WEST ORANGE, NJ — Updates on legionella testing, maintenance of grounds and facilities and other news throughout the West Orange Public Schools district were provided by Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez during Monday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting.
Regarding Legionella testing, de Mendez said the district received a proposal for a “water management plan” for West Orange High School (WOHS), which includes recommendations for long-term remediation.
“We’re going to be sharing that as soon as we process through it,” said de Mendez, adding that 45 water filters will be installed at WOHS and that the materials and plumbing parts are expected to arrive this week with installation planned for the first two Saturdays in March. “If we are successful with that plan, we will take a sampling after the filters are installed and depending on the results, we will cease water bottle distribution at the high school.”
De Mendez also said that heating issues in the Washington Elementary cafeteria have been fixed, but that concerns about ice at Mt. Pleasant Elementary will need to be addressed in the budget for the new fiscal year. Plans to build an addition for the retaining wall have already been built into the budget, she added.
A similar issue with ice was discovered at Gregory Elementary, but according to de Mendez, “that one was a little less out of our control.”
“Ground water is coming up and out of the ground due to elevated water table levels, so once the water table goes down, the water will decrease and ice will cease,” said de Mendez, who also said that troublesome areas are being salter every morning to combat the elevated water table levels.
There have also been concerns about the cleanliness of Washington and Kelly Elementary due to the presence of mice. According to de Mendez, the district had the health department inspect the schools and the department was ultimately satisfied with the measures that the district has in place.
At Kelly, de Mendez said that “an aggressive process was put in place to close up holes, the outside fencing is being addressed and pest management has been put in place for additional visits to the schools” and no mice have been found in the last week or so. There has also been a decrease in the instances of mice seen, but the buildings and grounds at the schools will continue to be monitored, de Mendez concluded.
Regarding issues surrounding CO2 levels in district classrooms, de Mendez said the district is “continuing the strategy of introducing fresh air to the classrooms.”
“In our budget, we will present a need for HVAC systems as part of our budget thinking,” said de Mendez, who also mentioned that there have been concerns about what has been coming out of drains in team rooms, especially after a recent wrestling tournament that attracted nearly 1,000 visitors. As a result, the drains have been sanitized, drained and snaked.
As an aside, de Mendez provided an update to policies surrounding district and contracted bus drivers, which were changed due to recent bus crash that involved a Newark school bus carrying a dozen special needs students.
According to de Mendez, the bus driver in this incident was revived by Naloxone after overdosing on “some kind of narcotic,” and the incident was the second in two days in the State of New Jersey. De Mendez clarified that the bus in question was “a different school district’s bus,” but all bus drivers in West Orange are expected to comply with two policies: “one on transportation safety, one on employee substance abuse.”
“All of our bus drivers—in district and contracted—are subject to all drug and alcohol testing requirements [and] Omni bus transportation employee testing act” said de Mendez. “The district implements all of those policies and regulations around the act as well as our employee substance abuse policy.”
Currently, West Orange employs 31 transportation CDL drivers who are all sent for drug and alcohol testing for pre-employment. According to de Mendez, 30 percent of the drivers have been randomly tested twice each year in the past, but now 50 percent of drivers will be randomly tested three times per year, effective immediately. Contracted drivers are randomly tested four times a year, and 45 percent are tested on each instance.
While going over personnel changes, WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai announced that Hazel Elementary Principal William Kochis is set to resign on June 30 and thanked him for his service.
“We are very proud of his achievement,” said de Mendez. “He will move on to be superintendent at another public school district, and so we are very proud of his work and what he will be accomplishing in the future.”
In order to select a new principal, two committees will be created that will be made up of parents, PTA members, teachers, staff and administrators. One committee will be school based while the other will be content based, de Mendez explained.
“We want to ensure that the community is looking for their expectations and that we are also looking for rigor, achievement and change makers as we look to turn our schools around,” she said. “As soon as everyone confirms their availability, then a timeframe will be communicated with the board in the future.”
De Mendez also mentioned that it would be ideal to move the process forward as quickly as possible so that a candidate can be confirmed in time for the transition.
In other news, WOBOE President Ken Alper announced that there will be some changes at subsequent WOBOE meetings. For those who are familiar with the process, the public comment section will now be swapped with the board member report section.
“This is part of our efforts to help everyone get out of here earlier,” said Alper. “If you think your comment would require some additional feedback from the administration [or] you need an additional response, just put down your topic and contact information [on a clipboard] and Ms. de Mendez will be able to get back to you more easily that way.
“Our hope is just to be able to communicate with our parents in a more timely fashion. Often comments were made and then we’re waiting to get back to you in two weeks to get back to you at a future board meeting. This way if you leave your name and contact information—if there’s something that you need of us or if we could communicate with you—then we can know how to contact you and call you before waiting for the two weeks before the board meeting.”
During Monday’s meetings the WOBOE student liaisons also provided an update about changes in school start times. Aarushi Bhatnagar said that after distributing a survey, they found that most students preferred start time of approximately 8 a.m., but were also concerned about how later start times might impact sports for both the district and recreational leagues.
In response, the WOBOE recommended that a similar survey be sent out to parents in order to see how this change might impact their and their children’s schedules.
During public comment, resident Nicole Ruffo, who has commented on food allergy awareness at previous meetings, thanked the board members for their positive reactions to her suggestion of implementing an allergy awareness committee and the information that she brought with her at the last board meeting.
Ruffo said she hopes that the West Orange district will be a model to other districts throughout the state on this issue and reminded the board that National Allergy Awareness Month is coming up in May. She announced that she attends to speak at a Gregory Elementary School PTA meeting during that month “about ways to keep our kids safe in school.”
The next WOBOE meeting will be held on March 11 at 8 p.m.