By JOHN T. WARD
“It breaks my heart to leave my school like this in two months,” eighth-grader Ellie Gibney told the borough school board, just 48 hours after a smaller crowd upbraided school Superintendent Nelson Ribon over the plan.
Board members, however, defended the decision as the outcome of an evaluation process that included elements they could not discuss publicly under laws governing personnel matters.
“We need people to stop with the vitriol and the Facebook nastiness – at me in particular,” said Katy Frissora, who’s been on the board for eight years.
At issue was the fate of 26 non-tenured teachers, a number that administrators said was unusually high but a matter of coincidence. The non-renewals were not driven by budget concerns, they said, but a reluctance to offer tenure to teachers who had not demonstrated adequate skill or growth in their jobs.
Of those 26, two had submitted resignations, and seven were not invited to return in September. They included two first-year teachers, three second-year teachers and three in their third year. Tenure is granted after three years.
At the same time, the district is planning to expand its part-time kindergarten program in September, and replace its two full-time – and non-tenured – teachers with four part-timers.
The move to replace those two highly popular teachers appears to have been a flash point, prompting dozens of parents, many of whom admitted they had never attended a school board meeting before, to question the process by which the renewals were being decided.
“What’s going on?” asked Maple Avenue resident John Colluci. “Why is there so much support for teachers being let go? Something’s wrong here. There shouldn’t be 300 people, or whatever we have here, if there wasn’t a strong feeling that something isn’t right.”
Again and again, students and parents took to a microphone to praise individual teachers who they said had inspired them to take their studies seriously or had helped turn around the lives of their children.
Student Shannon Dolan said she was “very upset” that her Spanish teacher had “moved to Fair Haven this year to be closer to her job,” only to lose it.
“I cannot believe Mr. [Phillip] Duck is not on this list” of renewals, a mother said of an eighth-grade literacy teacher. “I would carry him across a puddle.”
Board members, however, pleaded for the benefit of the doubt.
“This has been hugely painful. This is not something we take lightly,” board member Tracey Rehder said of the review process. “There is nothing broken in our system. We are using the same system we’ve always used. I hope you will all understand…”
That last sentence was interrupted by a loud chorus of “no” from the standing-room crowd in the Knollwood School gymnasium.
One woman, voicing “distress,” asked the board if the protests would make any difference in its vote on renewals.
“No, it’s not going to change the vote,” said board President Mark Mancuso, a teacher at Red Bank Regional High.
Earlier in the evening, the board approved its 2014-’15 budget, which will raise $13.6 million from local property owners, who will see a 2.5-percent increase in their tax bills. For the owner of a home assessed at the average $688,501, the increase equals $155 for the year, Ribon said.