UNION – Parents and educators alike stepped to the podium last week at the Union Board of Education meeting to air concerns they have about several issues and while board members argued back, few expected one to retaliate by saying “we’re not dyslexic up here.”
The comment by Board Member Vito Nufrio came after Union Education Foundation President Susan Lipstein approached the microphone to express concern over how the board intended to find a replacement for former Superintendent Patrick Martin.
“It seems our district is in a dilemma. Dr. Martin was truly beloved by the school district and community. But he has resigned and we need a replacement,” Lipstein told the board, pointing out that while assistant superintendents Gregory Tatum and Noreen Lishak are qualified for their positions, neither possess the “stellar” qualities of an experienced superintendent like Martin.
The education foundation president pointed out that prior to coming to the Union School District Martin served in four different school districts, was an assistant superintendent in two schools, was a principal twice, a director of a school district and held the position of superintendent twice.
Lipstein suggested the district had to go out on a search that would generate candidates with similar qualifications.
“He took this district from a little too close for comfort for a takeover by the state, to a district that has shown positive gains and test scores,” the education foundation president said, adding that Martin instilled a sense of optimism and hope, started the Saturday and after school academies and the school district needed to replace him with someone with these kind of “impeccable qualifications.”
Lipstein’s remark about the school district bordering on being taken over by the state raised the ire of several board members, specifically board president Ray Perkins and Nufrio. Perkins especially took umbrage with what she said and lashed back.
“That is simply not the case,” he shouted, while Nufrio attempted to clarify the situation.
“Maybe we had a school in need of help, but in the 40 years I have been an educator we were no where near being taken over,” he told Lipstein, adding “Union was never, ever close to that.”
Although another resident approached the podium after Lipstein, the issue again surfaced later when Nufrio brought the issue back up.
“For everyone’s edification, even though we may have had a school or two in need of improvement, before a school district is taken over by the state, one or two schools are baby steps,” he told the audience gathered, mentioning that, in fact, he only was aware of a few school districts that actually were taken over by the state.
“I’m upset by anyone thinking this school district was in that position. We weren’t anywhere near that point,” Nufrio said, adding “we weren’t even this close to ‘this close.’”
Lipstein, though, respectfully retorted that she would be happy to provide documentation to the board to support her claim.
As the conversation went back and forth between the two, issues involving how hard the board worked surfaced and it was at this point Nufrio retaliated by saying the board worked very hard and were not “dyslexic.”
One parent, an educator herself and lifelong resident of the township, gently chastised the board and those approaching the microphone that evening for comments she thought were out of line.
“There has been a lot of emotion in this room tonight and it doesn’t serve any of us, or our children, when we are venting our frustrations in this way,” said Kathy Sharpe, reminding those in the audience and also viewing the meeting via TV34 at home, that the board has been mandated “to do the right thing.”
“There is an appropriate way to do it,” she said, stressing that everyone had to “keep plugging away for our kids” and do it the right way on both sides of the microphone.
The following day, Lipstein posted an open message to Nufrio on the Facebook webpage Union, New Jersey Residents Forum, pointing out his comment had not gone unnoticed by viewers watching the meeting on TV35.
“Quite a few people have commented to me on your inappropriate use of the term ‘dyslexic’ last night. In discussing how hard you and the board work, I believe you said ‘we’re not dyslexic up here,” she said, adding that the board member may have insulted or hurt those afflicted with this disorder.
“There are many adults and especially children with special needs who may be dyslexic or have dyslexic loved ones. I can’t imagine how hurt they could be by that insensitive remark,” Lipstein said, adding this was “a totally inappropriate comment.”
“You are an elected official and representative of the board of education which represents all children and none of them should be disparaged or be made to feel inadequate in some way,” Lipstein went on, urging Nufrio to “take this to heart the next time.”
Nufrio responded to Lipstein shortly after on the same web forum, attempting to explain why he used that terminology at a public meeting.
“I’m certain I could have better emphasized my comment by pausing and reflecting on the correctness of the symbolism but I was driven by the fury of the commentaries that were for the most part, unfounded,” the school board member wrote.
“I assure you it was not ever intended in any manner other than to refute the accusation that our board is working from a cloud and not focused,” Nufrio added.
Lipstein also posted that perhaps Nufrio argued about the position the district was in regarding a state takeover because he was uninformed about what had taken place before he was on the board.
She said there were three schools in need of improvement from 2009 through 2010, when Martin came aboard as superintendent. She also pointed out that Nufrio was not elected to the board until 2011.
Late last week Lipstein noted in an interview with LocalSource that the Education Foundation gave out $15,000 in scholarships to Union graduates, bringing the total amount over the years that has been given to $100,000.
She also clarified the point she was trying to make to board members at last week’s meeting about the superintendent search process.
“My purpose of going to the board meeting was to bring the concerns that many in the community have about the direction we will go now that Dr. Martin has resigned. Parents and I am sure that everyone in the community wants to make sure that we continue in the right direction and that the board take their time to take all options into consideration,” she said.
Lipstein said “no one wants us to go backwards and that is why we are so concerned about who will lead us, how they will interact with the teachers and how they will interact with the parents.”
The foundation president said that while she just wanted the board to know parents, educators and the community had concerns about the superintendent search, neither Perkins or Nufrio actually acknowledged the request by community members who stepped to the podium.
“Instead they attacked the messenger, but, remember, they did not respond to the message,” Lipstein added.
On the Union, New Jersey Residents Forum, parents and residents alike reacted with similar concern, questioning how the search for a new superintendent will go. So far the board of education has been closed mouthed about this process, especially whether the candidate might already have been selected from in-house.
However, sources indicated that Lishak was being groomed for the position four years ago but lacked the Master’s Degree required for the position, which she received recently.