BARNEGAT – A fourth grader who attended a local school board meeting earlier this year left with impressions that don’t necessarily reflect all too well on the adults in the room.
“There seemed to be a lot of conflict,” summed up the young Gifted and Talented student. “I didn’t really understand it all.”
The Barnegat Board of Education’s most recent meeting on February 28, 2023 was packed with an assortment of students, parents and other interested parties. Many of the children came to receive special recognition. At least one local scout troop attended the meeting to fulfill merit badge requirements associated with citizenship.
The troop left before the conclusion of the meeting that lasted over four hours. Multiple parents said they were “embarrassed” by the conduct displayed by the board members.
“It was a disgrace to watch and left me questioning if that’s how they communicate in public, what is it like in private,” said Colleen Shive, whose son was honored at the meeting. “How will anything ever get accomplished for our children?”
District leaders had the foresight to move up some of student achievement awards from their usual place in the meeting’s agenda. However, some high school students waited more than two hours for their moment in the spotlight. Even the board’s student representative left before it was her time to give her report.
Several policy disputes arose during the meeting with Robert’s Rules of Order cited as backup on numerous occasions.
Board member Sandra Churney expressed her frustration with subcommittee meeting minutes, saying she felt they were incomplete and asked if they were recorded.
“Minutes are taken at every committee meeting,” said Board of Education President Sean O’Brien. “Minutes are concise and official record. Per Robert’s Rules, they are supposed to include what was done at the meeting, not what was said.”
Votes within subcommittees also became controversial as Board Member Scott Sarno disputed the legal opinions offered by the Board’s Attorney, Martin Buckley.
Board member Regina Tarnowski spoke on behalf of the board’s Governance Committee and referenced discussions about the inclusion of board members’ biographical information on the district’s website.
“As a district we strive to be professional,” said Tarnowski. “We consulted with the New Jersey School Board Association’s field rep Mary Ann Freedman, and she evaluated 100 districts and their bios, and created a template for our district.”
The information didn’t sit well with a couple of board members who argued they should have more flexibility with their bios. Churney said she assumed they were all just parents and taxpayers, and not polished politicians.
“The point of the bios is to be consistent, succinct, and provide a professional…” O’Brien began.
Board member Scott Sarno interrupted to ask whether a template had been used over the last few years. Sarno continued to spar with O’Brien on other issues as well.
A proposed policy would make it requisite for board members to copy the board president on communications with the district’s superintendent or business administrator, a practice O’Brien said is common in other districts. Sarno, who previously objected to the directive, continued with his protests.
Tarnowski said she felt keeping the board president apprised made sense so that the superintendent didn’t have to take extra steps and could focus on other tasks.
“The superintendent gets paid, and he gets paid well to do his job,” said Sarno. “I don’t get paid for the hours I put in here.”
Sarno neglected to say how copying the board president on emails would represent additional time.
Considerable time was devoted to social media posts and requests for comment from local news outlets. Some commented on board member Lauren Washburn’s decision to speak to a radio station that seemingly shed a poor light on the district.
Board Vice President Bonnie Levy expressed her dissatisfaction that Washburn did not correct the radio host when he said a high school bistro project was a waste of money and should be used to give money to teachers and add to their pension funds. The food services account cannot be used for either purpose.
“I did say that it could only be used for food services,” defended Washburn. “He never mentioned school supplies or teachers pensions funds on our phone call during the conversation.”
Bill Spadea of 101.5 made the reference directly after Washburn’s segment and also included it in his opinion piece. Washburn said she followed up with him to correct him after the fact, however the article was not changed on the station’s website as of press time.
One of the parents who stayed until the end of the meeting had questions about Washburn’s call in to the radio station.
“Were you aware of the what the topic of the article before was going to be when it was published,” asked Johnelle Delaney. “I was wondering what you were hoping to accomplish by essentially airing dirty laundry and presenting this board in a negative light.”
Washburn reiterated that it was not her intention to bash the school district. She said that she felt certain that if a poll was taken, others would agree all of the schools’ kitchens and eating areas could be refurbished. Again, she just wanted to make sure her voice was heard firsthand.
Some of the board members who were questioned about their votes against the bistro planned for the high school said they were taken by surprise when they learned it had a special education component attached to it.
