By Cheryl Conway
Schools in Mt. Olive are back to business, not only with full day in person instruction for nine weeks now since the pandemic, but with so many new programs and ideas brewing.
End of year celebration plans are underway like senior prom to be held at the Skylands on June 3, inviting even junior students to attend if they get asked; one outdoor graduation on June 18 with high school seniors inviting four people to attend; one outdoor middle school commencement on June 16 at the middle school; and even a move up day for fifth graders who will be bussed to the middle school on different dates in June for an orientation and moving up program.
“Things are starting to feel normal,” says Mt. Olive School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki.
As of the last Mt. Olive Board of Education meeting held Monday, May 10, there were zero teachers and staff in quarantine from COVID 19, reported Rhonda Cohen, BOE member and chair of the Personnel Committee. At the April 19 BOE meeting, she reported that eight staff members were in quarantine, so there has been great progress.
Chester M. Stephens Elementary School in Budd Lake will be receiving renovations starting in June, reported BOE Vice President John Kehmna, chair of the Finance Operations Committee. The project was awarded, followed by shop drawings and meetings to get going.
Like improvements made at the other elementary schools, CMS was next on the list but the project had been on hold since COVID. And as the largest elementary school, may involve greater improvements, explains Zywicki.
Some details of the CMS project include two phases involving the front half of the school, then the rear, says Zywicki. New flooring, new paint, cafeteria being redone, more secure entranceway are on that list with $1.5 million allocated for the first half of the project included in the 2021/2022 school year budget.
The Geodome at Mt. Olive High School had its Grand Opening Ribbon Cutting before the last BOE meeting held May 10.
New MOHS Scoreboard
Kehmna also spoke about the plans for a new scoreboard at the MOHS Football Field, being funded eventually by the Education Foundation.
“It will look better than at Giant Stadium,” says Kehmna. “We will give a loan to the Education Foundation and they would pay it back with advertising,” he says.
Not all board members favor the scoreboard idea.
“I’m not on board with the scoreboard,” says Liz Ouimet, BOE member, questioning the use of end of year money.
“Who paid for those drawings?” asks Ouimet. “Why are we using end of year money to purchase a scoreboard? When did it come up initially? Was this a wish list, a bucket list?”
Kehmna criticizes Ouimet for raising these concerns now instead of previously, saying the scoreboard has been discussed for at least 18 to 20 months.
Ouimet responds, “Sometimes it takes time to look over. Who will be paying for those legal fees for the contract to be drawn up” between the BOE and the Ed Foundation?
“This is how the big wheel goes around with the money,” responds Kehmna. “Sometimes there’s money leftover at the end of the year.”
Zywicki explains that the idea for the score board came up in Oct 2019 first at the finance meeting, and then again in 2020 with the finance and budget committees, as well as numerous superintendent reports and the budget presentation.
“It was a wish list,” says Zywicki, that was put on hold after the pandemic. The Education Foundation had been discussing it as well, he says, for at least 18 months.
Ouimet also questions the added cost for maintenance that will be required with a new scoreboard.
“We could be on the hook for the whole thing,” fears Ouimet.
Zywicki explains that the scoreboard will bring in $120K in revenue from advertising costs by businesses who will use the scoreboard for promotions. The Ed Foundation will use that revenue to pay the school district back. The money will also be used as a revenue source by the Ed Foundation to offer scholarships.
He says the full mission of the Ed Foundation is to provide scholarships, professional development and innovation within the Mt. Olive School District.
“Everything they do is to support the school district,” says Zywicki, adding that it is non-profit and not able to build a scoreboard on school property. MOSD will build the scoreboard and then the Ed Foundation is projected to receive $120K in revenue from selling advertisements promoted on the scoreboard during games.
“We have people lined up who want to advertise for the scoreboard,” says Zywicki.
BOE Member Bill Robinson questions the cost of the legal contract between the BOE and Ed Foundation.
“If it dissolves, we will be on the hook for $400K,” says Robinson. “We’d be on the hook for legal fees of the contract.” He suggests a Go Fund Me to pay for all costs.
BOE Member Dr. Antoine Gayles also expresses his concerns for a new scoreboard.
“You’ve been talking about it for 18 months,” says Gayles. “I think a wind turbine,” with wind technology would be a better idea to spend end of year funding as it shows a message that the district is committed to STEAM and green community, he says.
“That’s a more productive use for our end of year funding,” says Gayles. He suggests reaching out to the Mt. Olive Alunni Association for funding of a scoreboard.
