EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Board of Education started its year by naming a new president, electing Pete Castellano to replace Lou Della Barca as the first order of business Tuesday after three new members — all women — took the oath of office.
In a brief meeting that included a planned reorganization of the meeting schedule and seating three women on the school board, perhaps the biggest surprise came during the public comment portion of the meeting, in comments from former board member Barbara Szilagyi, who lost her seat in the November election.
Holding up a thick sheaf of papers, Szilagyi accused a fellow board member of impropriety.
Szilagyi said that as a member of the public, she could now speak on the matter.
“Egg Harbor Township is not immune to what is happening nationally. This is my opinion,” she said. “You have a fellow board member who has had proven indiscretions, and has robbed the students of educational funds.
"I am holding a $15,000 investigation that is proof of the indiscretions and behavior,” she said.
School board attorney Amy Houck-Elco interrupted Szilagyi, saying, “You know I have to do this.”
Houck-Elco said the board would not respond to any comments from Szilagyi, adding, “Any comments you make you could personally be held liable for, or could be considered defamatory. I just want to make sure you’re clear on that.”
Szilagyi said she understood. She then went on to suggest the board consider sanctioning or censuring the board member until the case goes to court.
She did not identify the board member, nor offer an explanation as to what might amount to "indiscretions," although she later stated, “There should be no more #metoo,” referring to a social media movement started last year that was used to call attention to and oppose sexual harassment and assault.
After the meeting, Houck-Elco said she would have no comment on what Szilagyi had to say. She then turned to Castellano and school superintendent Kim Gruccio and said pointedly that they would have no comment either. Both then said they would not comment on the matter.
The meeting began with the swearing in of three new board members, the three successful candidates in a crowded field of 10 in the November election. New members Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder, Tamika Gilbert-Floyd and Amy Summer took the oath of office, administered by school business administrator Chandra Anaya, and each in turn took their seats at the dais.
Some speakers, including Castellano, noted the diversity of the current board and the fact that a majority of the board members are women, a circumstance that may be unprecedented in Egg Harbor Township.
“And that is fantastic,” said Castellano.
In an unusual move, new member CarneyRay-Yoder was tapped as the board vice president at her first board meeting.
Board member Marita Sullivan originally nominated Della Barca to serve another term as board president.
“He really brought this board together, and I’d like to see him continue,” she said.
Board member Jack Haines nominated Castellano. The board went with Castellano in a vote of 7-2, with Sullivan and Della Barca voting for Della Barca.
Castellano immediately nominated Della Barca to serve as vice president.
“I would be very honored if he would serve as my vice president,” he said. Della Barca declined, with thanks. Later in the meeting, each man said they have worked well together in the past and expected to continue to do so. Castellano described Della Barca as a friend.
One of Castellano’s first actions was to bring forward a resolution reworking the way the school board organizes its meetings.
He said the change grew out of training from the New Jersey School Boards Association and recommendations from the school district administration.
For 2018, the schedule calls for the first week of the month to be given to board committee meetings, with a work session meeting the second week, and the regular board meeting the third week of each month.
Castellano said the board would discuss at the work sessions items up for vote in the regular meetings.
“Up till now, our work meetings have essentially been overflow meetings,” he said. To some extent, that will likely have to continue.
“But a true work meeting is to have discussion on the items that the board is going to take action on.”
The board will also hear committee reports at the work session meetings. If the change does not work out, the board will change the system back, he said.
Several advocates for the board to pass a policy on transgender students spoke, saying that such a policy is necessary for the protection and well being of students who are transitioning. Last winter, after extensive discussion, the board decided not to approve a policy that had met with intense public opposition.
Since then, some in favor of approving a policy have regularly attended school board meetings, and advocates for the policy have expressed hope that a change in the board will mean a willingness to revisit the issue.
Several people on and off the board offered congratulations to the new board members and thanks to the outgoing members, as well as wished for a happy New Year and happy holidays.
Resident Deborah Rockelman offered all of those, congratulating the new board president, and added more.
“OK, here’s what I ask: Let’s keep it clean, guys. Let’s work together. No more politics, no more crap,” she said. “None of this stuff that’s been going on for the past few years. Please remember, it’s about the kids. It’s about the taxpayers.”