Security Officer Pauses Raucous Monty School Board Meeting, Board Members Try to Cancel Full-Day K
By Barbara A. Preston | Posted April 1, 2023 (Updated April 6, 2023)
The Montgomery Township School Board attorney had just completed a lengthy overview of the district's anti-bullying policy when belligerent audience members pounded questions at the school board members, one being so disrespectful that the school security director asked the board president to temporarily suspended the meeting for a breather on Tuesday, March 28.
Several contentious issues were debated:
Joanna Filak, the high vote getter in Montgomery's November school board election, made a motion on Tuesday to overturn the results of an election—specifically local voters' decision to offer full-day kindergarten. She also asked the board's equity committee chairperson to "re-evaluate" the books offered in the Montgomery School District to replace them with "positive books with a positive message to make sure all students feel inspired to be better people.""Some of the books currently on our list really trigger negative feelings," she said.
New Montgomery Township School Board member Joanna Filak, right, made a motion to cancel the results of a Full Day Kindergarten election, which Montgomery voters narrowly approved in November. From left: Board members Ania Wolecka-Jernigan and Christina Harris.
Rick Cavalli, a Belle Mead resident, at one point refused to cede the podium during a public comment session at the same meeting. He was berating the board president, saying: "Collaboration with South Africa seems to be okay. You're collaborating with a foreign nation, but not with your own community." When told he was not following the agenda and was disrupting the meeting, he said, "Oh, I have no intention of following the action agenda. You can point-of-order all you want." This resulted in the school's security director, Tom Wain, asking the school board president to take a temporary recess—a breather.
Jeff Grant of Belle Mead, a leader of the Central New Jersey Conservative Union, accused the board president of being racist. "You are stuck with being called a white racist communist," he said to President Zelda Spence-Wallace, who is Black. He made the comment in reference to her recent attendance at an educators' conference in South Africa.
Santi V. Buscemi of Skillman said he is running for school board.
Santi V. Buscemi of Skillman demanded to know whether tax-payer money was spent on the educators' trip to South Africa in March. When the board president refused to answer, saying that the board had already answered that question at a previous meeting, Buscemi said: "Let me announce to everybody ... I am running for the school board ... to stop this nonsense."
All this and more in a 2.5-hour school board meeting in Montgomery Township.
Lawyer Says It's Not Legal for a School Board to Overturn an Election
Montgomery and Rocky Hill voters had narrowly approved adding full-day kindergarten in the school district during the general election on November 8. Voters passed the referendum by 43 votes according to the Somerset County Clerk Office — 3,892 to 3,849. It took until Thanksgiving Day for all the votes — including early voting, absentee and provisional ballots — to be counted. Early results favored the nay voters — with 3,584 voting no to 3,522 in favor.
Rick Cavalli of Belle Mead had resigned as Montgomery School Board president in February 2019.
During the first public comment session, Cavalli asked a series of questions about the full-day kindergarten program approved by Montgomery and Rocky Hill votes . "What monies have been spent and committed to full day kindergarten, separate from monies already in the budget of half-day kindergarten? How are these two budgets managed? I do not see a full detailed multi-year budget [on the school website]? Do you have one? Was it presented to the public?
"How about a detailed risk analysis of the businesses in Montgomery for the lost revenue they may not incur because of the shift of kids from their services to public schools?" he asked. "And what implications will that have on the community?
"Further, I do not see an analysis that pointed out: If I live in Montgomery for 30 years, and my taxes go up $800 a year, [assuming] no inflation, that about $24,000 I'll spend as a taxpayer! I'm essentially paying for one year of Rutgers' tuition!
"My request of the board tonight is that someone stand up and make a motion to suspend all activity regarding [full day kindergarten] until a further analysis can be done that includes the community," he said.
School board members said an analysis was posted on the school website at the time of the election, and that they would repost it. There was also an article in The Montgomery News and posted online on October 18 titled "Monty Full Day Kindergarten to Be Slightly More Costly to Taxpayers than Originally Reported." For the average Montgomery Township homeowner, the school administrator estimated the actual permanent tax increase would be an extra $201 per year, not the $196 originally communicated. For Rocky Hill, the increase would be $133 per year, not $6.
New board member Joanna Filak went ahead and made the motion "to have a vote in favor of suspending all plans and efforts for full day kindergarten." She also proposed halting the collection of taxes to fund it, "until a complete analysis can be performed and debated. Then, if full kindergarten is viable ... it should be brought up again for referendum."
Filak wrote an email, received by The Montgomery News on April 6, complaining about this article and the paraphrasing of part of her motion. Here is the exact motion: "To have a vote in favor of suspending all plans and efforts for full-day kindergarten and the taxes being levied to be stopped and returned until a complete analysis can be performed and debated. Then, if full-day kindergarten is viable on its merits—criteria to be publicly agreed upon—it should be brought out again for a referendum.”
The motion was seconded by veteran board member Martin R. "Marty" Carlson.
Filak's motion was shut down prior to a vote by the full board of education when the board attorney essentially pointed out that it's illegal.
"I listened to the motion that Filak presented and I have a concern about it," said board attorney Stephen Fogarty. "The motion included not only postponing any expenditure with regard to full day kindergarten, but also would have negated the public vote on the question. We don't have the legal authority to do that."
Filak withdrew her motion.
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Removing Negative Books from the School District
Regarding Filak's comment to the School Board's Equity Committee chairperson to replace negative books with "positive books with a positive message to make sure all students feel inspired to be better people," veteran school board member Cookie Franco-Herman commented:
"I am an avid reader, and I have been an avid reader since third grade," Franco-Herman said. "I read all sorts of books. I think it's great we are taking a look at the books we are offering our kids, but I think we offer all sorts of books to our kids, and not take books away. That's just my personal comment."
Conservative Leader Addresses the School Board President
Belle Mead resident Jeff Grant lectured the school board president on the theme: "You are the company you keep."
Jeff Grant of the Central New Jersey Conservative Union speaking as a resident.
"You've heard me talk about the root of evil being lying, deception, and ignorance," he said. "But I also want to talk about the concept: You are the company you keep."
"South Africa is a communist, Marxist, and racist country — racist against white people. It's also an enemy of the United States because in January it had military exercises with our enemies, China and Russia" Grant said. "If they are a friend of our enemy, they are our enemy."
In reference to the Montgomery educator's trip to South Africa, Grant said the Montgomery school board president and anybody associated with that trip, is "stuck with being called a white racist communist sympathizer" and is an "enemy of our country."
"I implore you, madame president, to protect your reputation," he said. "Please back off, and come back to us."