ROSELLE, NJ – The interim superintendent of schools grew visibly agitated, but refused to relent when a Board of Education member sought to have several agenda items tabled to until the next meeting.
Interim super James Baker also repeatedly clashed with Board President Patricia Fabrizio over several issues throughout the Monday, Sept. 24 meeting.
Baker, who has sat stoically at board meetings that have often been filled with discord since his contract was approved by the board at the July 25 meeting, defiantly refused to take several items off the agenda even as Fabrizio and board member Richard Villeda questioned them.
Allan Roth, the board attorney, instructed the board that since the agenda is set by the superintendent and his staff, members can ask the superintendent to have an item removed from the agenda. If he refuses, a board member can make a motion to have an item tabled, and if it receives a second, can be voted upon.
At one point, Villeda made a motion that 16 items be tabled until the board’s next meeting. The items ranged from the appointment of a district-wide director of operational technology to the appointment of a math teacher at Grace Wilday Junior High School.
Other agenda items were appointments for teachers for what is commonly known in the district as sixth-period positions. Under the terms of the contract that expired June 30, 2017 — which is still in force in the absence of a new agreement, teachers are required to teach five periods a day. They may be paid extra to teach a sixth period.
Villeda made a motion to have the 16 items tabled, but the board fell silent when Fabrizio asked for a second. The motion failed and, eventually, all the items were approved aside from a handful Baker agreed to pull from the agenda.
After the meeting, Baker said he could not understand why Villeda and Fabrizio said that many of the hirings listed on the agenda did not go through the board’s personnel committee. Board member Sharise Pollard corroborated Baker’s claim that the items had been discussed by the committee.
“It’s over and over and over,” said Baker, who served as the superintendent in Middlesex Borough for nine years. “(You) go to (committee) meetings, discuss it and you go to a (board) meeting and it’s like they said tonight, ‘Well, that wasn’t discussed.’ The board president said it wasn’t discussed. Then Mr. Villeda said it wasn’t discussed. Then, you talk to the other people and it was discussed.
“I was there. I know it was discussed. She (Fabrizio) was there and it was discussed. She takes notes on everything. And then, Pollard said it was discussed. Are you that thick or are you that dishonest? Those are the questions.”
After the meeting, Villeda said he was late to the committee meeting and was not there when those agenda items were discussed. He also indicated he was concerned about hiring new teachers at higher steps, or pay levels based on experience and expertise. Villeda said many of the district’s teachers have been waiting to have their step level — and therefore their salaries — increased.
A handful of the teachers remained in the audience at Abraham Clark’s auditorium after the public comment portion of the meeting. They witnessed the meeting grow steadily more contentious as the board began to address the agenda.
It began when Fabrizio said there were many “mistakes” on the agenda and that the board did not receive it in a “timely fashion.” She said board members typically get agendas a week before the monthly meeting.
Baker asked to respond, but Fabrizio tried to hand the floor back to Villeda. At that point, Baker declared, “I’m going to speak” and told Fabrizio board members don’t need a week to review the agenda.
When Fabrizio raised her voice and said some of the board members had received the agendas on Saturday, Sept. 22, Baker turned to her and said, “Do not talk to me that way.”
Several members of the audience cheered and one yelled out, “Don’t let her bully you!”
Fabrizio said there are strict guidelines for sixth-period classes, and that in the past, some of the teachers were being paid to teach a class with one student in it. When she asked assistant superintendent Lissette Gonzalez-Perez for verification about classroom size, Baker interceded.
“She works for me,” he said. “She does not work for you.”
When Fabrizio asked if Baker could send those documents to her, he said, “Don’t direct me to do anything. You don’t direct me. The board directs me.”
Fabrizio responded, “I am the president of the board and I am asking for the documents. Otherwise, I don’t know how we’re going to vote on this issue. This is just a conflict that you’re having with yourself.”
After an audible gasp from the audience, Fabrizio continued.
“We need the documents to make a decision for the community, for the people, for the taxpayers and you’re refusing to give us documents,” she said. “You’re refusing to work cooperatively. Your approach is rather dogmatic and tyrannical here. I don’t know what more to say to you. I will say this though: We do in fact need to advertise for the permanent superintendent position. I think it might be a good time for September.”
Before Villeda could make a motion to have the 16 agenda items tabled, Angela Alvey-Wimbush made an appeal to the other members of the board. In particular, she focused on the sixth- period positions.
“At this point, just pulling things just to pull it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We need the dance teachers. We need the culinary teachers. We need all of that so we can have — trying to strive for — a blue-ribbon school, and we keep pulling, pulling, pulling, pulling. What are we going to get? If we put the superintendent in charge, why are we questioning everything he’s doing? We can look at what he’s doing and if it doesn’t make sense, then we speak on it. If it makes sense — I don’t understand. We have to make the right decision.”
The beleaguered board of education has had its share of discord over the past several months.
Fabrizio, the only white member of the board, was told by board member Keyanna Jones at the Aug. 16 meeting that her “white privilege does not extend to this end of the table” after Fabrizio asked board members to put down their cell phones. Fabrizio said Jones and Alvey-Wimbush were on their phones and that phone use during meetings had been an ongoing issue at meetings. Jones said she was using her phone to Google information about a new teacher evaluation system being considered by the board. After the contentious discussion, Jones, Alvey-Wimbush and Archange Antoine walked out of the meeting.
Antoine, who missed five consecutive meetings spanning May and June, was dismissed by a 5-4 vote at the Aug. 27 meeting. His appeal to be restored to his place on the board was denied by Administrative Law Judge Margaret Monaco on Thursday, Sept. 27.
At the same meeting where Antoine was voted off the board, Jones made a motion to have Roth “removed from the dais for not having a contract and for giving bad legal advice.” The board voted 5-4 to retain Roth. His contract through June 30, 2019 was unanimously approved at the Sept. 24 meeting.