WEST ORANGE, NJ – During public comment at Monday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, West Orange High School (WOHS) track and field coach Jason-Lamont Jackson Sr. came to express his frustration and disappointment with the board.
Jackson explained that the athletes were nearly unable to compete in June’s New Balance Nationals Outdoor, a national competition in North Carolina, because the district did not fund it.
“I found out on [May 31] that it wasn’t going to be funded—12 days before the teams were set to compete,” said Jackson, who was curious why the competition was not funded this year after the board had included funding for Nationals in the budget for the previous two years.
As a result, the newly created Mountaineer Runners Booster Club set up a GoFundMe page that 89 community members—including Mayor Robert Parisi—contributed to for a total of $4,250 to in a matter of days. If it wasn’t for those monetary contributions, Jackson said that he would have had to charge each student $780.
“We only ended up having to ask them for $180, which was amazing,” said Jackson. “I’m just truly grateful for that.”
Jackson said he had been communicating with Athletic Director Ron Bligh and other administrators since April about his displeasure with several issues related to the athletic director. Although he was promised more transparency in how Bligh communicated things to the track and field coaches, Jackson said that “nothing happened and then all of a sudden, the term ‘illegal to go to Nationals’ comes up.”
“It put a sour taste my mouth that these kids almost weren’t able to go,” said Jackson, expressing frustration that it had to come down asking the community for help. “It looked like we didn’t have our act together, asking for money. So that was very, very frustrating.”
WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai explained that this was the first year the board was told that it was “against the rules” to fund this trip.
“We were told that it’s after the season and so it cannot be funded through the board of ed,” said Mordecai, adding that she believes it possible that New Balance is not aware of the new rule.
Board member Cheryl Merklinger added that she believes that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) has a rule that each sport is allowed to attend one non-sanctioned event, or an event that is out-of-state. She said it was her understanding that the Penn Relays, a competition that takes place in Pennsylvania, was the one non-sanctioned event that the WOHS track team attended this year.
“The concern was that if we did fund the track team [to go to Nationals], that the students may be ineligible to participate in the following [2019-2020 school] year, if [the board was] fined by the NJSIAA,” said Merklinger.
Jackson acknowledged that the board’s words had “some weight,” but that it is still unclear why the same event was funded two years prior.
As a newcomer, West Orange Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone said that he wants to not only talk to everyone involved, but to also “get a clear understanding of what took place and get a definitive ruling as to what the legal reality is and how the decision was made.”
In other athletic news, Mordecai addressed some concerns about overspending on the “Bubble,” stating that its budgeted cost increased from $500,000 to nearly $1 million dollars as a result of floor plan changes and repairs.
Dr. Cascone proposed conducting a walkthrough of the athletic facility with Director of Buildings and Grounds Bob Csigi, Business Administrator John Calavano and Bligh.
“That’s why you have me,” said Cascone. “I’m happy to take an inventory of any perceived and/or real concerns, and to conduct a walkthrough with Mr. Calavano, Mr. Csigi, Mr. Bligh and then report back to you through Board President [Ken Alper] as to my findings.”
Cascone also invited members of the board to set up meetings with the athletic director if they still would rather see the Bubble for themselves.
Construction of the Bubble is nearly completed, with the high school football team already using the weight room. The Bubble is currently on track to be completed before the start of the 2019-20 school year.
In addition to welcoming Cascone, the district is also welcoming Beatrice Hanratty as the new English Language Arts (ELA) Supervisor for Grades K-to-5.
The board also took the time to recognize several staff members who are leaving the district, including Gregory Elementary School Nurse Sharon Anglum after 16 years in the district; WOHS Chemistry Teacher Dr. Ronald Brandt after 15 years in the district; and Edison Custodian Joseph Rinaldi after 39 years in the district.
During public comment, WOHS Class of 2013 graduate Benjamin Hughes spoke about Dr. Brandt’s legacy and to congratulate him on his retirement.
Hughes, who was in Dr. Brandt’s class from 2010 to 2011, said he appreciated how Dr. Brandt “tied a lot of outside knowledge from his numerous occupations prior to becoming a teacher” in his instruction, which made chemistry, “something that is hard for anybody to grasp—let alone a sophomore in high school—way more helpful and interesting.”
The next board of education meeting will be on Aug 12 at 8 p.m.