Millburn Board of Education President Jeffrey Waters congratulates former board member Samuel Levy for his service to the board and the community. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Jane Gomez appeals to the Millburn Board of Education on behalf of M-Spec. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
M-Spec President Laura Bencivenga tells the Millburn school board why M-Spec should be allowed to do its work. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Millburn Special Education Parents Turn Out En Masse to Protest Committee They Feel Endangers M-Spec; $80 Million Budget Considered
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 • 7:02am
MILLBURN, NJ—A proposal by Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield and the school district special education department to institute a new parent advisory committee concerned with special education matters was soundly condemned by a number of speakers at Monday’s Millburn Board of Education meeting.
The speakers, most of whom have children in special education, felt that the new committee was an attempt to silence M-Spec, the Millburn Special Education Committee, which has advocated for special education students and their parents for about 20 years in Millburn-Short Hills.
Crisfield said the new committee was being formed to meet state requirements for a parent advisory unit and would solicit more wide-ranging input from residents in all Millburn-Short Hills school districts and from all programs involved with special education.
The superintendent added members of M-Spec were welcome to apply for membership in the new group and M-Spec was free to continue in existence.
However, after reciting a long list of M-Spec’s accomplishments over the years, Laura Bencivenga, the group’s president said the organization was an established group that she felt there was no need to replace.
“This new group is an attempt to marginalize and silence M-Spec,” she added. “M-Spec is here to stay.”
When Bencivenga asked how many of those in the audience at Monday’s meeting supported M-Spec, a majority of the audience members stood.
Jane Gomez, a former chair of the education committee who has held a number of positions with M-Spec, said setting up a “shadow committee” when one already was in existence would be an embarrassment to Millburn-Short Hills.
She urged the superintendent to rethink his proposal in light of his relationship with parents and the community, adding, “we live in a democracy not in an autocracy.”
The Hartshorn School M-Spec representative, who has a classified autistic child and a second child who has had an individual education plan (IEP) since kindergarten, said the Millburn district needs to take a closer look at autistic children, especially in light of the fact that the Newtown, CT gunman was autistic.
She added, “I think this district has enough great-minded people that we can do much better than what we are doing.”
Christine Johansson, whose son is dyslexic, said she is happy about most of the programs in the district, but parents still needed a place to go when they need help.
She added the M-Spec members did not want to be confrontational but just wanted to sit down with Crisfield and discuss their needs and proposals.
Another parent said, however, that in her 17 years of experience, M-Spec had not been as effective a voice as it could have been. She urged her fellow parents to give the new group a chance.
Board member Lise P. Chapman, who this year will chair the Ad Hoc Special Education Committee, invited Crisfield to attend a committee meeting to review his proposal.
She also said the committee should get some input from the M-Spec executive board and past members of the M-Spec board on the issue.
However, board member Michael Birnberg said the special education committee was formed as an ad hoc group with a specifically designed purpose.
Birnberg added the educational component of special education was supposed to be within the purview of the program committee and funding was to be addressed by the finance committee.
Board president Jeffrey Waters agreed, saying the original purpose of the committee was to deal with litigation involving the district.
Board member Jean Pasternak suggested that the board secretary obtain a copy of the resolution that established the committee several years ago in order to determine the original purposes of the committee.
Chapman also pointed out that the chair of the district special education department had appeared before the committee last year to explain her programs.
She added, “I find it interesting that while I want to listen to the community, a fellow board member wants to redefine the committee in order to shut me down.”
Birnberg replied he did not want to redefine the committee, but only wanted to clarify its role.
On another matter, Crisfield presented the first look at the 2013-2014 school budget.
The initial tab includes revenues totaling $78,605,322—up by 1.37 percent—and expenditures totaling $80,328,271—up 3.60 percent.
As the proposal stands, it calls for a 2 percent increases in taxes in support of the budget and no increase in the $2,382,982 state aid figure.
It also includes $1,669,564 in allowed surplus (the so-called “rainy day fund”), and $3,347,000 in the capital reserve.
Largest expenditure items are curriculum and instruction, up 28.96 percent, special services, up 18.67 percent, and support services, up 18.81 percent.
The board will again discuss the proposed budget at its open forum on Sunday, Jan. 27, at 2 pm at the Millburn Public Library.
Board meetings at which the board will discuss the budget will be on Jan. 28, Feb. 11 and 25 and March 11.
The school body has tentatively scheduled the public hearing on the spending plan for March 25.
Prior to the start of the board’s official business on Monday Waters presented gifts to former board members Samuel Levy and Mark Zucker, citing them for their outstanding service to the school body and the community.