After last month’s raucous and impassioned Board of Education meeting which led to two top administrators and the Columbia High School principal retaining their positions, BOE President Kaitlin Wittleder apologized to the community for the “panic and distress” caused.
“[The meeting] resulted in a number of key learnings that will be discussed internally with my fellow Board colleagues and the District,” Wittleder said shortly after the meeting, in response to questions from Village Green. “Going forward, I will strive to demonstrate more leadership on the BOE to ensure it is functioning as an effective body in collaboration with the District to avoid similar outcomes.”
At the May 25 BOE meeting, Wittleder used her President’s Update to provide a more complete version of her original statement, offering more clarity on the annual employee renewal process. She also addressed the Board’s decision to pull Policy 2270 “Religion in the Schools” from the agenda.
We are posting Wittleder’s full May 25 statement below.
As the President of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education, I believe it is my responsibility to be responsive to the community’s questions and concerns after the 5/11 board meeting, and all board meetings. Unfortunately, the May 11th Board meeting became a source of panic and distress for our community, and for that I’m deeply regretful. I am working alongside Administration to improve the renewal process moving forward to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
To that end, I requested a meeting with the Superintendent this week to discuss key learnings and to strategize on potential calendar adjustments to the process for next year. We were in agreement that the renewal process timeline should shift to account for different due diligence procedures that were followed this year. To avoid potential issues in the future, the Superintendent and I put together a proposed calendar that would kick off the renewal process as early as the March Public Board meeting (instead of the historical start date of mid/late April). The proposed calendar would include Board Member training on the process and would account for a separately held special meeting, where no action would be taken, at least one week before the renewal/non renewal meeting. This meeting would bring the Board together as a body to discuss personnel matters together well in advance of any action being taken. There were other key learnings discussed and tweaks made to the timeline which will be presented to my Board colleagues for additional feedback. Having this process documented will better support the future work of the Board and will be included in every new Board Member’s onboarding packet.
On another topic, I have heard in the community a concern that employees might be able to leave the district – resign or be terminated – under troubling circumstances and that prospective employers would have no knowledge of any issues that might have spurred the employee’s separation. I have consulted with the Board’s legal counsel and can say that under N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7.7(a)(3)(a-b), any prospective employer is required to obtain a written statement from the past employer as to whether the applicant:
(a) has been the subject of any child abuse or sexual misconduct investigation by any employer, State licensing agency, law enforcement agency, or the Department of Children and Families, unless the investigation resulted in a finding that the allegations were false or the alleged incident of child abuse or sexual misconduct was not substantiated;
(b) has ever been disciplined, discharged, nonrenewed, asked to resign from employment, resigned from or otherwise separated from any employment while allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct were pending or under investigation, or due to an adjudication or finding of child abuse or sexual misconduct;
Our HR Department and those of other districts take compliance with this law seriously. We have and will continue to comply with our legal obligations. Additionally, some Board Members have also requested that we review board policies related to staff misconduct to evaluate if additional measures are needed in these policies as well.
Finally, I would like to update the community on policy 2270 “Religion in the Schools.” The Board and Administration recognize that between first read and second read of policy 2270 “Religion in the Schools” the Department of Education released updated guidance from the Biden Administration, on May 15, around constitutionally protected prayer and religious expression in public elementary and secondary schools.
I’d like to make a motion to amend the agenda and remove resolution 4465K. The effect of this motion will be to remove Policy 2270 from the agenda and it will not be approved tonight. The committee can then review the USDOE Guidance that was issued between meetings and determine whether to bring the policy back for second read or, if revised, for a first reading at a later meeting. Please know that any future Board revisions will follow the US Department Of Education’s guidance and our anti-discrimination policies, to establish a lawful separation of religion and public education. The Board will continue to ensure there is no religious coercion or discrimination and the update of this policy will not do anything to undermine those efforts. The Board is mindful to move forward cautiously so that safeguards against religious coercion or discrimination remain intact.