Zywicki explains that the district is not able to build a wind turbine on its own and that it would need a third-party entity or contract with an energy provider. He says he likes the scoreboard idea as it supports curricular learning for activities with the marketing and business classes.
“We have an amazing stadium,” says Zywicki, “but we have a rinky dink scoreboard. The current score board is older, smaller.” A new scoreboard can provide multi-media, videos, advertising promotions, even game highlights, replays and awards.
“Hundreds of districts have this,” says Zywicki, adding that MOSD has identified an architect and a vendor for a state contract.
As far as contract costs, he explains that the law firm the district is using to draw up this contract with the Ed Foundation “hasn’t been charging the district,” and instead providing the services as a donation.
“If we’re using end of year money to buy things and doing a tax levy, I think it can be used a lot better than purchasing a scoreboard,” says Ouimet.
The BOE will eventually get to vote on the scoreboard as an action item on the bill list.
The school district is also looking into athletic branding, in which they commit themselves into a partnership with a specific athletic brand for promotional purposes and discounts.
Zywicki says it is between Adidas or Under Armour since Nike is not sponsoring schools anymore.
The district can see a 40 percent discount if it agrees to sign on to a specific athletic brand, he explains. Right now the district pays retail pricing for all of its athletic gear for its sports. So instead of paying $10 for a sports jersey, cost could be as low as $6, he says.
Another perk is the “cool logos” like college kids sport when wearing their sports apparel, he says.
“It costs us nothing,” says Zywicki. “You agree to just wear Adidas or Under Armour and also get reward dollars. It’s a money maker.”
Also new is a program called the Marauders Believe 18-21 program for Mt. Olive High School students to provide academic job placement and training, independent living skills, post-secondary training, social skills, relationship training, self-advocacy and extra activities, describes Gayles.
The program will feature a mini-Shoprite and coffee shop at the basement of the high school, a food services shop at the Geodome and a Visitors’ Center for real estate agents at the MOSD building.
The Marauders Believe Program will also generate revenue from other school districts interested in using the program.
Gayles says the district can get $275K “if we farm this out to other districts on a tuition basis.”
The program “will be a revenue generator for us,” agrees Kehmna, bringing in “huge enrollment, huge interest,” from other school districts sending in their students.
“We have tons of out of district students lined up to come in as tuition students that will generate revenue,” says Zywicki. “It’s a money maker. It’s not costing anything.”
Local students in this program are already integrated in the district’s Life Skills program for those with IEP’s (Individualized Education Program for those receiving special education instruction), explains Zywicki. This full-time academic program has been offered in the MOSD for more than 40 years. The Marauders Believe Program is an extra program that enhances their learning and will be held after school hours.
Zywicki says there are so many kids in the Life Skills program, “we need to split it.”
In Mt. Olive, 115 students can benefit from this program; the district can accept 10 to 15 students from other districts, says Zywicki.
Another hot topic in the school district has been changes to curriculum. There has been a switch to provide more AP classes instead of honors classes at different grade levels.
Anne Jarvis of Flanders expresses her concerns at the April 26 BOE meeting. She questions Zywicki’s statement that AP is for “all people,” and shares her discontent of eliminating some honor’s courses such as English and Social Studies.
“If there are no requirements for be in an honors class, is it really an honors class or is it just like a CP class?” she challenges the board.
“Forcing kids to AP is not about the kids, it’s about ranking,” says Jarvis. She says she hopes the district has more requirements to take honors classes rather than getting as many as possible to take the AP test and AP courses.
After input from the community and hours of discussion, the district decided it will offer honors humanities for 9th and 10th graders which is a dual honors program combining English and history in one course.
Zywicki explains that MOSD will be replacing ELA Honors 11 and U.S. History II Honors, to an Honors Humanities course for juniors and seniors, combining the ELA and History in one class.
“They’ll still have an honors tract,” he explains, adding that this will not be going in effect until 2026, and only if the BOE votes on these changes in two years.
The recommended changes were brought on through the Equity Task Force as a means to create greater equality and accessibility in course offerings to all students, including those with IEP’s.
The curriculum committee made up of administrators write the curriculum every year and then the BOE votes on the curriculum in August, explains Zywicki.
While he says “I appreciate the feedback,” only five people came to BOE meeting to share any concerns.
