MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Frustration and anger abounded as concerned community members demanded answers on the reassignment of key administrative positions within the school district, specifically Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron, at the July 16 Board of Education meeting.
In a June 30 letter, interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra announced that the South Orange-Maplewood School District would be shuffling personnel, effective July 2. Aaron, who served as CHS principal for the past four years, has joined the central office team as a principal on special assignment to work on districtwide initiatives. Kalisha Morgan, who was the district’s director of planning and assessment, is serving as interim CHS principal. Renee Joyce, who was the director of the Montrose Early Childhood Center since it opening in 2015, has assumed the vacant supervisor of special services position in the district’s central office. And, former Marshall Principal Bonita Samuels, who was placed on special assignment during the 2017-2018 school year after she allegedly sent a photo of an employee along with an inappropriate caption to another employee, will be the principal at Montrose.
Aaron’s reassignment was such a source of contention that more than 1,500 community members formed the Facebook group “Emergency Committee for the Reinstatement of Principal Aaron.” The group had a rally planned for July 10 in front of the Board of Education offices, but after receiving communication from Aaron that she did not want the rally to proceed, group members instead met with Ficarra and BOE President Elizabeth Baker about their concerns.
Following the initial announcement, Ficarra and Aaron sent a statement, with a letter from each, to the community July 13.
“Ms. Aaron will research best practices across the nation in school configurations and reorganization efforts,” Ficarra wrote in the July 13 communication. “Once the new structure is developed for grades K-8, Ms. Aaron will work closely with the superintendent to ensure educators, community members, and parents/guardians collaboratively design a seamless and supported transition for students, staff and families. She will help assure that we are designing structures that are not only more effective logistically, but which also create a learner-centered environment in which all students can thrive.”
In her letter, Aaron expressed her excitement about her new position.
“The opportunity to work with students, staff, families, and community partners preK-12 across our two towns is one I look forward to with optimism,” Aaron wrote. “This work requires full transparency, collaboration, trust, and dedication. I am honored to begin it.”
South Orange resident Michael Goldberg is one of many community members hoping that the group will be successful in advocating for greater transparency between the school board and the community.
“Initially when the first announcement came out on June 30, over 1,600 residents came together to fight the decision and advocate for Principal Aaron. Once a meeting took place by some members of the leadership of the group and the superintendent, it became apparent that Principal Aaron was no longer interested in being reinstated and that sort of diminished some of the urgency of the effort,” Goldberg said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “However, people are hoping that the message will be communicated loud and clear that the communication and transparency in this case were horrendous and the Board of Education needs to do better.”
Tensions were high long before the 7:30 p.m. start time of the July 16 meeting; beginning at 6 p.m. a rally began in front of the building, and by 6:30 at least 30 people were outside holding signs expressing their outrage over recent BOE decisions, with messages of “New 3 on BOE” and “All Students Matter.”
Many community members expressed their dissatisfaction that the meeting’s venue had not changed from the usual meeting room to a larger space to accommodate the expected crowd, some stating that they had emailed and gotten no response regarding the move to a larger room. Determined to take part in the proceedings though, residents brought lawn chairs, sat on the floor, or stood in the back of the room and out in the hallway.
The meeting began with remarks from Ficarra, who addressed some of the major concerns that had been brought to him in recent months.
“This district is a singular district with unique assets, a community of people who move here because they value diversity. But this district is long overdue for urgent care — you have no more time. The Board of Education expressed their concerns to me and the community was crying out for some forward movement,” he said at the meeting. “Everywhere I looked, the Board of Education concerns were validated: lack of staff evaluations, crumbling school facilities and lack of curriculum compliance.”
Ficarra said that the board felt that urgent action was also needed to address reducing leveling in the district, discussing the $130 million bond proposal for infrastructure updates, and the reorganization of staff and the organization structure for the school district.
He also addressed two points of controversy that had been brought to his attention: the June 30 communication sent out by the school district regarding the personnel reassignments and the need for interim staff in the school district.
“Regarding the letter sent out on June 30, the school board gave me approval to make personnel moves in advance of the next Board of Education meeting. This is done to give staff enough time to prepare for the upcoming school year, and it was sent out 17 days before this meeting, which is not the actions of someone who didn’t want the public to know what was going on,” he said. “Interims may seem like a bad thing, but in New Jersey superintendents can’t have tenure. The maximum interim timeframe is two years, and this school district needs to establish basic building blocks and fundamental procedures.”
At the meeting the newly elected student representative to the school board, rising Columbia High School senior Hannah Silver, was sworn in.
“Not every community or Board of Education has a student representative, but for us it’s very important to hear from stakeholders and to provide leadership opportunities for our students,” Baker said at the meeting. “I think that it’s a testament to our community that we value the voices and the opinions of our students.”
The results of the action item votes included the approval of the new Marshall Elementary School principal and the reassignment of Elizabeth Aaron to principal on special assignment on a vote of 8-1. The vote on the new principal for Seth Boyden Elementary was tabled for next month.
Prior to opening the floor for public comment, Baker reminded the audience that there is some information that the board can’t address or discuss, not because members want to hide anything but because they are bound by privacy guidelines.
Approximately 32 people were signed up to speak, and many ceded their time to others so they’d have a chance to complete their thoughts.
Many of the comments made expressed concern and anger at the dissemination of information by both the district and the board. Audience members also questioned why they have not received any sort of explanation regarding such significant personnel changes.
“We want accountability, transparency and communication. Do we need to protest to get answers? We want action. We don’t want to hear from the district on a Saturday night,” South Orange resident Barbara Levy said at the meeting.
Public comments were also directed at the updated communication from Ficarra and Aaron that was disseminated July 13. Some speakers at the meeting expressed skepticism that Aaron had actually written her part of the missive.
“I have known Elizabeth since middle school. She is an effective communicator, she is an enthusiastic communicator, and none of the over 30 emails that she has sent to the parents were worded like that,” one audience member said.
Maplewood resident Frank Reiss expressed concerns not only with the way information about the personnel changes was disseminated to the community, but also with the lack of rationale provided about those changes.
“Myself and roughly 1,600 other people were not pleased with the way it was done. I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do. Some of us had other interests in mind, but as a whole we all want better transparency, and we want to understand where the Board of Education and Superintendent Ficarra want the school system to go — especially in light of the Black Parents Workshop filing a lawsuit,” Reiss said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record prior to the BOE meeting. The SOMA Black Parents Workshop has filed a lawsuit against the district alleging noncompliance with state guidelines of desegregation and equal opportunity.
“What I don’t want is this community to get entrenched in this black and white issue. There are other groups that are being formed and lending a hand in demonstrating where they want the district to go. Ficarra has tried to remedy the issues. The frustration was palpable at the February Board of Education meeting.”
He told the News-Record he would be attending the July 16 BOE meeting to learn about the district’s mindset.
“I think it’s incumbent upon me to do that as a concerned citizen and as the parent of a CHS student. I will be going because I want to hear what people have to say in an open forum, not online,” he said. “I want to hear what everyone has to say and I want to ask them, what are you doing here are? Are you implicitly working with the terms of the lawsuit so we can move forward? I want to hear those kinds of things because I have skin in the game and I want to know that my daughter and all of the other students in the district will be educated in the right way.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier and Daniel Jackovino