Tensions Arise at West Orange Board of Education Meeting Amidst Calls for Community Healing

The WOHS girls basketball team was recognized at the board meeting for being at the top of the Liberty Division for the first time in the high school’s history. Credits: Alan Grossman
Josephine Kravits, who helped organize the WOHC “walkout” demonstration praised the teachers and administration at the high school. Credits: Alan Grossman
Beverly Tindall, library media specialist at WOHS, expressed her dismay about the timing of the Rice notices right before the spring break. Credits: Alan Grossman
Board President Sandra Mordecai, far right, congratulates the Kelly Elementary School students who made a STEM presentation at the meeting.
The WOHS Swim Team was honored at the meeting for being the SEC Conference champs this year. Credits: Alan Grossman

WEST ORANGE, NJ – Even with a tentative agreement for teachers’ salary and health benefits now providing hope for a new contract between the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) and the West Orange Education Association, tensions were still running high at the WOBOE meeting on Tuesday.

Among the items that generated the most heated comments were Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky’s decision to send “Rice notices” to 70 district employees per day before the spring break; the role the board should play in developing the test to get into the honors program; and the advisability of opening up a new preschool program at a time of budget cuts in other areas.

During the public comment portion of the evening, most of the teachers, parents and students who spoke came out to support the library media specialists and other educators who either received Rice notices or are among those who will lose their jobs due to budget cutbacks. Several library media specialists spoke on their own behalf to indicate to the board that although their jobs have now been saved due to the tentative contract agreement, their morale has been hurt by this incident.

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“The way you treated us was disrespectful,” said Beverly Tindall, a library media specialist at West Orange High School (WOHS). “We were pawns in a game. I expected better after 31 years of service at the West Orange High School.”

Rutzky said that the tentative agreement means that the additional $1.3 million in budget cuts will no longer be needed.

“Therefore, the library media specialist positions will not be eliminated…They were among the 70 district employees who received Rice notices,” he said. “These notices had to go out when they did so that the Board of Education members could legally discuss by the time of this meeting any matter involving these members’s employment if needed.”

Rutzky added that the Rice notices that were given out had nothing to do with the negotiations.

“There was a time factor involved in sending out the notice,” he said. “People who got it had to tell us whether they wanted a public hearing or not by the time of this meeting…To say the Rice notice was some kind of bargaining ploy is ridiculous.”

Many other teachers spoke on behalf of the vice principals, guidance counselors, instructional aides and special education teachers who received Rice notices. Stacy Mazzola, a math teacher at the Liberty Middle School, spoke on behalf of Elena Bley.

“Elena is the best math inclusion teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” said Mazzola. “Losing her is a mistake this district cannot afford to make.”

Kevin Reilly, a teacher/coach in West Orange for 36 years, said the instructional assistants are the “lifeline for students with special needs.”

“The aides as a whole feel expendable," he said. "It’s terrible for morale."

Robin Isserles reflected the views of many of the parents who spoke.

“I am asking the board to help heal the wounds that have become the new normal in West Orange,” she said.

Another parent, Rachel Gordon, agreed, saying, “Hopefully with a full agreement there will be a time of healing.”

Even with calls for healing, there was a heated exchange between board member Mark Robertson and Board President Sandra Mordecai over the proper role the board should play in developing the test that enables students to get into the honors program.

Robertson claimed that the board had violated its own policy to oversee the adoption of the curriculum, including the honors program. He said the test to get into this program was never reviewed by board members.

“We are overtesting, and the Board doesn’t know what is on the test,” said Robertson, who called for the honors evaluation to cease until the board reviews it and decides to either change it or adopt it.

Mordecai said it is not the role of the board to be the administrators of the schools. She said its role is to set the policies and let the principals, teachers and supervisors decide what questions should be included in tests.

“I want to apologize to the principals and teachers who you insulted,” Mordecai said to Robertson.

Another contentious issue that was brought up during the public comment part of the evening was the advisability of opening up a new pre-school facility at a time when the budget is so tight.

“I think it’s important that even during a time of budget cuts that we don’t lose sight of the future,” said Rutzky in defending this decision. “We can’t be in the same place five years from now with our elementary schools…we have to start somewhere to keep overcrowding down.”

Rutzky further explained that the pre-school classes will come from those currently at the Kelly Elementary School, which will open up space there.

“It is very challenging for kindergarten teachers who have to teach children coming into the public school system without any prior learning structure,” said Rutzky, adding that the facility now available for this pre-school program is brand new, safe, and ready to go for a price that is by far the best one the township has seen in the seven-year search.

At the beginning of the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez put forth a proposal to begin offering two world languages to West Orange students during sixth grade. These two languages would be Spanish and Mandarin, which has seen a 41-percent increase in student sign-ups at the high school level during this past year.

Mendez said that by moving these language options up a year, there will be a much greater likelihood of student success in world languages at the high-school level.

The board also passed policies on gender identity and expression; having the district’s media centers contain materials on all levels of difficulty and presenting different points of view; and having special instructional programs for the classified educationally disabled, the gifted and talented, students at risk for school failure, pregnant students, pupils requiring home instruction, the physically disabled, students who are English-language learners, and those requiring compensatory or remedial programs.

Members of the board also passed a non-binding resolution to request a traffic light at the intersection of Alisa Drive and Pleasant Valley Way to increase the safety of high school students that drive to school, and a resolution affirming the district’s commitment to educate all students, regardless of their immigration status.

The next WOBOE meeting will be held on May 1. 

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