Teachers, Staff Protest Transfers at Stafford Township BOE Meeting

May 17, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Second-grade teacher Michael Dunlea didn’t ask any questions during the public-comment portion of the Stafford Township Board of Education meeting at the Stafford Township Arts Center on May 11, but he made certain to let the nine-member board, along with Superintendent George Chidiac, know how important he believed it was that he remain a second-grade teacher at the Ocean Acres School.

“In 2011, I was the Ocean County Teacher of the Year,” said Dunlea, a Manahawkin resident. “In 2012, I was one of five teachers in the entire state to be considered for the New Jersey Teacher of the Year – I was a finalist.”

After providing the board with a few more details regarding accolades he had received in recent years, Dunlea shifted gears a bit and pointed out what he believed to be an additional reason he should remain in second grade.

“As a male early-elementary teacher, I represent 4 percent of the teaching population nationwide,” he said. “Students who need positive male role models are often placed in my classroom. In this district, we have approximately 20 male educators and 200 female educators. We currently only have three male teachers, total, for grades pre-K, K, 1, 2 and 3. Next year, you will reduce that to one with this involuntary transfer. I respectfully ask this board to reconsider my involuntary transfer.”

Dunlea, who was being recommended for a transfer to teach sixth grade at the Intermediate School, was one of some 20 teachers, staff members, parents and community members who addressed the board – some rather harshly and accusatory, at times – with the same message: They weren’t happy with the possibility of involuntarily transferring 31 teachers, aides and support staff members. Several hundred people were in the audience to support them and cheered and cat-called to several of them who made statements.

“I’ve been a Stafford district teacher for 30 years and the music teacher at Ocean Acres for the past 18 years, since the school opened,” said Ellen Kuna, who was being recommended for a transfer to teach music and be an interventionist at the Ronald L. Meinders Primary Learning Center. “I have received positive evaluations from every administrator who has observed in my classroom, and have directed 36 successful concerts with the Ocean Acres second-grade chorus. Considering my years of experience and continuing professional development to teach this grade level, I believe I am the most qualified person in the district to teach first- and second-grade music classes.”

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Martin, sixth-grade teacher Jessica Perry and Intermediate special education teacher Theresa Simonelli, three more of the 10 teachers being recommended for involuntary transfers, made similar statements to the board, while a bunch more teachers, parents and community members questioned the necessity to maneuver those teachers in addition to 19 cafeteria/playground aides and a pair of secretaries. One individual also questioned why Intermediate School Principal Bill Wilkinson and Oxycocus School director Stephanie Bush were being switched.

Under fire from several individuals, Chidiac explained the process that led to the recommendation for the transfers began in January and involved each of the school building’s administrators as well as those who are among the district administrative staff. Interestingly, nobody among the audience questioned whether any of the involuntary transfers had any correlation to the 10 voluntary transfers that were part of Chidiac’s recommendation, which also included five teachers and a guidance counselor given changes of assignment within the same building.

“I do what’s in the best interest of this district ,and I have to look at everything as a whole, with my administrative team,” Chidiac said. “We have responsibilities to meet, and there are many things we have to look into – certifications, qualifications, special education needs. We have to look at things in a big scope, and it’s very complex. I rely on my administrative team to make recommendations, and we truly do what’s best for our programs and in the best interest of our district.”

Many among the crowd expressed displeasure with Chidiac’s explanation, and one parent, Kristen Miller, directly addressed Chidiac and called the maneuvers “a senseless shakedown.”

“Why the sudden rationale to move so many people, from assistants to principals?” she questioned. “Teachers matter. Their expertise matters. I can list the pros and cons of these moves, but there’s not enough time because there are too many cons to list. I implore you to think about why these moves are being made in the first place. When you treat your personnel this way, you make it personal.”

However, Marianne MacLusky, a PLC secretary being recommended for transfer to the Intermediate School, refused to make it personal. In fact, she challenged both the teachers and board to move forward without animosity.

“I’m not here to fight about my involuntary transfer,” she said without use of a prepared statement, mostly addressing the audience. “Yeah, I want more money. I won’t say I don’t. And yeah, I want more benefits, and, of course, I want to stay at PLC. But I’m seeing division that breaks my heart. I see a family that’s split. This is not acceptable.

“We’ve got to come together in some way, for the good of this district and for the good of these children. Put away your differences. Put away your ‘I’m better than you! You’re better than me!’ Come on, guys. You’re educators. You’ve got degrees. Let’s put some common sense in there. Take a deep breath and remember why you’re all here. Let’s put all this aside and work together the best we can, for the benefit of our students.”

Ultimately, Stafford Township Education Association President and fourth-grade teacher Nancy Altman called on the board to table the transfer recommendations.

“After listening to all the commentary of the individuals who have spoken, I hope you find it in your heart and in your mind to reconsider your superintendent’s recommendation,” she said. “On behalf of the members of the STEA, I respectfully request that you table item K-6.”

Prior to the board’s vote, board member and Eagleswood Elementary School teacher Tammy Nicolini, whose daughters went through the Stafford district, said she understood how many in the audience felt and the difficulty with accepting changes.

“I’ve been a teacher for 19 years, but it’s hard sitting up here. We don’t just sit on this end and go, ‘OK, OK.’ Being a board member, and listening to people, we realize sometimes that changes are needed, so we change things. This is now the third superintendent I’ve sat here with, and I will tell you that I support Mr. Chidiac and what he does. I know you’re not all going to agree with everything. We are going to disagree, and that’s OK.”

The board then voted, 8-0 – new board member Joe Mangino abstained – to approve all of the transfers. As the meeting adjourned, board President Mike Hemenway, a teacher in the Barnegat district, made a final statement regarding the decision.

“On behalf of the board of education and administrators, we know that there are hard decisions to make and, unfortunately, sometimes they’re not always popular,” he said. “However, this board of education and administration continue to do what is in the best interest of our district and our students’ educational needs.

“As board members, our responsibility is to oversee the education of our students and district operations. Our students-first philosophy will always be our number one priority. Finally, and most importantly, we have an outstanding staff, and we are confident they can exceed our expectations and embrace the changes because they are true professionals.”

— David Biggy


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