SUMMIT, NJ - Hours after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that schools will remain shuttered until at least May 15, the Summit Board of Education gathered remotely via Zoom and YouTube to deliver District news and planned presentations at its April meeting. 

The virtual assembly represented the final Board meeting for Board Member -- and former Board President -- Deb McCann, who served for almost six years.

As the Summit school community adjusts to another month of online learning, it was almost business as usual with presentations on District goals, updates on the search for a new superintendent, and committee reports - -except for random views of home-exercise machines, baby photos, and kitchen cabinets glimpsed behind Board members’ heads.

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Superintendent Search

Dwight Pfennig, from Schaumburg, IL-based search consultant Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA), hired to assist in identifying candidates to replace departing Superintendent of Schools June Chang, reported on the results of the District's community feedback gathering initiative that included a survey that was filled out by 1,200 participants; 21 stakeholder interviews; and several focus groups. 

Pfennig said the information will be “used to collect information regarding the strengths of the district, the challenges that it will be facing in the coming years, and desired characteristics for the new superintendent.”

The surveys, he said, were compiled and “thematically compressed” to offer “a snapshot” to help define the skills that the community thinks are important for a new superintendent to have. The District, he said, “seeks an excellent educational leader who exemplifies quality leadership characteristics through his / her demonstrated professional experience.”

This, he said, includes a leader who will:

- Thoughtfully evaluate existing policies, practices, and programs before presenting initiatives to change, expand, or eliminate policies and procedures; 

- Have working knowledge of educational research / practices that supports excellent existing opportunities for students and sets the stage to move the district’s educational priorities forward;

- Have experience in strategic and long-term planning that incorporates ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, is open-ended and builds upon previous successes and prepares students for their next academic/career path; 

- Make an effort to promote diversity and inclusion that encourage programming decisions that maximize the opportunities, potential, and results for all students. This includes a belief that all students can achieve when given resources and opportunities;

- Have the ability to integrate social /emotional wellness into the educational culture to foster a healthy learning environment for students;

- Have experience in integrating technology into multiple functions in order to prepare students for the future;

- Have communication skills that are polished, varied, and employed with a sense of humility and accessibility that signals a professional presence. Demonstrate ability to understand and interact with the range of demographics and experiences present within the District. Skills should reflect creative ways to communicate in order to reduce / eliminate perceived communication gaps;

- Have professional experience that includes administrative and teaching assignments that span a significant number of grade levels within a successful educational environment;

- Have strength in recruiting and retaining an excellent professional staff and in fostering an environment of mutual trust and collaboration within the district;

- Have success in long and short-term budget planning with implementation supported by a strong sense of financial acumen and responsibility.

Pfennig reported on some of the more open-ended responses. These include that community members “don’t always know where decisions are coming from.” Some, he said, got information that they needed, while others reported that they did not. Some, he said, gave input on matters but never found out how it was used and were unable to learn about outcomes of input until a final presentation was given.

In terms of budgeting, some said that the current budget process is not clear and that they wanted it presented with greater detail. 

Socio-emotional support was important to many.

Some said that while “high ratings” are important for a District, many said that if the District has a “fine educational profile,” then “ratings will take care of themselves.”

He said that there are always mixed views on technology, with some saying that the District uses technology investments well, while others are looking for improvement. 

He said that for some, gaps in communication is the biggest concern. He said that the report said that communication should be better “or more.”

Pfenning warned that while his firm will most likely not be able to find “one person who can match up to all” of the criteria, he is confident they can identify “someone who can be an excellent match for Summit.”

Currently, 52 applicants have begun or completed the process. During the week of April 20, 22 have screening interviews, including a few from out of state and a few with superintendent and central office experience. He said that he expects to present about eight people for consideration. 

District Goals Update

Director of Elementary Education Jennifer Ambrose gave an update on the 2019-20 District goals, a presentation originally scheduled for last month.

Goal One focuses on academic success in Mathematics and Language Arts and states, “All students in grades 2-8 and grade 9 Algebra 1 will master targeted math and ELA skills as outlined by their individualized learning plans from the IXL Continuous Diagnostic Assessment.”

Ambrose presented by grade level the number of students that are proficient and who have mastered various skills. She said that students are doing “very, very well” with the number of skills mastered. 

Goal Two focuses on interdisciplinary themes that enhance opportunities for experiential learning. It states, “The Summit Public Schools will evaluate current programming and create a revision plan, at all grade levels and across all disciplines, that identifies areas where interdisciplinary themes and/or units of study can be added to provide more opportunities for experiential learning.”

She said that in all grades teachers, coaches, and administrators are working together to see how units can be tied together. Faculty meetings, she said, have been dedicated to collaborative interdisciplinary lesson planning. Examples of this include anatomy / physical education / weight room and freshman physics / project adventure.

