Mento retains presidency
Michael Pullia new school board vice president
HAMMONTON—During the January 5 reorganization meeting, Sam Mento III was nominated for board president.
Hammonton School District Business Administrator/ Board Secretary Barbara Prettyman called the meeting to order and all board members were present at the Samuel A. Donio Memorial Library. The meeting on was the first hybrid meeting where some board members were present at the library while others attended virtually due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns.
According to Prettyman, the results of the 2020 school election were Sam Mento III 4,967, Kelli Fallon 5,250 and Raymond Scipione 5,200.
Newly re-elected board members Fallon, Mento and Scipione were sworn in during the meeting as well as Waterford Twp. representative Al Pangia and Folsom representative John Thomas. Thomas was the only one sworn in virtually by William Donio Esq. the school board’s solicitor.
After the swearing-in, Pangia nominated Mento for board president. Thomas Attanasi, Linda Byrnes, Mento, Pangia, Michael Pullia and Scipione voted yes to the nomination while Barbara Berenato, Fallon, John Lyons and Erica Polito voted no.
“I’d like to thank all my fellow board members… This is the beginning of my fourth term and beginning of my seventh year as president. I don’t think that ever more than now does experience matter. I know we have a challenging year ahead of us…Once again thank you again for this opportunity to serve,” Mento said.
For board vice president, Mento nominated Pullia and Fallon was nominated by Polito for a second term. Pullia received seven votes while Fallon received three. Attanasi, Byrnes, Lyons, Pangia, Pullia, Scipione and Mento voted for Pullia, and Berenato, Fallon and Polito voted for Fallon.
After the nominations for board president and vice president, Hammonton Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco gave a statement in response to social media posts that had circulated recently concerning a seventh grade English language arts class being asked in an assignment if anyone in the household owned any guns.
“This assignment has been used for many years. As part of the classroom discussion, a teacher asked students questions in a Google document, which some parents and community members felt were invasive. That was not the teacher’s intention. Rather similar to an in-person class discussion, the intention was to kick-start a conversation about the material as well as to engage in interdisciplinary teaching regarding civics,” Chieco said.
“When complaints about the potentially invasive question were received, it was immediately removed. Nonetheless, we are committed to hearing community voices and pursuant in our board policies will not avoid addressing community complaints or controversial subjects. Under policy 13-12 and 61-61.2, I would ask that any parent of a student in that class who has an issue with the assignment to reach out to the teacher and if necessary to the building principal. I will ask any community member who does not have a child in that class to put their concerns in writing to me. I will then review our policies and implement a procedure to review the concerns and report back to the board of education,” Chieco said.
When it was time for the public comment portion of the meeting, Councilman Joseph Giralo was the first to speak to the board.
“Council reorganized last night. I will be back as the education representative from town council. I’ll be here as often as I can; glad to see that you’re meeting in-person … It’s going to be a tough year but I think we can all get through this,” Giralo said.
Next up, Tom Avery, whose daughter is a seventh grader at the middle school, gave his thoughts about the controversial assignment to the board members.
For the assignment, students completed a questionnaire relating to “The Gun,” a short story by Carol Ellis. The main discussion was about gun control according to Avery.
“They were asked to agree or disagree with such topics as a person’s right to use a gun to defend oneself in case of an emergency, should there be a limit on the caliber or type of gun civilians can purchase among others, however, the most disturbing question asked was, ‘does anyone in your household own a gun?’” said Avery.
In “The Gun,” a high schooler finds a gun lying on the ground and after school he decides to shoot tin cans near the railroad tracks. After being questioned by detectives, the student learns he accidently killed a woman on the train.
“I did speak to [Hammonton Middle School] Principal [Mike] Nolan about this assignment this morning today. He informed me that he discussed the issue with the teacher who gave the assignment and the question pertaining to owning a gun in the household was removed from later classes in that day. However, the egregious invasion of privacy in asking children to discuss such private matters is not the end of the story. The entire manner in which discussion of gun control is framed is frankly outrageous,” Avery said.
