Security Measures, Renegotiation Requests Highlight Stafford Township School Board Meeting

Feb 28, 2018
Photo by: David Biggy Stafford Township School District administrator David Ytreboe (left) looks on as school safety officer Chris Coughlin speaks to the crowd during the Stafford Township Board of Education meeting on Feb. 22.

The student and staff recognitions portion of the monthly Stafford Township Board of Education meetings always evokes smiles throughout the Stafford Room inside the Oxycocus School. But in recent months, many people across the nation have had no reason to smile in light of the many school shootings taking place.

Superintendent George Chidiac and Administrator David Ytreboe addressed the security measures within the district on Feb. 22, as hundreds of teachers and staff members awaited their turn to speak regarding ongoing contract negotiations. In fact, there were so many people crammed into the Stafford Room, the board had to break for a short time to allow the crowd to move into the gymnasium, where the meeting continued.

After the location shift, Chidiac prefaced Ytreboe’s rundown with an acknowledgement to all the planning that has gone into the administration’s greatest attempts at securing each building in the district.

“Obviously, we know about the tragedy in Florida,” Chidiac said. “But I believe we are out front of many school districts and we’re doing a lot of good things to ensure the safety of our teachers, staff and students.”

From there, Ytreboe outlined the long list of security measures in place – emergency response guides for teachers, upgraded camera and security systems in all buildings, secured vestibules with shatterproof film on the glass windows, visitor badges with expiration coding so they can’t be reused, phone systems that can be used to directly dial out of the building and call 911, radios capable of linking directly to the Stafford Township Police Department for administrators, secretaries and certain staff members, barricade and jamming devices for doors, and more.

Additionally, all staff are required to go through ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training, and the district employs more than a half-dozen safety officers, including three full-timers – Pat Shaffrey, Chris Coughlin and Lee Evans – and five substitutes, including Carlos Santiago, Ken Gross, Ron Pagnotta, Michael Dorin and Peter D’Antonio. However, these men are not the run-of-the-mill security officers you may see patrolling certain commercial buildings or malls.

“We have highly trained safety officers who carry concealed weapons,” Chidiac said, briefly interrupting as a precursor to Ytreboe’s introduction of them. “We can rest assured that this is not something common in our state for an elementary school district.”

Ytreboe added that each security officer is a retired law enforcement officer with extensive training using firearms.

“When we looked at their resumes, we were impressed with their experience,” Ytreboe said. “And even though they’re not part of the Stafford Police Department, they have gone through training to bring police work into a school environment.”

Evans, who explained some of his credentials derived over the course of more than 25 years in law enforcement, invited anybody from the public to voice to him and the other security officers their questions and concerns. He also praised the Stafford district for its foresight with regard to safety.

“Since the Florida incident, we’ve received a lot of phone calls from others about what we do here,” he said. “The Stafford district is light years ahead of a lot of other districts, so you should be proud of that.”

Ytreboe said after the meeting that since the rash of school-related shootings so far this year – 18 inside the first seven weeks of 2018 – there have been several discussions internally about accelerating the acquisition of additional safety devices.

“We have budget restrictions as to how much we spend on our security measures, so many of the things we’ve looked to roll out are over a two- or three-year period,” he said. “But now there’s a little more urgency. Our mindset is to get those projects completed sooner, and we’re working on how we can do that.”

Ytreboe added that the Stafford district has an excellent relationship with Stafford Police Chief Tom Dellane and an effective partnership with his department.

“As a father, I look at these students as if they were my own, and the goal is always to keep them as safe as possible,” Ytreboe said. “What is reassuring is the relationship we have with the Stafford Township police. They’ve been with us and behind us all the way. And they’ve been super helpful in every way possible.”

Teachers, Staff
Speak Out en Masse

Once Ytreboe’s report concluded, along with several more brief presentations, the board spent the next 40 minutes or so listening to nearly three dozen teachers and staff members requesting that it go back to the negotiations table and provide them lower contribution rates for their health insurance packages.

Stafford Township Education Association President Nancy Altman started the parade of 33 association members, first pointing out how the board renegotiated Chidiac’s contribution rate when it re-worked his contract last July.

“You gave Mr. Chidiac a 1.5 percent contribution rate, the lowest rate allowed by law,” she stated. “We’re paying the maximum contribution rate allowed within Chapter 78. I am asking the board to go back to the bargaining table and develop a lower contribution rate for all employees.”

Behind Altman, most who stepped up to the microphone to address the board spoke from a prepared statement, which essentially said the same thing in “respectfully requesting the board” to go back to the table and renegotiate the contribution rate, signifying its ability to give them the “same respect” it gives to Chidiac. Several spoke more loudly than others.

“Our current administration led by our superintendent, Mr. Chidiac, has brought in many new, innovative teachers, has advanced technology, has advanced the academic and social well-being of our students, and, most importantly, has advanced the safety of our children,” explained guidance counselor Mitch Migdon, noting that he is retiring at the end of the school year.

“So it is with concern and disbelief that we are now approaching two years without a contract. Unfortunately, the discourse of no contract agreement has now spread through the schools and into the community. Friendships have been fragmented and morale has started to suffer. I’m sad and concerned for my co-workers, who always put a smile on their face when it comes to the students. Help them stay positive and let them know that you support them.”

During his statement, Migdon reminded the board that the law commonly known as “Chapter 78” has since gone away with the departure of former Gov. Chris Christie, who signed the law into place in 2011 – a law that ultimately allowed the phasing in of increased healthcare contribution rates for teacher union associates over the course of four years. Districts now have the option to renegotiate those contribution terms.

“Teachers I work with have not seen an increase in their net pay for five or six years,” Midgon said to the board. “Imagine that in this great country you can get a nominal percentage raise, but you go home with less money in your pocket. School districts that surround us are now offering their teachers a bit of compensation toward relief. I stand here confused as to why we have not been able to take care of our own.”

Steve Derion, a teacher and adviser at Southern Regional whose wife works in the Stafford district, used the profiles of a handful of victims in various school shootings to make his point – highlighting the fact that they were teachers and staff who protected their students with the cost of giving their lives.

“The last line of defense are the teachers and staff,” he said. “This district has invested an enormous amount of money in security, but it also has invested more money in a (negotiations attorney) to block paying your last line of defense. This district should be investing in your last and most reliable line of defense, under all circumstances.”

Teacher Joan Martin implored the board to turn back to the old way of negotiating teacher contracts – giving the superintendent the ability and power to be the mediator between the board’s negotiating committee and the local union representatives.

“What is going on now, that we are waiting almost two years for a contract and we can’t get it settled? What is the difference?” she asked rhetorically. “The difference is the board decided to put an attorney in between us. We now have someone from outside our community negotiating our contract – someone who doesn’t live in this community, doesn’t love this community or our students, and doesn’t come here to work. You’ve chosen a stranger to settle our contract. Maybe that’s the reason we are two years without a (new) contract. Maybe it is time to go back to the way it used to work.

“We are not opposites. We are all together, and that somehow has gotten lost because you have allowed an outsider to come in and sit between us. Tell the attorney to take time off, and get back to the way it’s always been.”

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