Crisfield and Speakers Call for Civility; Parents Question Punishment of Millburn High School Seniors
Thursday, June 28, 2012 • 2:10am
MILLBURN, NJ - Members of the public responded at the June 25 Board of Education meeting to Superintendent James Crisfield’s recent article in which he commended the school district for its achievements and asked that criticism of the Board of Education be constructive.
In his June 11 letter published in several local media outlets, Crisfield praised the variety of the commentary and opinion expressed to the administration by the public, and described it as “a mandatory ingredient for a vibrant and desirable community.” However, he cautioned that “the risk of having the conversation be constantly in the negative is very real” and called this phenomenon “the negativity trap.”
Residents Josh Scharf and Jeff Diecidue complained about Crisfield’s letter. After quoting a few bars of the old standard, “Accentuate the Positive,” Scharf said he welcomes and learns from criticism in his place of business. Diecidue warned that Millburn should not become “The Valley of the Dolls” where people only come to meetings to “speak happy talk.”
Board President Michael Birnberg replied that the issue is “how to be constructive with criticism.”
Diecidue then said the school board is “cliquey” and “doesn’t accept dissent from other members or the public.” Birnberg responded, “You like to work around the truth,” and reminded Diecidue that by law there is an open agenda at meetings and the public is “more than welcome to speak.” He referred to several instances when the board agreed to go over the allotted 30 minutes of public comments if people were still waiting to come to the microphone. Birnberg then joked that he’s been on the board over five years and in that time “people rarely get along with me.” He said he appreciates different points of view, and questions the implication that everyone should always agree.
When Diecidue continued, saying “this board seems dysfunctional,” and that he has “sources” to confirm this, member Sam Levy replied that this “could only mean a board member has abrogated his or her responsibility,” and added that if this is true, “your sources are violating confidentiality concerns. If your sources are other than public information, I ask that you share your sources.”
Diecidue likened Levy’s remarks to “the Spanish Inquisition,” saying Levy was threatening the public. A woman’s voice from the back of the room spoke up to Diecidue saying, “And what are you doing?”
Resident Abby Kalan said that she too has found some board behavior “disquieting.” She added that she and others in the community interpreted Crisfield’s letter as a “gag order.” However, she found common ground with Crisfield and Birnberg when she concluded, “It’s not the conversation, it’s the character of the conversation” that matters.
The board is scheduled for a self-evaluation on July 30 after their July 9 retreat. Birnberg said that in the self-evaluation process, “we have to come together.”
Another issue brought up at the meeting is that of the “silly string” episode at the high school, and the punishment some students experienced. As a result of a senior prank in which Principal William Miron, Assistant Principal Robert Keenan and various students were sprayed with silly string in the cafeteria, seniors identified by video tape as having participated were not allowed to go on the senior cruise, one of the high points of graduation festivities.
The first parent to speak was Monica Palma, mother of one of the 30 students sanctioned. She urged the board and administration to look at the fact that the punishment was imposed without due process. As Palma sees it, students should have the right of defense, be presented with proof of their actions, and be able to introduce extenuating evidence.
She also emphasized that to guarantee due process, those judging must be impartial and have no preconception and no conflict of interest. She had been informed by Miron that the punishment was decided by him and his two vice principals and that they had consulted with Crisfield.
Palma argued that since parents had worked hard raising funds during the school year to pay for the cruise, denying students the cruise imposed a monetary burden on the parents and families.
Seeing graduation as a “coming together to celebrate the students’ accomplishments for what they have achieved in the last 13 years of their 17 or 18 years of life, creating a life-long memory,” Palma declared that “these memories have been tainted for good.”
Roseanne Perretti, a major fundraiser for the Senior Celebration, insisted that her daughter was 100 feet away from the incident and was innocent, yet was identified as one of the perpetrators. She complained that the kids were treated like delinquents, were “belittled, berated and bullied,” and told they should be thankful the punishment wasn’t greater.
Parent Beth Harrison compared this issue to an episode earlier this year in which members of the debate team learned the night before a major test that they were not going to be allowed to participate in the state competition. According to Harrison, the administration didn’t care if students were innocent or guilty. She too urged the administration to “give kids a chance to defend themselves.”
After the meeting, parent Susan Pomerantz spoke with reporters, saying that there is “no protection for kids,” that “the principal can decide anything” and that there is “no recourse.” She hopes that out of this incident a disciplinary committee will be formed that will hear from both sides of an issue before making a determination. “This ruined Millburn for some of these kids,” Pomerantz said.
In other business of the school board, Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo announced that the district will have a significant surplus, having spent less than what had originally been budgeted. The district also took in transportation revenues and received unexpected state aid. He anticipates the surplus will fall within $1.5-2.6 million.
The board passed a resolution to transfer the surplus to the capital reserve fund in order to replenish the monies going to various construction projects this year, including the Middle School roof and auditorium. The sum going to capital reserves is capped at $2.5 million.
Resident Ralph Inglese asked Crisfield how he would recommend using the surplus. Crisfield responded that he is concerned with roof repairs in all seven buildings, that there is a significant amount of concrete and paving work to be done, and that labs at the high school need work. He feels that these projects must be done “before it costs two times as much as it would have if done earlier.”
Crisfield added that the district is investing in getting technology into the hands of teachers to improve their abilities in the classroom, and that “we need to get it done immediately.”
Scharf complained about the planned use of surplus, saying that with “a $4 million windfall,” anything above the 2 percent cap should be earmarked for property tax relief and go back to the taxpayers. Finance Committee Chairman Lise Chapman, who wasn’t present at the meeting, did explain in her budget presentation March 1 that the .65 percent increase, the lowest in recent memory, “does represent property tax relief.”
Crisfield spoke of the large list of appointments in the Personnel Report, and said that he has met with each new hire and finds them to be “really impressive people.” He announced that there have been three recent resignations. Personnel Committee Chair Jean Pasternak says she feels comfortable with the hiring process to replace those who resigned.