“My notes tell me that this was supposed to be run by volunteers,” said Board member Sandra Churney. “My notes tell me that benefits include student wellness, community gathering and revenue generation. No notes of mine or yours say that this was a collaboration with special ed.”
Churney claimed she only became aware of the special education component after reading a Jerseyshoreonline.com article posted on social media saying she was one of four members who challenged the bistro.
The reporter who wrote the article shared two emails written to her and three others seeking an explanation for their vote against the bistro. The communication was first transmitted the day after the meeting and included details obtained concerning the proposed special education component. No comments were received by the board members and available for publication.
“It was presented multiple times,” said Board of Education President Sean O’Brien. “You had three chances to ask about it – the first was the Finance Committee, where apparently the questions were not addressed properly. You could have asked at the Committee of the Whole where Ms. Tarnowski brought it up and then right before the vote. There were no questions asked about the bistro.”
As far as Churney was concerned, it didn’t make sense for her to ask questions on a subject she said was never discussed. The bistro will use a surplus in food services monies primarily accrued as a result of free lunches afforded to all students during the pandemic.
“The bistro is not just for the special ed population,” Board Vice President Bonnie Levy added. “It is for the entire high school. It for improvement in attendance and for eliminating tardiness. It is for having a special healthy social atmosphere for children to collaborate with one another and staff members.”
Board member Scott Sarno, who also voted against the bistro, claimed he did so for a different reason. Despite the special nature of the funds, Sarno said that spending $400,000 on one school was not efficient as it only serviced a quarter of the district’s student body.
“It’s not that I’m against special ed or high school kids,” said Sarno. “The money should be spent more prudently throughout the district.”
The surplus funds that have now increased to $867,909 will continue to have a large surplus after the bistro project. The money cannot be used for anything outside food services and cannot sit indefinitely.
Washburn said she wasn’t informed of all the details beforehand. She suggested the board needed the benefit of a presentation on the bistro even before the architect drew up plans.
“My wish was to see our cafeterias and our kitchens improved and advanced upon,” shared Washburn. “I know that some of the equipment in the buildings needs to be updated.”
Washburn said she has access to information to support her claims that some of the kitchens are not up to date. She did not reveal how she was privy to resources outside the knowledge of other board members.
Superintendent of School Dr. Brian Latwis said that he was taken by surprise when the four votes against the bistro surfaced. No one reached out to him with questions about the plans or requests for additional information.
Churney voted no without explanation when it came to submitting the proposal to the Department of Education as a proposed long-range facility plan. Carol Geene, Sarno and Washburn abstained.
Public Session Commentary
The length of the meeting and the harsh nature of the comments left many individuals to leave the in-person setting. Meanwhile, an unusual number of participants decided to tune in online and later remarked about their disappointment.
“The behavior by this board was absolutely disgraceful,” said Delaney, a parent. “There was no consideration for the time of the parents, the children sitting here waiting to be recognized and to share things.”
“You are aggressive, argumentative and cutting people off,” continued Delaney. “You guys should be ashamed; you should truly be ashamed.”
At the request of Jeanette Tarnowski, Delaney read a statement prepared by her. Jeanette is a grandmother to children in the district and also the mother of Board Member Regina Tarnowski.
Jeanette brought up a couple of issues that disturbed her, including a social media post Sarno shared after the untimely death of the young teen in Central Regional. She viewed the request for an ad hoc committee (something never mentioned during the recent meeting) as an attempt for recognition.
The statement continued with Jeanette’s revelation of how a similar project to the proposed bistro had helped her special needs son in another district.
“A room full of children here for recognition of their achievements,” Jeannette said. “Does not need to be rewarded with unnecessary bickering.”
John Gennarelli, who sits on the district’s Citizens Advisory Board said he was instrumental in making sure the district’s meetings were available for broadcast. He expressed his disappointment that a number of Boy Scouts sat through a meeting that was long and unpleasant.
Directing his comments directly to Sarno, Gennarelli said he acted like a high school bully and reminded him the goal of a board member should be to be there for the students.
“When you sit on this board, you’re professionals,” remind Gennarelli. “So act with dignity and respect.”