Despite a large turnout of supporters in a hot, crowded meeting room, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education overwhelmingly backed its interim superintendent on proposed administrative changes — including the reassignment of Columbia High Principal Elizabeth Aaron as a Principal on Special Assignment — and voted to adopt those changes.
The writing seemed to be on the wall when Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra made a lengthy statement in which he categorically listed the challenges the district is facing (Ficarra has told Village Green that he will send the full statement this morning).
Ficarra said he was brought in to deal with “severe, systemic problems” and stated, “This district despite it’s many obvious assets is in need of urgent care. Time is something you’ve run out of.”
“For years,” Ficarra said, the district has tried to improve by making “small piecemeal solutions…. We now have the opportunity to clear the slate and make well planned .. intentional changes. A once-in-50-year opportunity…. If we let the better nature of our angels guide us.”
Ficarra acknowledged that people are upset by the changes: “I didn’t come here to cause you angst and aggravation… [but] I committed not to leave the tough decisions behind for the next person to solve. I believe this district is poised for a new dawn….”
The superintendent defended the Saturday evening, June 30 communication announcing the decision to reassign Aaron as well as Montrose School head Renée Joyce (replaced by Bonita Samuels) and said that the timing “was not to sneak something by the public, but rather to provide 17 days of lead time “before this meeting.”
Ficarra also argued that the creation of many interim positions in administration was intentional: “You’ve seen a lot appointed. On first look, that may seem like a bad thing. But actually that’s by design.” Ficarra said that interims bring experience and that “ideally a new superintendent can pick his or her own senior staff.”
“I couldn’t in conscious pick someone else’s entire senior staff,” said Ficarra.
Ficarra concluded by saying, “Things were done purposefully, reflectively and not haphazardly.”
(Ficarra has forwarded a print version of his comments; click here to read or see below.)
Nonetheless, the community members who gathered were not mollified. A total of 32 signed up for public comments, with some ceding their time to others so that they could exceed the 2-minute time limit.
District parent Mike Laskowski took the Board to task: “It is unacceptable to sit back and hear that Board of Education members would relinquish proxy rights to allow one person to make personnel decisions. … Why would the Board of Education relinquish that role?” Laskowski said his concerns were “not just Principal Aaron; I’m upset about all these assignments. It makes no sense. … I understand how hard this must be, but you signed up for this.”
Laskowski related the handling of the reassignments to the district’s Long-Range Facilities and Integration Plan, saying he was opposed to bonding for the proposed $130 million project. “You can’t handle the budget,” said Laskowski, who added later, “What’s being communicated is basically nothing. It’s reassignments but no master plan.”
Eddy Bikales, one of the organizers of a Facebook group to reinstatement Elizabeth Aaron, was combative during the first public speaks, calling for the public to vote in three new members of the Board of Education this coming November. Later in the meeting, he struck a more conciliatory note, saying that the community would welcoming CHS Interim Principal Dr. Kalisha Morgan in her role and work to make her successful. But he noted, “Elizabeth Aaron was the person who could get things done … she took a personal interest …I just hope that you guys have metrics that you are going to be measuring the performance and I hope the idea is not totally dead that [next year] Elizabeth Aaron be reconsidered for the job.”
Barbara Levy, a 19-year resident of South Orange with four children in the district, echoed many others when she spoke about the need for better communications from the district and Board of Education. Levy asked for “ACT: Accountability, Communication and Transparency.”
Parent Camilla Essner told Ficarra that she found his “tutorial” on the state of the district “offensive.” She objected to the reassignment of CHS Principal Aaron, saying, “Scapegoating one person for the ills that are plaguing our district is kinda ridiculous.”
Another parent questioned whether or not Aaron did in fact write a letter to the public conveying that she was optimistic about the future of the district and “honored” to take on her new role, saying he had compared it to emails he had received from her and found it did not match her style or grammatical standards.
Parent and former district teacher Danielle Perrotta sounded a different note, standing with #Mapsowhite Project founders Felisha George and Avery Julien (who are former and future Board of Education candidates), asking that that parents listen to the stories of students.
Montrose School parent Abbe Diana spoke up on behalf of the reassignment of former Montrose director Rene Joyce: “Montrose parents are in love with that school,” she said, calling it “truly special.”
“The reason for this: the vision and leadership of Renée Joyce,” said Diana. “Why the drastic change in leadership? It’s a three-year-old school.” Diana said that she was “afraid the culture will not survive the change.”
“Is preschool an afterthought?” Diana asked. “This little school is operating great. [We] feel she was shoved aside for no reason.” She concluded, “Special ed doesn’t feel like it should be a footnote. I am heartbroken.”
Former Board of Education Student Rep Maggie Kritzberg offered a bridge for moving forward, asking again for better communications. “The communication on this topic jeopardized trust and fanned the flames of division. … I’m here to tell you that our district must rebuild trust.”
Kritzberg noted that “many difficulties” facing the district “reflect statewide and nationwide deficiencies.” She called for more lobbying.
She also made a plea for civility: “When we engage it does not mean we have to fight one another … shut each other out. I hope as we move forward, we embrace each other.” She asked that community members “not sit behind screens” and attack one another but “trust one another and treat each other right.”
Later Kritzberg spoke personally about former CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron: “I hope you do find someone who is as wonderful and amazing as she is because this is a loss and we need to make sure that we repair from that loss.”
Ultimately — north of 11:30 p.m. — the Board voted to sever two parts of the personnel resolutions. The vote for Principal Aaron’s reassignment was 8-0, with Johanna Wright abstaining. The vote for Renée Joyce’s reassignment was 8-1, with Wright against. (Johanna Wright has verified her votes with Village Green.)