Avery argued that the story does not address both sides regarding gun control.
“The introductory paragraph of the questionnaire makes a faint attempt at portraying both sides of the gun control argument by saying some say it’s too tough while others say make it tougher. However, it concludes with a statement from a credible organization, the American Medical Association in which it says the answer is to ban all handguns. There is no statement from another credible agency or the opposing side … If nothing else, it gives the impression that the correct answer is to ban all handguns. That is a manipulative way in which to push an agenda and is not a way to present both sides of an argument to let children make up their own mind,” Avery said.
When talking with Nolan, Avery was told that they’ve been discussing the topic and asking the question, “does anyone in your household own a gun?” for the past 19 years.
“He [Nolan] further stated that in the past it would allow students whose families were involved in hunting to discuss their hobby with other students. Even the fact that this has been asked in a class as a discussion in the past is highly inappropriate. It is absolutely no one’s business what happens in our individual households. We are guaranteed the right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and that question equates to an unreasonable verbal search and is and has been inappropriate,” Avery said.
After five minutes, Mento asked Avery to finish his public comment in the next minute because of the time limits for the public comment portion of the meeting.
“It seems like you have a lot of points to make and sometimes that’s a better conversation directly with the superintendent one-on-one,” Mento said.
“I would urgently recommend that the board of education investigate this incident further. That the ultimate guidance from the board to the school be to encourage parents to discuss the topic with our children in the manner in which we see fit, and to appropriately and equally discuss all sides of the discussion as this was not the case here. I thank you for your time,” Avery said.
Pullia who attended virtually via Zoom responded to Avery.
“I couldn’t agree more and I couldn’t make his statements any better. I did bring this to the board’s attention last year. This very same thing happened last year. It was a different book I believe, but the question was to ask them about gun ownership at home … I don’t think the teacher met any malice in any way at all, mainly trying to get their point, and I don’t think the point was about limiting the second amendment at all. I think she was just trying to get to the finer points of the book … A lot of people on Facebook today went one way with the teacher but then the came around the other way and said exactly what I just said so, but as a board we need to get into this a little bit in the future and avoid these types of questions from being presented,” Pullia said.
“In hearing that this has been discussed before and there has not been a change, so we’re still discussing it, I would encourage the board to actually take action so that we’re not in this position next year,” Avery said.
Tracy Angelozzi, an English teacher at Hammonton High School, was the last person to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I wanted to see everyone sworn in and I think it’s really important that we focus on the positive things that are happening in our district. I can attest as a parent of a student at the WES, seventh grader at the middle school and a teacher of 16 years at the high school. I see firsthand all three levels in all schools using virtual instruction, discussion and office hours. My son, he’s a fourth grader. He has an IEP. He gets OT. He gets speech services. I see it happening all during the week and it’s wonderful. You really need to focus on what we’re doing positively as a district. I think it’s amazing what the district can accomplish when we all work together and we’re doing that right now. We have the best interest of our children and our students firsthand. Every role has its set of challenges and we all need to respect that. I hope that we can move forward in the new year and continue to work together as a community, staff, admin and a Hammonton Education Association,” Angelozzi said.
Before the voting portion of the meeting, there was discussion regarding action item No. 5, “Resolved that the Board of Education adopt the January 2021 – December 2021 Meeting Schedule and direct its dissemination in accordance with the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act.”
“Number five regarding our calendar, our January meeting is listed as January 21st. Back in November, the negotiations committee scheduled a meeting with the Hammonton Education Association at 6:30 on that night, so I was hoping that we could reschedule or not reschedule—actually schedule our board of education meeting on a different night either the 14th which would be the normal week that we would do it,” Fallon said.
Mento responded to Fallon.
“We’ll have to reschedule the negotiations because typically in our January meeting by the time we get committee reports out, we don’t have enough time to meet next Thursday, and we would often meet on the third Thursday of January,” Mento said.
