Board of Education meetings for the South Orange-Maplewood School District can run long — particularly as the school year grinds to an end.
The June 20 Board of Education meeting was no exception, marking the longest meeting in Superintendent Dr. John Ramos’ first year on the job. The meeting ran just past 1:15 a.m., beginning on Monday, June 20 but ending on Tuesday, June 21.
Although many have complained that Board of Ed meetings have run longer ever since the Board began meeting once a month rather than twice, a major contributor to the length of the June meeting was the fact that 39 people signed up for the first “Public Speaks,” which extended from 51 minutes into the meeting (scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.) to past 10:30 p.m.
The length of the meeting prompted a somewhat testy conversation among Board members in the closing moments of the meeting (scroll down for a recounting).
Not all 39 of those who signed up spoke — many ceded their time to other speakers so that those speakers could extend their messages beyond the three minutes allotted to individuals.
The speakers ranged in age, topic and seriousness.
Third grader Rohan Pai, the son of Board Member Madhu Pai, began with a serious message — saying that lunch aide workers at Jefferson School “do not know how to deal with kids and just yell at them” and had even grabbed him and a friend by their shirt collars. However, the younger Pai ended on a light note, asking his mother, “Can I stay up late?”
Three teachers spoke.
William Gaines, who is retiring after teaching social studies at Columbia High School for 29 years, spoke at length (15 minutes) as several speakers who were signed up ceded their time to him. Gaines took the district administration to task over what he saw as the lack of support for Black students and curriculum. Gaines noted that he taught the first African American Studies course in the district, but that now, 19 years later and as he retires, that course may be cut.
“We’re talking about equity and about access and we don’t even want students to discover who they are,” said Gaines. He also worried that “Columbia High School cannot educate black males,” but offered some hope is saying that he believed that the district administration, working with longtime teachers, could make progress, by harnessing the community’s “institutional memory.”
Danielle Perrotta, a 5th grade teacher at Tuscan school for the past eight years, also urged the board to utilize teachers. She noted that board members come and go, but “the educators are here to stay.” As a woman with ADHD, Perrotta said she was particularly passionate about Special Education and asked the Board for better and consistent training throughout the district, so she can better serve her students.
Hannah Edelman, a SOMSD teacher since 1978 and SOMEA representation (SOMEA is the union representing teachers and staff in the district), reminded the board that “in many cultures longevity is revered and considered an asset” but said that she felt disrespected since she was assigned five special education classes rather than five fine arts classes for the coming school year. She questioned whether the move was an attempt to push her into retirement.
Many community members spoke out about the necessity for maintaining a supervisor of fine arts position. Ramos announced that the district was seeking a candidate, but parents and students emphasized the importance of making the position permanent.
Parents also attended the meeting to advocate for retaining an accelerated English Language Arts course that had certain high-performing 8th graders taking 9th grade ELA (the “Middle School ELA Transformation, eliminating the course and instituting differentiated instruction for 8th grade ELA honors, was approved). Many parents questioned the practicality of teaching what they saw as two separate courses in one classroom.
The parents of a Marshall School student spoke about an incident in which their child was placed in a coat room for a lengthy amount of time by his teacher to be disciplined. Although the teacher had been removed from the classroom after the incident was discovered and had subsequently retired, the parents expressed their dissatisfaction with how the district had handled the situation and how it had communicated with them.
Additionally, a number of current and former students spoke, expressing their dissatisfaction with the district along with ways it could improve.
Justice Williams who graduated in 2015 addressed the potential hiring of a School Resource Officer at CHS (District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider announced during the meeting that the district would not be hiring such an officer due to overwhelmingly negative feedback from a School Safety Meeting earlier in June).
Williams told the Board that “as a (black) student at Columbia, I was used to being profiled, I was used to being criminalized.” Williams was happy to hear that a SRO would not be hired for the coming year, and said that the district should never employ an officer in its schools.
Two current CHS students ended the public speaks component expressing that they do not believe one student board representative can represent the views of the entire student population and calling for a student committee and forum series.
Hours later, at 1:10 a.m. the topic of the lengthy public speaks was brought up by Board member Chris Sabin.
Said Sabin, “Can we at the next [meeting], can we try something different [regarding public speaks]? I don’t want to be here to 1 a.m….. Let’s just try it out.”
Board President Elizabeth Baker replied that she had asked the Community, Engagement and Outreach Committee to “come back to us next month with recommendations as to how to improve both the efficacy of the public speaks and allow people to be heard but also not postponing the substantive discussion of the agenda.”
Sabin agreed, noting that many people were commenting on topics before presentations could be made explaining the topics. “Maybe we make the presentation first and make them listen to us,” said Sabin.
Baker replied, “I think there are some legal issues” and said that the Board was “grappling with what are the requirements, what are our options for breaking it up. We’ve previously grouped some public speaks by topic….”
Baker also noted that the CE&O Committee was looking into the practice of ceding time, noting that it was “not in the bylaws.”
At this point, Board member Johanna Wright brought up the topic of teachers who “have come to speak out at the Board meetings” being “called into the superintendent’s office.” Wright wanted to discuss contacting SOMEA representation “to make sure there wasn’t retaliation.” Wright then accused Baker of “rolling her eyes” at her.
Baker she she had not done so and retorted, “If there is any concern about retaliation against any member of the teaching staff I would ask them to submit to the Board of Education to be considered in advance and not just tossed out at 1:10 a.m. in the morning without any foundation.”
Board member Maureen Jones calmly interjected, “It’s been a long day for everyone,” as Baker called for the meeting to be adjourned.