Reporter's Notebook: Jan. 8 Board of Ed Meeting
● By Rebecca K. Abma
The district’s security measures, the upcoming budget, future referendum plans and public perception were key topics discussed at the standing-room-only Jan. 8 meeting of the Midland Park Board of Education, which included a somewhat heated public discussion.
School Security Measures
The district is focused on security measures in the wake of the Newtown, CT, school shooting. Here are some of the latest updates:
- Superintendent Dr. Marie Cirasella and school principals met had a detailed security meeting with borough police officers, including a building inspection to confirm PA access, security camera placements and to ensure all windows, doors, locks, etc. are in compliance with school safety standards implemented in October 2012.
- New state laws require surprise school lockdown drills. Local and county police will also perform more drills, including an Active Shooter Drill.
- According to Dr. Cirasella, about one-third of schools in Bergen County use armed security, typically private security of retired local police officers and one large district has hired a security firm.
- Police will have give a school safety talk for parents on Jan. 22, to inform parents what to do in the event of a school lockdown.
- District officials will be attending state-led school safety course later this month. The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office is also holding a miniworkshop by Anthony Bland, in February.
- School resource officers have been doing new random school visits. The officers are taking care to be so low key that the children barely notice, but the staff finds it reassuring.
- Substitute teachers are also briefed on lockdown plans and the district is reviewing how the information is disseminated to subs. .
The BOE will be taking another look at the financial data.The board recently allocated $800,000 to repair the roof at Godwin School and repave the blacktop at the high school. These projects will not be included in the next referendum.
The board also noted there is a new prospect for some grant money to come in working with the town council. Private foundation grants are available in small amounts and parents could be instrumental in helping to apply for these grants and Bergen County Community College has a grant writing resources that can help. (The High School had just won a $5,000 Theatre Grant.)
Parents told the board they are organizing to better support the board's efforts and to expect that we would be asking a lot of questions in order to respond to parents and other citizens questions and misinformation about current and passed referendums. They apologized for asking questions that the board has answered repeatedly, but it is part of the process of becoming more knowledgeable so they could respond when they hear things on the sidewalks or on social networks. They requested a Q&A page to be added to the website, however officials noted the board had posted a blog that much of the public ignored leading up to the referendum. Members of the public replied it would still be a good resource for them to be able to use to try to reach out and inform the public about these issues.
Confusion Over Past Projects
One parent noted a recurrent problems is the confusion around what has been done in the past, what was included in referendums and what was dropped. For example, the rumors about the boiler that was supposedly promised. Mr. Sullivan explained it is difficult for the board to reply as most of them are new, weren't involved in old referendums.
Trustee Bob Schiffer explained the confusion arises because things that were included in the failed 2002 referendum proposal were removed when the board went out for the much smaller 2003 referendum which passed. The boiler was removed from the 2003 referendum, which included building the new gym and required a lot of steel at a time when steel prices raised dramatically. It became a choice between a new boiler or completing the rest of the lower level, the music and choir rooms, or leaving that area a bare basement. As the boiler was working, although inefficient, they determined that having a fully finished lower level, rather than just a gym and cafeteria, was more critical.
Mr. Schiffer also clarifed that the voters think there have been many referendums, but in fact, there have not. One passed in 1974, one was proposed and failed in 2002, it was resubmitted and passed in 2003.
Regionalization Report Requested
Former Board Trustee Esther Verheilig spoke to the board that she felt that the BOE needed to form a committee to investigate send/receive. She specified that she did not mean by hiring an outside group to produce a report, but just a committee of the BOE. She said she personally did not want send/receive, but she felt the subject needs to be addressed. She said the Board should produce a document after exploring costs and feasibility that addressed the cost of busing 350 students out of town, how much it might actually cost to send a child out of district, who would be willing to accept us, and representation on the receiving district's board.
While the board and many members of the public in attendance does not believe send/receive is cost-effective or desirable. Many people chose to live in Midland Park to avoid a large regional district, but a coherent response may close the lid on the controversy. It would be an enormous amount of work for the Board to do this in committee, but thought it was something the board should think about. Mr. Schiffer said that he felt that even were the BOE to produce such a report, it would probably not end the controversy. A member of the public noted that he felt that the issue was potential divisive and should be set aside and focus put on making capital improvements because even if we were to be engaged in send/receive for the high school, we would still have three buildings in town that would have to be maintained for the remaining students.
Budget Planning Issues
The district is currently focusing on the upcoming budget vote. According to officials, the last time a referendum was voted down, the budget was also voted down, although generally speaking most budgets have been passed. The district cannot assume this budget will be passed.
Board Trustee Pete Triolo requested the line item budget be placed online, so it is easily accessible. Ms. Garvey cautioned it was a very long document and would require scanning, but it will be done. Mr. Schiffer noted that work on the new budget is beginning and that the old one will only be relevant for a short time.
