Commentary

Pinelands Regional Stakeholders Must Come Together

By TOM MEREDITH | Dec 06, 2017

When moving here three years ago from up north in “the other Jersey,” I was looking for ways to meet people and take an interest in my new community. I thought going to Pinelands Regional Board of Education meetings would be a good way to accomplish both in a non-controversial way. I was hoping to find a way to give back a bit through some sort of volunteerism involving children.

Dr. Blake, the superintendent at the time, was released from his contract, causing an expensive payout and leaving the district without a permanent leader during the highly sensitive time of campaigning for tax money to make long-overdue repairs and upgrades to both the high school and junior high school buildings – a herculean task in the best of times. The referendum passed on its second introduction for vote from the public.

Speed up time to summer of 2017. Dr. Banks was in place as interim superintendent and phase one of construction was begun on the roof. This was done over the summer so as to limit the disruption to classroom education. From this point forward the facts of the matter become fuzzy, to say the least.

Construction usually brings unplanned challenges with it. There was a small patch of encapsulated asbestos on the roof of the high school that was planned for disposal. Apparently there was some debris from that removal that ended up on top of drop ceiling tiles above some classrooms, four I believe. This was discovered, classrooms closed, students moved and complete removal planned and scheduled. The area was determined cleared for habitation by the environmental firm contracted for just such testing throughout the construction process.

At this point some faculty and students began to complain of unfamiliar odors, headaches, etc. Classrooms remained closed, and school was halted for further air quality testing. 

As far as I can tell, the mistake made was the roofing contractor’s crew failed to properly clean the top of the roof before it was replaced by the new roof. That left material containing asbestos on the roof, but not inside the building. Debris under the newly installed roof was finally cleaned out in early October. There was some debris trapped in the ceiling tiles. There has been no evidence found by the environmental firms testing air quality of asbestos airborne in the building.

A meeting to discuss this naturally got heated as parents and faculty alike were very concerned. The executive director of curriculum, filling in for the vacationing interim superintendent, decided to close the high school building completely and begin split sessions for junior high and high school students alike.

By this time, there seemed to be an all-out assault of information on Facebook relating to the situation. We all know how quickly emotion replaces fact on social media. The added tradition of the search for the guilty was in full swing with the members of the board of education, teachers, parents and even the teachers union representative, who decided it was important for him to break from negotiating new employment contracts to bring his expertise to the construction problem.

The powers that be decided at this point to suspend the business administrator from his duties while investigating if reports he was given were passed along to the same powers that be in a timely fashion. He has since presented documented information describing the timeline in which the administration and board were informed of situations and the remedy thereof. He has suffered public attacks on his character, and his family has been tormented in public and on social media – this includes his children.

And now we learn the business administrator has been reinstated with no mention of results from the investigation stated to be the reason for the suspension.

The high school is still not back to regular sessions, although there has been much additional money spent on testing and remediation not included in the original budget.

It seems there are several factions with specific agendas involved more heavily in the process of a commercial construction project than is useful. Our school board seems completely divided and has been since I began to pay attention to it. The district administration is responsible for oversight of the construction and has contracted with a general contractor to oversee the daily process and a company to oversee the general contractor and provide guidance and communication on the project to the administration and board. For some reason it was deemed necessary to include the teachers union representative in ongoing construction inspections and meetings along with other non-construction professionals from the board and administration. All these individuals take an active role, impacting quality, progress, activity and public information from the construction professionals hired to do the job.

Now it seems our interim superintendent of schools has resigned and named the executive director of curriculum, Dr. Stevenson, her temporary successor until a full-time superintendent can be selected.

The following are some questions we should all ponder:

• What is the reason for so much distrust of our elected and appointed officials in not just this situation, but, it seems, every facet of community governance?

• How much will this set of shenanigans cost the construction budget? What projects on the to-do list will need to be left undone to pay the difference?

• Could it be productive to an agenda to fan the flames of public outcry regarding this situation by painting an extreme picture of the situation?

• No one wants students or staff put into any type of dangerous situation. Are all of the facts known and presented in an objective manner to the public? If not, what is the reason? Who would gain from that?

• What would the business administrator gain by withholding any information whatsoever?

• What would members of leadership have to gain if they allowed themselves to be uninformed?

• Is it even possible for all of the people/groups/factions who claim to have the best interests of students as their top priority to work together to accomplish that goal?

• Our professional educators and administrators are paid a lot of public money for a job that is becoming less and less attractive by the day. Do they deserve the immediate public outcry and rush to judgment when a mistake is discovered? Is our distrust of government now so deep that we simply assume even volunteer leaders are corrupt and sinister?

• Would it be more productive for all of us in the community to act in a more objective manner when asking for information instead of an accusatory tone, looking to catch the people performing services for us in the wrong?

• If you were an education professional, would you want to work in the minefield that the Pinelands School District has become?

I am hoping in the next few weeks the high school will be completely cleaned inside and out and deemed safe to populate. Then tempers can recede, and we can all work together with the professionals to find solutions and well-thought-out plans to proceed to phase two of the construction project. Can’t we put aside differences, perceived or real, among teachers, administrators, parents and union officials?

The public pledged a lot of money to fix our building so proper education can take place in a safe environment. Let’s get that accomplished. Let’s try to remember that the teachers and administrators who live in the five towns served by the Pinelands Regional School District, people with and without children in the schools, are taxpayers, too. We are truly in this together. Let’s work together and get it done. It is the right thing to do. We are examples for the children to follow.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.

 

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