Education

Teacher Discontent with Insurance Provider, Possibility of August School Start, Adoption of Focus Areas Highlight Summit BOE Meeting

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Teachers unhappy with the performance of their new health care insurance provider attended the Summit Board of Education meeting. Credits: Melanie Wilson / TAPinto Summit
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SUMMIT, NJ - The centerpiece of the April 19 Summit Board of Education meeting was intended to be the approval of new 'Focus Areas' for the Summit Public Schools and, while that agenda highlight was indeed addressed, the meeting also included several unexpected developments, including an emotional plea from a parent and the attendance of dozens of District teachers who came to express their discontent with the District's new health care insurance provider.

Also discussed were a number of issues that hold District-wide significance, including a potential school-year calendar change which may see students returning to school in August, a shut-down of schools on Election Day, and the introduction of two key administration hires.

Teachers Unhappy with New Insurance Provider

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The Summit Education Association (SEA), represented by its President Dan Miller -- a teacher at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) -- and about two dozen teachers throughout the District came to the meeting to express their displeasure with their new Aetna insurance program.

This year, the District moved from Cigna to Aetna for financial reasons. The teachers reported that the new insurer was extremely difficult to work with. Miller said that he has received more than 400 complaints about Aetna. He said that members' claims have been denied, prescriptions have been mismanaged, and customer service is difficult to work with.

“It’s been a lengthy, stressful process,” he said.  

Miller said that an unusual number of claims to Aetna were supposedly not received, adding that It’s hard to believe that that many doctors failed to submit the claims.

He said that Cigna’s customer service was far superior, and they had better hours. “Aetna is not user friendly,” he said.

While Aetna may have looked better on paper Miller said that, in actuality, it was more difficult for his members. He used the example of being able to go directly to a specialist with Cigna, but having to first see a primary physician and then get a referral with Aetna, requiring an extra co-pay charge and more time.

Miller gave multiple examples of teachers being overcharged for their drug prescriptions, which are now on a three-tiered system.  

“It’s causing members time and stress,” he said. “Members are exceedingly unhappy with this plan.”

He said that if things don’t get better, he would look to the Board to make a change.

District Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe said that with any transition there are difficulties, but he expected Aetna to live up to the programs outlined by Brown and Brown, the District’s broker. Pepe said that much of the problem was because 100 teachers did not declare a primary-care physician. The number was whittled down to 64 and now is at 30.

“We are not going to change our health care carrier next year,” Pepe said, “We will continue to monitor it.”

School Calendar

Superintendent of Schools June Chang said that a previously-approved school calendar for the 2018-19 school needed to be put back on the table, and the Board approved a newer version which sees teachers returning to the classroom on August 30, the Thursday before Labor Day, with a half day on August 31. The students now will begin school on Tuesday, September 4, the day after Labor Day.

There will now be five snow days built into the calendar instead of four. If a sixth snow day is needed, it will be added to the end of the school year, and a seventh snow day would be taken from Spring Break.

Chang said that, in subsequent years, his goal is for everyone to begin school during the last week of August. He said that because of all the snow days this year, there was a subsequent disruption of Spring Break. This potential change would essentially ensure that days would not have to be taken from Spring Break in future years.  

He said that starting early gives teachers and students more time to be ready for Advanced Placement (AP) class testing, which is the same day across the country. Districts that start in August have more days of teaching before the tests. “It puts us on par with everyone in the country,” he said.

The calendar changes, he said, also address the growing security concerns for having the public enter school buildings on Election Day. Moving forward, beginning with the 2018-19 school year, schools will be closed on Election Day but will be open on Veterans Day.

Board member Chris Bonner, a veteran, said that at first he was disappointed to see that the schools would be open on Veterans Day, but he came on board with the decision after weighing the benefit of school safety and security.

Board member David Dietze, who chairs the education committee, said that the committee is in “full support” of the changes. He said that many of our students who participate in Fall sports or other extra-curricular activities at the high-school level are already back in August.

“No calendar is going to please everyone,” he said. “It’s a fixed day for AP course testing; it makes sense to bring the calendar forward.”

Board President Rick Hanley said, “The staff is under so much pressure to get through so much material.” He referred to the number of students who hire tutors for the AP tests, and how it “does not help” to start school after Labor Day.

“California and Texas did not lose six days to snow,” Hanley said. “The calendar has huge implications for the academic process.”