An audience member noted that the town officials said the borough council cannot change its budget, and has to plan for everything in advance. The BOE replied that it is important to distinguish between the referendum and the annual budget. In a referendum, they cannot swap money around. The spending plan, by law, has to be adhered to. However, the annual budget is more flexible. They can, and do, move money around.
Stacey Garvey gave a hypothetical: Say the board earmarks funds to replace three floors in classrooms in Godwin. Then, an unexpected event happens, the heating vents in one of the classrooms fails. What happens is they take the money from the flooring to replace the heating vent as that is the more critical need.
Mr. Schiffer noted when the State of NJ imposed the 2 percent cap, they knew that districts would be unable to fund capital improvements. Their goal was that capital improvements be funded via referendum.
When asked about state funding, Schiffer explained that the amount lost was $1.2 million. One morning, a week before the budget was to be sent out for the scheduled vote, the district received a letter from the state saying they would receive no funding at all and to go back and re-write the entire budget and send it for a vote.
As a result, they were forced to slash the budget and we lost middle school athletics, honors programs, art instruction time, etc. Subsequently, the state restored $200,000 the next year, and then another $200,000 for a total of $400,000. With a lot of careful planning, the BOE was able to restore much of what was lost. Their goal has always been to protect curriculum above all.
Dr. Cirasella requested that matters of curriculum be addressed to her office, to her, to the principals, to the director of curriculum. She noted she has heard complaints through the grapevine that the reading curriculum was outdated, and this is simply untrue. The curriculum was completely revised in 2011.
She said when people hear that these remarks on the sidewalks, they should follow up by going to the administration and asking, who will be very happy to explain what has been done and why.
She also noted that school rankings that appear in NJ Monthly are not a real indicator of how well the school does. Additionally, there are changes in how all district will be assessed and she expects Midland Park to do well.
Ms. Criscenzo reported on curriculum, noting that there will be two new textbooks to vote on at the next meeting, one on drivers ed (10th grade) and one on health (11).
A member of the audience felt that the positive aspects of the schools need to be better disseminated, perhaps press releases distributed or a letter sent to parents from the Superintendent addressing curriculum.
Mr. Schiffer noted that when Ho Ho Kus left the district, many years ago, the movement to leave had started among discontented Ho Ho Kus parents of 3rd and 4th graders. An audience member, agreed that communication and perception are very important because a small group of people can end up having a big impact.
Board President Bill Sullivan lauded the spirit of cooperation that has begun between the borough council and the school board. The Dec. 27 private meeting between school and town officials was very positive and explored areas for cooperation, including access to the borough’s grant writer, the possibility of the town applying for grants to help the schools.
A resident asked about the maintenance planfor school fields. Stacey Garvey explained that there is no BOE plan for the fields, but the maintenance crew has it's own plan, which is available to the public by filling out a request.
As for questions of iexploring the installation of sprinkler systems, the board was under the impression that water restrictions placed on them by Ridgewood Water made sprinklers prohibitive. However, the resident noted, schools can water just as residents can, they just have to develop a plan to water under the restrictions, that it doesn't mean they cannot water at all.
The board said they are restricted in what fertilizers they can use. The resident, an expert in lawn and garden care, explained that water and seed alone would go a long way. He asked what kind of equipment they had. The Board replied they had a water cannon, but it really was a glorified sprinkler that had a very small range and needed to be moved perhaps 15 times to cover the rear field.
The Board welcomed any offer of help and suggested he speak to Mr. Lancaster and the athletic boosters to explore further. They noted Highland Field would be an easy place to install sprinklers, but cautioned the high school field had bedrock peeking through the surface and that they had been told by contractors previously that that made installing sprinklers there prohibitively expensive. Ms. Garvey explained that there is a lot of problem with poor drainage and soil erosion on slopes.
Meeting Broadcasts Explored
The district is exploring possibilities to broadcast public meetings. Board trustees are pleased with the new public turnout at its meetings, but some members expressed concerned that video broadcasts of the meetings may discourage attendance and the active give-and-take with the public is important. Others felt broadcasting may encourage more people to get involved. The board will explore options to decide how best to proceed.
Teacher contract negotiations will begin soon. Trustee Timothy Thomas cannot participate in negotiations, as his wife is a member of the teacher’s union. If no other board member can take on the task, he might be granted permission as an exception. The board will discuss it further.
Odds & Ends
The board approved the sale of two pianos that were extremely old and the line items proposed.
The BOE policy committee is looking at use of technology, networks, and student personal devices in school.
The district will be posting the position of Special Education Director.
Dave Lancaster and Heather Lightbody terms on the Board of Recreation expired on Dec. 31, so the BOE needs to become acquainted with the replacements.