Goal Three cultivates a love of learning through a collaborative District culture. It is broken down into three initiatives. The first part, she said, focuses on coping skills. The addition of a mental health clinician addresses this goal, as does elementary-parent training, a revised “Take a Stand” curriculum, revised Advisory programs, and the Rutgers Behavioral Health program.

The second part focuses on culturally-inclusive learning, and the third part looks at learning trends including technology / digital citizenship, STEAM, design learning, learning communities and social/emotional learning. 

“The administrators will create a culture for professional learning that aligns with the targeted needs of their respective schools to improve student achievement,” she said. 

Ambrose said that the District had been seeking community partnerships, but because of the quarantine these plans have been postponed. 

McCann asked if the District was applying “cultural sensitivity” to its programs -- if diverse thought and viewpoints have been considered. 

“It’s important to be teaching students different points of view in addition to curriculum,” she said. 

Chang said that diversity is being taught “across the board,” including how to approach different ways of thinking. 

Reports

Board President Vanessa Primack paid tribute to former and longtime Summit High School Principal Dr. Donald R. Geddis, who recently passed away at the age of 87.

She quoted Former Summit High School (SHS) and Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Assistant Principal Emil George, who worked with Geddis for 18 years and called Geddis a “natural educator” who cared about Summit, Summit families, and Summit kids.  

Calling the COVID-19 shutdown an “incredible and historic event,” Primack said, “We are all missing school,” adding that the District will follow guidelines set by the State of New Jersey, and that “each and every board member” is looking for “answers and solutions,” but that they might not come as quickly as hoped, or “be the answers we want.”

“We will go through this together, and we will come out stronger,” she said. 

Chang gave an update on how teachers are coping with the shutdown.

He said that educators are trying to figure out when their jobs end each day. They are trying to provide more for the students, he said, but don’t know “when to log on and when to log off.”

He thanked teachers, administrators, and cabinet members. 

Committee Reports

Education Committee Chair Donna Miller said that committee continues to work on the virtual learning plan, and that new material is being taught in the classrooms

Operations Committee Chair Chris Bonner said that the Board and the Board of School Estimate approved unanimously the 2020-21 operating budget. He said that there is “adequate cash flow” to continue online learning for the rest of the school year “if that needs to be the case.”  He said that they are looking to save money in reduced lighting and heating. 

Health benefits, since Feb. 28, he said, are reported “in our favor” by $800,000, which is subject to change. 

He said that coaches and extra-curricular personnel will be paid 100 percent of their salaries “with documented effort.”  Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe said that this had been signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy. State Senator Paul Sarlo, who chairs the Senate budget and appropriations committee, said, ““Shame on any school board or district who is going to challenge this statute in the court of law. We are in an emergency health crisis. Monies have been appropriated for these services. These coaches spend an entire year preparing for these student-athletes. It’s not just show up on March 1, put in three months and go home. These are not part-time gigs.”

Bonner also reported that tuition for pre-kindergarten classes will be refunded or reduced for the fourth quarter by 50 percent. 

He said that the custodial and maintenance staff have been sanitizing and disinfecting campuses and crews are on standby for emergency repairs. 

He said that Technology Supervisor Doug Orr and his team are “the lifeblood” of the schools now. 

Bonner also said that Summit applied for the “Seamless Summer” program which feeds students when the schools are closed, but since Summit has fewer than 50 percent of its students on the free-and-reduced-lunch program, it does not qualify.

The food service contract renewal for Pomptonian was approved.

Policy Committee Chair Mike Colon said that five policies were amended for first reading. They concern domestic violence, health / physical education, contractor background checks, the school day, and missing children.

Communications Chair Peggy Wong said her committee discussed communicating during the pandemic and the superintendent search.

Primack said proposals have been exchanged between the unions and the District.

Colon, the Summit Educational Foundation (SEF) liaison, said that SEF has helped access over 20 hot spots for students who don’t have internet access “to make sure they are able to engage in a meaningful way.” He said that SEF “has not closed up shop.” 

McCann Departure

Board members and administrators had kind words to say to McCann, who is retiring from the board after six years of service. Chang said that she is the only remaining board member from the search committee that placed him back in 2015. 

Primack said that McCann has “incredible depth of commitment for each and every child to succeed, grow, and achieve, and wanting for them the best possible future they can have.”

Miller said that she was always “eagle eyed” when it came to achievement for “every single student.” “Thank you for your belief in all 4,000 students,” she said.

Colon said that her “cost-benefit discipline is legendary.”

Bonner thanked her for her leadership and guidance. He said that while the Board usually votes together, when it came to the 2019 full-day kindergarten (FDK) vote, she stuck to her values and operated with “commitment and conviction.”

