, that integrity, honesty, respect and humility were essential to success.

The board president added, “My desire is for every child in Summit to have that kind of support and commitment from the adults in their lives,” adding that she, in turn, is inspired by her two sons, Adrian and Brendan. She also thanked her husband Hugo for providing the partnership needed to help her in helping their sons to reach their goals.

In the district schools, she cited 20 members of the Summit High School junior class for achieving National Merit recognition, two juniors who were selected for the New Jersey Governor’s School, and four Summit High School students honored at the North Jersey Regional Science Fair: Mitchell Booth, first place in environmental science; Alexander Kelser with the Partners in Science Award, Kristen Miller, honorable mention in biochemistry and Christopher Chen, first place in behavioral science.

She also noted Connor Hanley, the son of board member Rick Hanley, won the 2013 Achievement Award for Excellence in Writing from The National Council of Teachers of English.

Ron-Fornes also praised the varsity golf team for winning the Union County Conference Mountain Division title, the varsity baseball team for winning the county Valley Division chapionship--the team’s first title in 15 years--the boys and girls lacrosse team for winning county tournaments and the girls team for being co-champions in the New Jersey Independent Lacrosse League.

The board head also congratulated the Summit performing arts program for its nomination for the best overall production of a musical by the Paper Mill Playhouse and, repeating this year to lead the list with 19 final nominations, the most of any schools.

Community service, she said, was exemplified by the Key Club fundraisers for helping Lavalette residents recover from Hurricane Sandy and Union Hispana, raising money for scholarships, and the newly formed Bakery Club for raising money for a local food bank.

She also praised the Summit Education Foundation, Summit Boosters, SPARC, SMPA and a host of other organization who partner with the schools to produce quality education.

Close to 20 organizations and individuals also received citations from the board at Thursday’s meeting for their work in the school system and community.

The new president also praised the Summit Board of School Estimate for approving the majority of the board’a five-year facilitiies plan which, she said, would enable the district “as we deliver on a promise to continue to drive to 21st century student learning experience." Ron-Fornes now will replace Lucaci on the school estimate board.

In his remarks as outgoing president, Lucaci quoted Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Although he called Summit a giving and generous community, he also said it was a “community in flux,” and said that community had to do listen more carefully to its parents and its students on such issues as support of athletic coaches.

After Athletic Director Mike Sandor recommended that Summit High School boys varsity basketball coach David White not be offered a new contract a number of parents came to several board meeting to protest the move, saying they saw no reason why White should not be retained.

Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker formed a committee of parents, current and former athletic officials, Sandor and other school officials to search for a new coach. The superintendent Thursday announced he had made a recommendation to the school body on that selection. 

The board met in executive session following Thursday’s board meeting. Ron-Fornes announced the school body would vote to approve or oppose Parker’s recommendation in a public meeting to be held sometime next week. The superintendent said if White is not selected he has the option to appeal that decision in a closed session of the board.

Speaking about the process at Thursday’s meeting, former board president Thomas O’Rourke said such a relatively small matter should be handled by school officials. He said he had heard rumors of staff members trying to influence the outcome.

O’Rourke urged those involved to make a decision rapidly so the school body could get on with its other important business such as the capital construction projects.

Continuing his outgoing president’s remarks, Lucaci said he could not believe that one of the reasons the school estimate board majority gave for turning down full-day kindergarten was that there was no state mandate for the program. 

He added, “A little libertarianism would help in Summit.”

Lucaci added the city needs to make a greater effort to embrace all races, creeds, sexual orientations and political viewpoints and put more emphasis on those who are falling behind.

He said he could not believe how easily the Summit Common Council embraced a $54 million bond issue while its members on the school estimate board did not recognize the investment they were passing up by ignoring the importance of early childhood education. This decision, he added, would make Summit’s children fall further behind.

“If it is good enough for your children,” he noted, “it should be good enough for the other guy’s children.”

Lucaci said Summit residents should avoid 1950s thinking and “it might be good enough for today, but not good enough for tomorrow.”

Dickson made a slight reference to Lucaci’s remarks when she accepted one of the board’s awards, for herself and the council, saying that a majority of the $54 million city bond issue was to help improve Summit’s roads.

Most of the seemingly routine actions at Thursday’s organization meeting of the board received near unanimous support.

However, board member David Dietze questioned a resolution setting a limit on the number of students in Summit allowed to participate in the state’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program at 10 percent of the number of students per grade per year.

Dietze said he favored cooperation among communities and among school districts and the resolution seemed to go against that spirit of cooperation. He also said he was in favor of school choice and the resolution seemed opposed to that.

In addition, he said, the resolution seemed to “close the door” on Summit students who wanted to go elsewhere to study.

Parker replied that the district is obligated by state mandate to make its position known on the program and that Summit thus far had no students applying for the program. He said the resolution was put on the agenda to avoid what could be a costly financial impact for the city district. He also said the program was more appropriate to districts that had a much lower student enrollment than Summit.

The superintendent did, however, promise to provide more information on the program to the board members in the future.

Another measure causing some discussion was the approval of  $25,107.75 in merit pay for the 2012-2013 school year for Parker.

When Freeman questioned the guidelines used in awarding the merit amount the superintendent said the award was made in response to Gov. Chris Christie’s mandate to base school superintendent salaries on student population. This, he said, would limit his salary to $167,500 and the state mandate set “quantitatve and qualitative criteria” for awarding merit pay.

Parker said he had outlined his compliance with the criteria in an executive session with the board.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Louis Pepe said the criteria were on file in the board office and with the county executive superintendent of schools, who now was reviewing followup forms that showed how Parker was meeting the goals needed to attain the merit pay. He indicated the county superintendent had approved the merit concept for Parker but was reviewing the followup forms prior to the payout of the merit amount.

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