PLEASANTVILLE — For the past two months, the city’s Board of Education meetings have been plagued by fights over procedure and policy.
And at the most recent meeting, which lasted five hours, the board was only able to approve a few items on its agenda, having spent most of the time arguing over the ability to make motions or ask questions.
That may change soon after a meeting in Trenton with city, school and state officials in which the district was threatened with a second state monitor that would add extra oversight to the district. A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education confirmed this week the state was considering such action.
“It’s an option that the department is exploring. However, no decision has been made at this time,” NJDOE spokesman Michael Yaple said, adding a second monitor wasn’t a new concept.
Superintendent Clarence Alston did not respond to a request for comment.
Board President Carla Thomas declined to discuss a second state monitor and said the issues on the school board didn’t begin until January.
“That’s when we started having issues, and now that’s when we started to have the threats from Trenton,” Thomas said.
Mayor Jesse Tweedle confirmed he attended the Feb. 19 meeting in Trenton, along with council members Judy Ward and William Christmas, and Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey.
“We know that there’s a lot of contention, and we started talking about how we can communicate with one another,” Tweedle said.
Tweedle said that during the meeting, the Pleasantville representatives were told, “The school board and the administration is making it really easy for a takeover.”
“We don’t want a takeover,” Tweedle said. “We’re trying to resolve this ourselves. We’re at a point right now where we’re just totally frustrated. We need to put our differences aside and do what’s best for the betterment of the school.”
He said he is also against a second monitor.
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Pleasantville has had a monitor for more than 10 years, since an audit found serious issues with spending in the district. The fiscal monitor is different from a complete state takeover in many ways, especially as the monitor’s oversight is narrowly defined to cover financial matters and not general district governance. The monitor is also paid by the district. Pleasantville’s current monitor, Constance Bauer, earned $123,432 in 2017-18, according to school Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins.
As a district, Pleasantville is no stranger to turmoil.
In 2007, five school board members were convicted of corruption. And in the past two school years, the district’s high school principal was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, two staff members pleaded guilty to charges of health benefits fraud and a high school teacher was charged with official misconduct for allegedly having an affair with a student.
In addition, the district has faced several lawsuits from employees over the years costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And most recently, auditor Mike Garcia informed the board it is facing a $2 million budget deficit.
The latest school board conflict has been going on since the board reorganized in January and swore in four new members, three of whom campaigned against the current regime led by Thomas.
One of those new board members, Jerome Page, has accused Thomas of not communicating with the new members or sharing committee assignments. Page said he didn’t get his committee assignment until February.
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“The real problem is the board president has four other board members and she doesn’t care about the four board members who just came on,” Page said.
Board member Sharnell Morgan asked to attend the meeting in Trenton but could not because it would constitute a quorum — Thomas, Page, board Vice President James Barclay and new board member Rick Norris were all invited to attend.
Morgan said this week she believes the board can move forward if its leadership is changed.
“The authority needs to be changed, as well as some of the board members who are on the board, who do not know what’s going on, who don’t care what’s going on and are just following the direction of the person who’s in charge,” Morgan said. “You have some board members who just come to vote and leave. They stay on their phone, and that’s it.”
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She said she isn’t against a second short-term fiscal monitor, but nothing long-term.
“Do I want them to stay there? No. I want them to come long enough to get the school board back on track,” Morgan said.
Tweedle said five years ago, Pleasantville asked its voters to decide whether they wanted to switch to a mayor-appointed school board, but that failed. He said it could go on November’s ballot, but he was waiting to see whether the school board could work things out themselves.
“Everybody really needs to put aside their differences,” he said.
Tweedle said Pleasantville schools are on the upswing: improving student outcomes, being recognized for academic programs and creating an attractive athletic program.
“And then here comes the school board meetings and so forth. That’s denigrating. It’s giving Pleasantville a black eye when all the other components are doing very well,” Tweedle said.
Thomas said she won’t know if last week’s meeting in Trenton had any impact until the board meets again March 12.
“If certain members who were there would take the advice of the state, then I would say it was helpful. But if they’re not going to take the advice of the state, then it was just a waste of my time,” Thomas said.