Primack said that she was most proud of McCann advocating for struggling readers; pushing for educational data; learning from parent meetings; her dissent on taxpayer-funded FDK; and Board traditions. 

For her part, McCann offered the following remarks:

"Well here we are. I must say that after 6 years of service on this Board, it’s strange to be ending this way. But thank you for allowing me to say a few words and farewell.  

I would like to begin with the 5 things that I am most proud of, from my 6 years on the Board: 

  • First, my relentless (sorry June and Jenn) advocacy for struggling readers. I would like to think I played at least a small part in the increase in learning workshop touchpoints, increased orton-gillingham training and phonics instruction in the early grades.

  • Second, my continuous push for educational data, particularly on reading levels and ELL learners, allowing us to more easily see progress in these critical areas. It’s still a work in progress, but we’ve come a long way, and I hope this work continues. 

  • Third, is the considerable amount of time I spent attending parent meetings, forums and events in order listen to and learn from as many parents and educators as I could.  

  • Fourth, standing up for what I believed regarding taxpayer-funded Full Day Kindergarten, a decision for which I will forever be known as the “sole dissenting vote”.  I stand by my view that this program is not the best use of resources for our K-12 student body, which I believe will become more evident as time goes on. 

  • And lastly, I am proud to be a strong supporter for the continuation of Board traditions that I believe are integral to the fabric of Summit and the success of our schools.  

This leads me to the three 3 key lessons I took from this experience…some passed down to me and some learned on the job.  

  • First…do not underestimate the responsibility and the value a board member provides

    • Members of the Board, are ultimately responsible for the schools.  Not the Mayor, not the City Council, and not the Superintendent.

      • It is imperative that politics do not interfere with this Board.  

      • And it’s important to have a Superintendent who has a mutual respect for board members.  Yes, he or she is the educational expert…but the varied experiences that the board members have had in their lives, careers, as their child’s first teacher and as connected community members are equally important when board decisions are being made.  It is important for board members to stand up for what they…and the community believe. 

  • Second, to the point of being connected community members, it is so important to get out there and listen (not just to the folks who come to meetings or email us).  Each board member, similar to each person in this community, has a diverse background and varied experiences making it impractical to put us into “buckets”.  But with only 7 board members, it’s mathematically impossible for our backgrounds and experiences to correspond with all 4,000 students in our amazing community.  There are struggling readers, gifted students, ESL students, ESL-gifted students, athletes, musicians, AP students, special ed students, students of each of the 5 elementary schools, wealthy students, economically disadvantaged students, etc. Unless board members get out there and meet, connect and listen to as many people as they can, there is risk of misallocating resources (or the proverbial grease) to the squeaky wheel rather than to all 4,000 students.  

  • Lastly, it is important to have some fun. It’s funny, because throughout my time on the Board, I have always stood up for what I believe, whether or not it was the popular view…and so I would often remind myself that didn’t join the Board to make friends. But as I sit here for my final meeting, reflecting on my 6 years, the irony is that some of my best friends are people with whom I served on this Board, or met during my work on the Board.  So although this is a lot of hard work, it is so important to enjoy the people you are working with, and have some fun.  

Now for the most important part.  The “Thank You’s”

  • First...thank you to my husband and my kids.  I am looking forward to spending more time with them…although we have been spending a lot of time together these past few weeks. 

  • Thanks to my amazing friends who supported me.  

  • Thanks to the 6 other board members for your commitment. I know you will all work hard to carry its traditions forward and continue the excellence of our Schools.

  • Thanks to former board members for their service, particularly Rick Hanley who acted as a mentor to me.

  • Thanks to our talented Administration.   

    • We have a strong Superintendent now and I trust the Board will conduct a thoughtful search to find another.  Best of luck to June and his family as he moves on.  

    • We have an incredible Cabinet. Lou, Kathy, Rob, Jenn, Tanya, Doreen and Laurene. You are all amazing! 

    • Lou – I have known you the longest and you have been a mentor to me. Thank you for supporting me these past 6 years.  I have so much respect for you and will miss you.

    • Jenn – You are so talented, hard-working and good at what you do. Thank you for putting up with me as I have challenged you along the way. 

    • Kathleen, and the rest of the Administrative staff - thank you!

    • Thanks to the Principals and Assistant Principals who have always been so gracious to me and are all SO dedicated to the students of our district.

  • Thanks to the Supervisors, teachers and all other staff who are always striving for the best for our students.  

  • To parents and community members who took time to attend meetings and/or share your thoughts, thank you. 

  • Thank you to the parent and community organizations who work to support the Schools. It was so nice to get to know you all.  

  • And finally, thanks to the Students. The most rewarding part of this role was traveling around the district and seeing our students taking advantage."