The BOE did something similar eight years ago, says Zywicki, when it eliminated honors calculus and instead offered AP calculus. He says the district is not supposed to offer honors and AP in the same subject at the same grade level “so they are not conflicting with each other.”
BOE Member Resigns
BOE Member Nolan Stephens resigned at the April 26 BOE meeting after admitting to a fourth-degree offense to criminal sexual contact. Found guilty in a court of law for an alleged incident that occurred on August 10, 2020, Stephens is participating in a pretrial intervention program.
Beth Blakey of Flanders had requested his resignation at the April 19 BOE meeting calling for him to step down during the public portion and criticizes the board for not acting sooner.
“It is our local Board of Education’s responsibility to do something about it,” says Blakey. “Allowing Mr. Stephens to continue serving on the Board of Education sends a very dangerous message to young men and women of the Mt. Olive Twp. School District. It normalizes deviant behavior; it diminishes the importance of consent; it undermines our school district HIB policies that are reviewed and approved by the Board of Education and enforced by our teachers and administrators. It contradicts our health education curriculum and demeans our values as a community.
“Mr. Stephens needs to be held accountable and at minimum held to the same standards that we expect of the young men and women in our school system,” says Blakey. “I’m imploring the board to take action including amending the Mt. Olive School District Board of Education Code of Conduct, Code of Ethics and participation guidelines to reflect a zero-tolerance policy to any degree or criminal sexual conduct.”
Ouimet thanked Blakey for coming forward.
“I have high ethical standards,” says Ouimet, adding that she could not comment any further. “I didn’t have any knowledge of this until April 5,” she says.
Cohen says “I like to thank Beth for coming forward today as I was extremely disappointed that she is the only member of this community that is here tonight. Although I understand the legal implications of the crime, the punishment and how it is relevant with the respect of the forced resignation of this board member, I find it to be unacceptable. Sexual crimes against women are taken far more seriously today than ever before and should not be tolerated at any level. As a woman and parent of two daughters, I feel strongly against the entire issue.”
Even after Stephens’ resigned, Blakey spoke again at the April 26 meeting, reiterating her suggestion “to amend the code of ethics to better reflect the values of our community,” she says. “What happened tonight is not a cause for celebration. There’s nothing happy about this situation.”
Zywicki says Stephen’s “resignation does not absolve those who knew about this when it happened. Who even knew about it in March? It was held from the board; I’m saddened. You’re right, it’s not a cause for celebration. Systemic and endemic to this whole process was something was missing.”
The BOE, meanwhile, has been taking letters of interest to fill the vacated seat, with an interview process to follow. Stephens got elected to the school board in the November 2019 election, taking his seat in January 2020. The BOE has 65 days to fill the seat.
BOE Retreat Planned
After several requests by Gayles, the BOE has decided that it will hold its retreat this summer.
According to Gayles, five BOE members have expressed interest in a retreat, an important step “as we bond with each other to learn to become better board members,” says Gayles.
“It’s imperative that we focus on the mission,” says Gayles. “It’s the kids. They don’t really know what we do but they know we do something. They are watching. We need to get back to that as folks are watching us.
“It’s always with the kids in mind,” says Gayles. “Whatever initiative or program, does it benefit the kids? Can we afford it? And how does it affect the taxpayers? If we can answer all of those questions in the affirmative, we move forward with it. We need to get back to that. Folks are watching us.”
Gayles hopes the retreat “this summer will help us reset and refocus so that we can reestablish the trust and the transparency and the integrity that our public expects from us, that they voted us into the seats for, because I said it time and time again in closed doors and I’ll say it in public….We need to make the right decisions and the right choices by the people. So it’s important that we do what they put us in these seats to do with the utmost integrity and honor and grace.”
BOE Member Anthony Strillacci disagrees.
“I have a little different perspective,” says Strillacci. “I believe sure we will make mistakes along the way. The proof is our district today, we are rated very well; we have great facilities. We are offering a curriculum that is parallel to none to us. I believe that sure we make mistakes along the way; you bet, I don’t believe that we’ve lost the trust of the people, that they know we are doing the best we can for them. I believe our staff is doing the best for them and I take umbrage with the fact that we lost people’s trust. I just don’t believe that. I’ve been involved in a lot of tough decisions but look at how we are rated in the state and how we’re rated in the country and look at how people are talking about our district.
“We’re going to listen still to people and do everything we possibly can,” says Strillacci, “but I’m telling you right now I’m very proud of this district and what we have accomplished. I’m not going to let anybody put us down.”