Summit High School AP History Teacher Wendy Donat disagreed. She said that it has “a very negative impact for the teachers” to come in before Labor Day.”  

She also cited a survey done by the College Board that showed that the schools in the Northeast that began school in September performed substantially better than other schools.

“If we start in August, then we need air conditioning,” she said.

Homeschooled Student Not Allowed on Summit High School Sports Team

Summit parent Betsy Tavit made an impassioned plea to Chang and the Board to allow her son Daniel to play Summit High School soccer, even though he is homeschooled. She said that he suffers from convergence insufficiency, a debilitating eye condition. She said that Daniel’s doctors advised him to withdraw from school so that he can be given an intense course of treatment. He has been suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, and other disorders because of his condition. The treatment is working, and his vision has been improving and his anxiety has been lifting.

“Soccer is his saving grace,” she said. He has played for Summit High School and plays club soccer. She said that his goal is to play at the college level.

Tavit cited District Policy 2431, which states, “Home schooled children are eligible to participate in the high school interscholastic athletic program of this district only if the school district, the parent, and the home schooled child comply with the Guidelines, Constitution, Bylaws, Rules and Regulations of NJSIAA, and the policies and regulations of the Board of Education.”

Chang said that it has been the practice of the District not to allow it, and that he has refused several other homeschooled students.

“I’m truly moved,” Chang said. But Summit does not allow homeschooled students to participate, he said. “I’ve turned away many others and will continue to do so.” He said that it was the discretion of the District to make the decision.

Tavit said that it does not state that anywhere in the policy. She asked how the rest of the Board felt.

Hanley said, “At this moment we support the policy of the District and the superintendent’s decision.”

Tavit said, “This is not what I know about Summit; I cannot overstate the role of soccer.”  She said that she and her husband have lived here for 14 years, and are business owners in town. “This is not the Summit I know and love,” she said.

Hanley said that people who “walk up to that microphone make change happen.”

Tavit said, “I have studied the policy that states he is eligible, it doesn’t say it is up to the superintendent’s discretion.”

"So what should I tell my son," she asked.

Administrators Hired

Michelle Cebula will fill the role of the newly created Assistant Director of Education for the district, K-12. Cebula will be paid $120,000 annually. In January 2017, Cebula joined Summit Public Schools as an assistant principal at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) specializing in curriculum and instruction. The District states that, in her new role, she will “work collaboratively with Jennifer McCann, director of education, to collect, compile, analyze, and report data to inform decisions regarding programming, professional development, and academics.” The change will become effective at the end of the school year. The District will now begin its search for a new assistant principal at LCJSMS to replace her.

The newly-created administrative position comes as a result of the second structural reorganization of the Curriculum and Instruction department in less than two year's time. Julie Glazer, the former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, left her position in Summit to become Superintendent of the Nutley Public Schools in June of 2016. At that time, the department was restructured, and a Director of Secondary Education (Donna D’Acunto) and a Director of Elementary Education (Jennifer Ambrose -- now McCann) were appointed. D’Acunto began her position in the summer of 2016, left on maternity leave shortly thereafter, and did not return, tendering her resignation effective December of 2016.

D'Acunto was replaced by Michelle Derpich, who began in March of 2017 and resigned in February 2018, apparently with just one day’s notice.

At the March 2018 regular board meeting, the positions of Director of Elementary and Secondary Education were suspended, and the positions of Director and Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instruction / Education were created. McCann was approved for the Director’s role and, at the April 19 meeting, her contract -- with a salary of $156,372 -- was formally approved.

Chang said that Cebula has “”forward-looking ideas” and that he is impressed with the way she has engaged herself with staff while at the middle school.

Also introduced was Daniel Healy, the new District athletic director, effective July 1. Currently, Healy is a math teacher at Summit High School and the Boys’ Varsity basketball coach. As Athletic Director, Healy will oversee all of the District’s athletic programs, including scheduling games, hiring coaches and officials, and administrative duties with student interns.  The District said that he is “tasked with raising the profile of the Summit athletic program, while maintaining the strong foundation and traditions associated with athletics in Summit.”

Chang said that Healy is committed to Summit, and will help the District grow and do better. “I hope he brings many years of stability to the District,” Chang said. Healy replaces former Athletic Director, Patrick 'PJ' Scarpello, who began the role in July of 2016 and whose tenure lasted just over one full year.

