PLEASANTVILLE — Teachers were not hired, field trips were not approved, bills were not paid and business was not conducted when a Pleasantville school board meeting ended abruptly Tuesday after more than an hour of bickering among members.
Despite having six of its nine members present, the board’s first full meeting of the year never got past public comment. Two board members left midway through a meeting marred by arguments over board control for the second meeting in a row.
“It’s not right if we have to do this every time, and it’s not right to the community,” said board President Carla Thomas after the meeting.
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Thomas was at the center of the fighting with newly elected members Jerome Page and Richard Norris, who finally took the oath of office prior to the meeting.
Neither Norris nor Page could be reached Wednesday by phone.
When Thomas stopped Norris from speaking during public comment, he accused the board of being controlled by an “organized crime family,” referring to Thomas and the Callaways of Atlantic City.
Thomas’ uncles, Craig and Dave Callaway, were in the audience.
After the meeting, when asked about the comment, Thomas answered, “I thought he was talking about his own family.”
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Following a 15-minute recess during which board member James Barclay left, bringing the members present down to five, board attorney James Carroll said Norris had the right to speak as a member of the public.
Norris was directed to the microphone, where he detailed the events that led to his removal from the board in 2017. He again stated that his paperwork was in order in time for reorganization and he should have been allowed to be sworn in Jan. 2.
“The residents of the city of Pleasantville are witnessing how an organized crime family can run the Board of Education in this town,” Norris said. “It’s time for a change, and the time is now.”
Norris and Page attempted a motion to revisit the vote for board leadership, but Thomas and Carroll said they were not following Robert’s Rules of Order. Carroll directed Page to submit the motion for the next meeting. During this back and forth, board member Bernice Couch stood up and was escorted out of the meeting by Dave Callaway without explanation, leaving just four members and no quorum to continue.
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Meanwhile, in the back of the meeting room sat Christopher Mancuso, a defensive coordinator for the Pleasantville Greyhounds football team, eagerly awaiting approval for a job as a physical education teacher at the South Main Street School.
Mancuso had been substitute teaching in the district since the start of the year and was hoping to get a full-time position.
During the reorganization meeting earlier in the month, there was a public outcry for Mancuso, including a show of support from the high school football players.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Mancuso sat sullen. He declined to comment about the status of his position.
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As the board members filtered away from the meeting table, teachers could be heard asking about the field trips they had planned that needed approval. Pleasantville Education Association President Tim Newkirk said Wednesday that staff was disappointed in the conduct of the board.
“It’s really disheartening to the staff. Everyone’s upset. A lot of teachers have clubs and field trips and things that need to be approved, and everybody’s waiting to see if their things get approved,” he said. “If they don’t get approved, we can’t go.”
He said he would like to see the board leadership change — the PEA backed Sharnell Morgan, Page and Norris in the November election — and steps taken to shore up facilities and the staff.
“I would hope new leadership could bring some good change to the district,” said Newkirk. “We’re really short-staffed, so getting back our teachers and our support staff who were RIFed (laid off) would help.”
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Newkirk said there are also health issues due to the upkeep of the buildings, including mold.
“The custodians and maintenance guys not being here has led to a lot of unsanitary conditions. There’s a lot of teachers and kids getting sick,” he said.
New Jersey School Boards Association spokeswoman Janet Bamford said board conflict isn’t uncommon and that the state organization offers help to boards who request it.
“These are elected officials that need to learn to work together,” Bamford said. “NJSBA often will go in and facilitate team-building exercises or conduct a retreat for the board to try to build a working relationship among the board members.”
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The Pleasantville school board has a state-appointed fiscal monitor, Constance Bauer, who has oversight on financial decisions but generally does not have a hand in other governance. The state Department of Education has some mechanisms for general oversight of boards though not related to political disputes, which are usually resolved through elections, said DOE spokesman Michael Yaple.
“While differences of opinion can occur on any board, school boards have an obligation to provide oversight of their district. Our expectation is that boards of education will carry out their responsibilities with a focus on providing a quality education to the children in the community,” Yaple said.
After the meeting, Thomas said Norris and Page have a personal agenda and she couldn’t speak to what happened during the meeting.
“The only people who can explain is them two. They come in with a personal agenda, who knows,” she said.
Board members Anny Melo, Cassandra Clements and Hassan Callaway were not present Tuesday. Thomas said Melo was out of town, Callaway had a conflict with his work schedule and Clements had a family emergency.