“Can we move the meeting to the 28th? It’s just that it involves a lot of people. Some representatives are here from the union and it involves teachers, union representatives from all of our staff. It was scheduled in November. All the committee members were copied on it. Just asking you to honor that,” Fallon said.
“Why don’t we approve the meeting as is and we could either amend this or amend the other meeting going forward or maybe we could change the time if that would work we can even go earlier on the 21st with negotiations prior to close. Perhaps if you bumped it up an hour for the most part I guess the teachers might leave some representative here you guys are probably just staying at the school anyhow until 6:30 so perhaps we just moved it up an hour earlier that would work as well,” Mento said.
Angelozzi spoke after Mento gave his suggestion.
“I can’t speak for the negotiations committee but I can tell you that there are 17 people on that committee, which is quite a bit in which they’re trying to schedule with their families, their lessons and everything. It’s quite a bit of people to reschedule and they’ve been working on that date for quite some time right Mrs. Fallon?” Angelozzi said.
“Yes we scheduled it back in November and even if we moved it an hour, our closed session begins at six o’clock so we’d only have half hour and it’s just not sufficient time to accomplish anything,” Fallon said.
After further discussion, Mento said, “I can’t do the 28th.”
“Well we have a vice president who could perhaps do it but I mean let’s vote on it,” Fallon said.
Donio then called the board’s attention before voting regarding action item No. 3 “Resolved that the Hammonton board of education adopt the New Jersey School Board Member Code of Ethics for the ensuing term.”
“I suggest you read it. It was written in the positive. It is a number of things that board members should aspire to do in their actions. I would suggest to you that first and foremost, however, the rule that is not written in there but is encompassed in all the code of ethics is that the board does not run the schools and … the most essential component is to address any concerns to the school administrator and allow administrative response before taking any action, to make no private promises and to take no private action which might otherwise unduly compromise the board of education,” Donio said.
“You should also make yourself familiar with the School Ethics Act, that’s 18A: 12-24 a, b, c, d, e, f and g right—I guess if I can do my alphabets—and that is a list of prohibited access that prohibits conflicts of interest, but the code of ethics is really the one where board members in particular is addressed solely to board members about how you should conduct your actions as a board member,” Donio said.
During the voting portion of the meeting, the board voted the following action items:
• Appoint William Donio, Esq. of Cooper Levenson attorneys for 2021 calendar year.
• Adopt Robert’s Rules of Order, the ByLaws, Policies and Regulations of the district, and the district’s fee structure under Public Records Policy (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5) for the ensuing term.
• Adopt the New Jersey School Board Member Code of Ethics (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1) for the ensuing term.
• Designate The Hammonton Gazette, and The Press of Atlantic City as the official newspapers for the district’s publications and directed that advertising occur as needed in accordance with the rate schedule noted.
• Adopt the January 2021 – December 2021 Meeting Schedule and direct its dissemination in accordance with the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act.
• Appoint the following personnel for 2021 calendar year: Tammy Leonard as District Affirmative Action Officer; Lou Testa as District Affirmative Action Officer; Marni Parks as District Title IX Coordinator; Michael Ryan as District Section 504 Compliance Officer & ADA Coordinator; Barbara Prettyman as Board Secretary, Custodian of Public Records, Purchasing Agent, Loss Control Coordinator and Public Agency Compliance Officer; Frank LaSasso as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Coordinator; Sharon Murray as Indoor Air Quality and HCS/Right to Know Contact; and Ahera Consultants, Inc. as AHERA Compliance Officer.
• Approve the Superintendent or designee, be designated to approve such line item budget transfers as are necessary between Board of Education meetings, and that such transfers shall be reported to the Board of Education, ratified and duly recorded in the minutes of the next regular meeting as provided by N.J.S.A. 18A:22-8.1 amended.
Out of 10 people, four voted “no” on the meeting schedule item on the agenda, including Berenato, Fallon, Lyons and Polito.
The next meeting of the Hammonton Board of Education is January 21 at 7 p.m. at the Samuel A. Donio Library at Hammonton High School.