The March 18th Board of Education meeting marked a year since the district first confronted the unanticipated reality brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Board of Education President Doug Reinstein elaborated on the district’s difficulties and commended the perseverance of students, parents, and teachers for their continued efforts to maximize learning despite these challenges.
Thereafter, Donna Felezzola, Board Secretary and School Business Administrator, shared the correspondence report which included emails from teachers and parents and five Open Public Records Act requests. Among the emails were responses from Han Wu, Principal of Huaxia Chinese School, and Elizabeth Kane, a trustee of the Berkeley Heights Education Association, to emails from the Board had sent them thanking them for their generous donations to the district. Mr. Reinstein elaborated on their contributions and thanked them on behalf of the Board and the district.
Mr. Reinstein then shifted the meeting to the Report of the Student Representatives. Student representative senior Emily Haines covered the current athletic activities sharing the records of various sports teams whose seasons were coming to a close. Junior Thomas Burke reported on the school’s club and activities providing updates on the events of the Understanding Asian Cultures Club, Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) Club, Model UN, the spring school play, and more.
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To begin the Superintendent’s Report, Superintendent Dr. Melissa Varley emphasized the immense challenges the district continues to face from the pandemic. Following these remarks, she recognized Ms. Felezzola and Tom Long, assistant to the superintendent, who were both retiring after 15 years and 34 years of working for the district, respectively. Dr. Varley highlighted their contributions and thanked them for the positive impact they have had on the district. Continuing on the theme of recognizing exceptional individuals, Dr. Varley recognized Anne Corley Hand, principal of Mary Kay McMillin, for being selected as the National Association of Elementary School Principals National Distinguished Principal and Visionary Principal of the Year. To close the first part of her Superintendent’s Report, she shared that the district was wrapping up the investigations of current and former students’ negative experiences with the outside attorney and that the Board will decide where to allocate the remaining snow day if no snow days are called by the following meeting.
In the second part of the Superintendent’s Report, Dr. Varley, Stephen Hopkins, Supervisor Social Studies and World Languages, and students updated the Board on the District Diversity Initiative. Dr. Varley, in place of Marybeth Kopacz, Director of Elementary Education and Intervention, presented updates on the Elementary Diversity Committee. Dr. Varley reported that 96% of students in grades K-5 reported positive feelings of belonging, being culturally and personally accepted, and being supported by their teachers. Students, however, felt that work needed to be done in the library to add more books that would reflect the diversity among students. Mr. Hopkins then presented on the CMS and GL Diversity Committees. Leah Brogden, a student at CMS and a member of the CMS Diversity Committee, detailed the numerous activities occurring at the middle school including the literary circle on the novel, “the hate u give.” Representatives from the GL Diversity Committee, Juniors Alyssa Pradhan and Lauren Gomez, detailed the various and extensive projects occurring at the high school. These included the literacy circles on “Born a Crime” and “The Hill We Climb,” diversity-based clubs such as the Understanding Asian Cultures (UAC) Club and the SAGA club, events for Women’s History Month, and the upcoming diversity festival to be held at CMS. When asked by Mr. Reinstein if these programs had already had an impact on the schools, Ms. Pradhan agreed and cited the growing participation in the UAC club from students of non-Asian backgrounds as evidence. Before the presentation ended, Board members Christine Reilly and Helen Kirsch applauded the students’ remarkable efforts to promote diversity and their eloquence even when speaking extemporaneously.
In the third and final part of the Superintendent’s Report, Ms. Reilly, chair of the finance/facilities committee, and Ms. Felezzola presented the tentative school district budget for the 2021-2022 school year. The budget totaled $54,540,493, an increase of 0.6% from the prior year. The new budget was developed to account for the new full-day kindergarten, curriculum changes, additional professional development opportunities and partnerships, and technology changes. In the end, the greatest portion of the budget, 66% of the budget, was dedicated to teacher and administrator salaries followed by benefits which accounted for 18.3% of the budget. With regard to expenses, the district saw decreases in costs related to maintenance, instructional supplies, and services, administrative (professional) services, co-curriculars/athletics, technology, and support services but increases in capital. With regard to revenue, the district saw increases in the tax levy and fund balance, decreases in tuition and miscellaneous, and no change in capital reserve withdrawal or extraordinary aid. These changes will cause the general funds tax levy to rise by 1.45% and the debt services tax levy to decrease by 0.60%. These changes, ultimately, will cause the total taxes to increase by 1.38%, a $75 increase for the average home. Following the Board’s approval of the tentative budget, the Executive County Superintendent Review will take place and, later, the Board will adopt the final budget. At the end of the presentation, Board members asked for clarification on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) grants and the extraordinary aid mentioned in the revenue section of the budget report. Board member Robert Cianculli asked for updates on the Collaborative Consulting approach. Ms. Felezzola answered his question stating that it had successfully begun at elementary school and was beginning to expand into the middle and high schools. Progress, however, was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the commencement of the multi-part Superintendent’s report, Mr. Reinstein transitioned the meeting to the liaison reports. Mr. Cianculli reported to the township’s Environmental Commission meeting which discussed new food waste regulations which could impact the district’s cafeterias. Ms. Reilly reported on the Technology Committee which has been meeting to talk about potential changes to the schools’ technology needs. In her report, she thanked Mike Skara, the district’s technology coordinator, who has provided insight into the district’s future technological needs allowing the committee to budget for future changes in advance. Finally, Mr. Reinstein provided reports on the Berkeley Heights Diversity Committee sharing that the group is planning another listening session, a session similar to the one the committee held last November.
The meeting then pivoted to the facilities report presented by Ms. Felezzola. She reported that the district continues to plan for students to return to the school and thus has been purchasing additional personal protective equipment including desk shields. She also noted that assessments on the schools’ parking lots are being done to determine which areas need immediate repairs. Lastly, approval for summer sports camps is currently occurring. Before Ms. Felezzola’s report finished, Ms. Reilly asked her if the district would receive any of the $600 billion dedicated for school districts in the most recent COVID-19 relief bill. Ms. Felezzola answered that she is unsure if the district will receive any funds as the majority of the money has been given to larger districts.
Nearing the end of the meeting, the Board opened the discussion to field questions from the public. The questions were on the topics of the district’s new guidance counselor, a proposal to delay the normal start of the school day, a request to study the current ventilation systems, additional information on full-day kindergarten, concerns regarding the potential redistricting, and more.
In the final part of the meeting, Board members voted on whether to approve administrative, educational, personnel, business, and finance matters. The Board passed all matters with unanimous approval.
The following Board of Education meeting will take place on April 8th at 7:30 pm and will be available to the public via Zoom.
Editor’s Note: Thomas Burke is a junior at Gov. Livingston High School and is the Student Representative for the Board of Education.