PLEASANTVILLE — For the first time since the school board reorganized in January, board members came together in agreement that cutting 11 positions would hurt the district’s students.
“This is sincere,” Board President Carla Thomas said, tearing up. “It’s coming from my heart. And we all need to work as a team.”
Last week, the board approved an $88.3 million budget for 2019-20 with a 2% increase in the school tax levy. The budget was reliant on the elimination of 11 school positions worth more than $900,000 in salaries, but the board decided Tuesday it will hold off until meeting with the county executive superintendent to discuss a new plan.
Pleasantville Superintendent Clarence Alston said at the meeting that the district has submitted another proposal that would be less disruptive but did not elaborate. The announcement came after two lengthy executive sessions.
“We’re now going to make a change in the direction that we’re going, and it’s not the direction the state wants us to go,” board member Jerome Page said.
He said they are going to change the culture in Pleasantville schools.
“This is a start, where all the board members come together and say, ‘Let us demonstrate to the state that we can handle our business in Pleasantville school district,’” Page said.
Alston told The Press last week the district was required by County Executive Superintendent Robert Bumpus to eliminate positions that are unrecognized, such as dean of students and principals on special assignment, to get its budget approved.
Michael Yaple, spokesman for the Department of Education, which oversees the offices of the executive county superintendent, said the department is not forcing the district to take specific action regarding staff, “but rather we discussed with local school officials issues such as unrecognized job titles, administrative spending caps, legal costs and high administrative costs.”
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Alston sent an email to Bumpus with a new proposal “that we thought would be less disruptive” and received a response an hour later. He did not read the email exchange in its entirety but summarized that Bumpus indicated the district could not make changes to its budget that were not discussed at the public hearing last week.
“We’re requesting to have a meeting with the county superintendent because his email is what’s stopping us to move forward,” board member Sharnell Morgan said. “We need to let him know that his decision is not what we find suitable for our schools and our children.”
Yaple was not immediately available for response Wednesday.
“This is the first time we came together as a board, and to make a hasty decision at the last moment wouldn’t benefit our district,” said board member Richard Norris.
Since four new members joined the school board after the November election, board meetings have been filled with tension and fights over procedures, policy and personality.
In February, the Department of Education threatened the district with a second fiscal monitor and possibly a state takeover if it did not begin to get along.
Last meeting, Page asked Thomas to step down as board president and said he lacked faith in her. By Tuesday, they had both agreed to set aside their differences.
“I’m going to take back what I said. I’m going to support you. This is what we need to do, come together,” Page told Thomas.
Thomas said it was unfair that Pleasantville was the last district in the county to get its budget approved by the county and said the state fiscal monitor, Constance Bauer, should have helped get the budget passed sooner.
“Please be patient. If we have to fight, we’re going to fight together as a board,” Thomas said. “And we need to fight together as a district.”
During last week’s public hearing on the budget, the board heard from staff members and residents upset about district spending, including on legal fees, and the proposed cuts that included the district’s athletic director Stephen Townsend and Nanette Stuart, both of whom are classified as principals on special assignment. The reduction in force would have also eliminated the positions for two deans of students and the position of director of curriculum and instruction.
This week’s meeting started with more of the same. Joyce Mollineaux, of Atlantic City and secretary for the state NAACP, told the board to think more about the children and less about themselves.
“This has been going on for some time at this board,” she said. “We are, across this county, are looking at you. Everybody is looking at you. It’s time to stop it.”
Steve Young of the Atlantic City chapter of the National Action Network read aloud the attorney fees the district has been paying, including the $463,484 spent to date in the 2018-19 school budget. Young said he obtained the information through an Open Public Records Act request.
“There’s a serious issue when it comes to the budget,” Young told the board.
In other business, the school board approved a $200,000 settlement with William “Speedy” Marsh, the district’s former facilities coordinator, who was allowed to resign after his position was eliminated during a reduction in force approved by the school board in the fall.