Bernards Township Board of Education: What’s Happening?

April 22, 2023

Since taking office in January 2023, new board members Keith Molinari, Nimish Amin, Larry Rascio, and Csilla Csipak have shaken things up. Joining incumbent board member Kirsten Light, the new conservative majority voted to appoint Molinari president and Amin vice president, bypassing the years of experience offered by Tim Salmon, who served as VP during the 2021-2022 school year as well as on important board committees including Finance, Personnel, and Curriculum.

Committee changes. The new majority voted to create an additional committee, Facilities and Operations, reflecting their commitment to focus on maintenance and oversight of school spending. The number of committee members on two other committees, Curriculum and Wellness, was reduced from four members to three, indicating that these areas might be less of a priority this year.

Sex-ed and health curriculum. This is one topic generating big headlines. During the summer of 2022, the district created several opportunities for people to provide input on the state-mandated 2020 health and physical education curriculum standards, which the previous board had adopted in a vote of 8-1. Certain additions to this curriculum have been deemed controversial, including those that reference the LGBTQ+ community, the use of anatomically correct body-part names, and the discussion of safe-sex practices. Because of this, the community was invited to participate in three ways: via an online survey which outlined the proposed standards as compared with the standards adopted in 2014; by engaging in a BT Connect session where community members, teachers, parents, administrators, and board members were invited to share their thoughts; and by writing letters to Superintendent Nick Markarian and the board members.

The Curriculum Committee then created a version of the standards that reflected the input provided by the community. It found that of the nearly 4,800 students in Bernards Township schools, only 27 students opted out of the new health curriculum. The board agreed that providing a more user-friendly opt-out process would be beneficial; however, Molinari made a motion to have the Curriculum Committee consider leaving all health curriculum instruction to the last day of school or, alternatively, sending the lessons home in a packet to complete as homework. Community backlash resulted in Molinari abandoning those options and suggesting further review and possible modification of teaching standards he finds objectionable. The board is still working out the details of another revision to the 2020-2022 health curriculum.

Concerns about textbooks. Traditionally, the board has relied upon the recommendations of content area supervisors and teachers in determining books and resources to be used for a given course. Currently, the social studies department is seeking to update its textbook for the high school sociology course. As is usual practice, the committee working on this sought input from teachers, students, and administrators, eventually recommending one of the only two textbooks available. Molinari has taken issue with the recommended textbook, questioning the conclusions of studies related to the role of women in society and the sociological impact of racial discrimination. There is rising concern among many in the community that this portends a troubling trend of questioning the recommendations of educational experts.

The 2023-2024 budget. The administration presented its proposed 2023-2024 preliminary budget at the March 13th meeting. The board’s new financial direction was reflected in their stated goal of paying off district debt by 2031 and by reducing the percentage of capital reserves from 4% to 2% of the budget. Although there are no suggestions for offsetting the rising fixed costs associated with salaries, benefits, and transportation, which comprise 91% of the 2023-2024 budget, the board did mention the need for additional maintenance staff to be provided by food service provider Aramark. Despite the board’s assurance that current staffing levels would remain unchanged, there was no response from the majority to questions from members Salmon, Robin McKeon, and Jennifer White about planning for future growth of the district’s special education program, which is not fully funded by the state.

One of the ways the board is seeking to contain costs is by looking at administrative positions. One of the options floated by Amin is to possibly eliminate “one, two, or three” assistant principal positions for 2023-2024. This has caused a great deal of concern among middle-school and elementary-school parents in particular.

The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 8th, with the final budget submitted to the state on May 20th. Community input is welcome.

I encourage everyone to come to the April 24 BOE meeting at 7 pm at Ridge High School’s PAC. The board seems to have many questions with regard to textbooks that have been recommended for adoption by teachers and supervisors. The approval of three textbooks — including a sociology text that has been the subject of much debate — is on this meeting’s agenda. If you’re interested in free speech and concerned about book bans, please attend and speak out.

— Janice Corrado

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