Interim Athletic Director Harvey Cohen, who began in January when Scarpello departed, is currently paid $500 per day. Healy will be paid $120,000, while Scarpello's salary was $126,075, and Cohen will be paid $500 / day for up to 20 days upon Healy's July start date.

Healy said, “Since I arrived in the District, I knew I’d found my career home.”  He said that it could have been teaching and coaching, but that he felt he could make more of an impact. “I’m looking forward to many, many years to come,” he said. One of Healy's first tasks will be to find his replacement as Head Basketball Coach.

Also at the meeting, the Board entered into 2018-19 Employment Contracts with:

Pepe - $204,975
Matthew Block, Director of Human Resources - $170,145
Kathy Sarno, Assistant Business Administrator - $106,745
Angelo Palumbo, Director of Facilities - $117,100
Michael Martino, Supervisor of Maintenance - $81,591

It was also announced that Ron Wells, theatre teacher and director of the theatrical programs at LCJSMS, will be retiring at the end of the current school year.

Culinary Arts Program

Deb McCann, chair of the Operations committee, reported that the bids received by the District for the proposed Culinary Arts facility were higher than anticipated.  

Pepe said that some capital reserve funds would need to be used to make up the difference. A discussion will take place at the May Board of Education meeting if the plan, at this time, is still to move forward.  

Full-Day Kindergarten

Former Board of Education President Katherine Kalin asked Chang if he still planned on introducing a new proposal for Full-Day Kindergarten at the May Board of Education meeting, as he had said in one of the budget meetings. Chang said that he “plans to open discussions with the education committee” in May, and with the new members of the operations committee and then hopes to bring it forward.

Focus Areas

There were no major changes to the focus areas, but a bit of wordsmithery allowed the District to articulate its mission more clearly. The previous Focus Areas have been in place from September 2015 through June 2018:

Focus Area #1:

Previous: Raise achievement for all; provide a consistently excellent education at every level in an environment that empowers each child to reach his/her potential.

New: Pursue scholarly excellence for each and every diverse learner by consistently providing a multifaceted, global educational experience at all levels.

Focus Area #2:

Previous: Cultivate a love of learning through outstanding curricula, inspirational instruction and well-supported teachers and staff, who are dedicated to excellence.

New: Provide an environment for students and teachers to cultivate a shared love of learning by supporting creativity and inspiration, and dedication in all phases of the educational journey.

Focus Area #3:

Previous: Sustain superior educational programs through timely investment, strong financial oversight, and operational excellence.

New: Sustain superior academic programs through strategic investment and targeted financial decision making to optimize the overall educational opportunities for our students.

Bonner, the Board's Communications chair, said, “First and foremost, the language of the first two focus areas brings classrooms to the forefront, and Focus Area #3 shows that we are using resources we have to support teachers to get the best outcome.” 

Prior to the meeting, Hanley shared in his monthly “Letter from the President” a link to a draft of the new proposed focus areas, which had been formulated by the board after synthesizing the data from key stakeholders at community meetings. At these meetings with parents, teachers, community members, and administrators, input was given on what is most important for the district to focus on over the next three years.

He said that more than 1,100 respondents participated in a public survey in October, and that the data was analyzed and then highlighted by Bonner at two November Focus Areas discussion meetings, with over 80 participants.  

Bonner said that the new wording better addresses Summit’s diverse community of learners. “Diversity means different things to different people,” he said. “The community is overwhelmingly in support of past Focus Areas, and these have a lot of similarities.”  

Board Member Donna Miller said that the formulation of the final Focus Areas involved plenty of “robust conversation.”  She said that while the public may see only the conversation that takes place “at this table,” there was much discussion about what the words really meant.  

Dietze, who was at the final board meeting of his six-year tenure on the board, said that he was happy not to “have to reinvent the wheel.”  He said that continuing with these focus areas highlights the District’s traditional goals, and gives “equal opportunity for all students.”

“We focus on the whole student,” he said. “It’s important to treat all aspects of a student’s development.”

Hanley said that there were many “different voices” contributing to the focus areas, and stressed that it was important “not to be overtaken by a vocal minority.” He said that some things that were suggested did not become part of the Focus Areas, and used the example of STEAM. While a STEAM initiative has been a past Focus Area, it is no longer.  Not because it has dropped off the radar, he said, but because the District has felt it has “caught up” and has gotten “where we want to be.”

“It doesn’t mean we can’t do better just because there are no glaring weaknesses,” Hanley said.

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