Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pequannock Board of Ed on Ethics Charges: Bring it On!

Pequannock's residents have been in a heated battle with their own Board of Education over large cuts made to the district's once exemplary music program.  Joe Phalon covered the issue for the Suburban Trends previously, while this website provided a more personal perspective.

In the aftermath of Monday night's acrimonious Board of Education Meeting, it has been difficult to determine what progress if any has been made, but a single message rang out loud and clear: Bring it on!

Here you can see that Quigley and Nuccetelli are dismayed
by Muzzio's interruption.  Quigley bites her lip, probably
on a snappy response.  Nuccetelli holds her hand
almost over her mouth, which is no coincidence
Muzzio in the left frame delivers his ultimatum to the public
"Bring it on!"  Then, on the right, he recoils from
what he's said, because he lacks confidence in it.
The shocking moments were caught on video: over 3 hours in, just before the close of the meeting, 3 Board of Education Members chose to respond to ethics allegations that have been raised by numerous people both on Facebook and in person.  Their response?  Literally, "Bring it on!"

Board of Education President Kim Quigley lead the charge stating, "...it costs the district money by our counsel to represent us and if its something that you want to do you'd better have the financial resources and the counsel to represent yourself..."  Ominously, Quigley threatened that, "...if you file a frivolous charge and it's found out to be frivolous, there's some serious implications to that."  Throughout her speech, which did not appear rehearsed, Quigley gripped the microphone tightly with one hand and looked down several times.  Quigley confessed that last year's Board of Education, of which she was also President, was "Divided" and "Divisive," quickly adding that they were no longer.

Trustee Doug Muzzio interjected quickly after this, to the apparent annoyance of Quigley.  Muzzio stated that his "Brooklyn born instinct" was telling him to say [to the threat of ethics charges], "Bring it on!"  He then pushed away from the desk and microphone and again angrily called out, "See how it works, bring it on!"

Long time Board of Education Member Bill Sayre spoke next, disclosing apparently in response to online comments, that he had been a Band Parent and that 4 of his children had been through the music program.  He cited a fiduciary responsibility to cut the full-time music faculty positions.

The choice of Quigley and Muzzio to speak about the potential for ethics charges, especially in a manner clearly intended to dissuade would-be filers and which at times bordered on intimidation was surprising, as Board Counsel Isabel Machado was available to speak throughout.

Since the announcement that Pequannock's Board of Education was moving to cut music faculty positions, there has been discussion of ethics charges both online and off.*  Those seeking an ethics investigation have cited Board violations in 2 key paragraphs of the New Jersey School Board Member Code of Ethics.  The first paragraph they cite reads:

  • "I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools which meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex or social standing."  Members of the public have argued that the broad cuts to the music program made recently constitute a violation of the "individual needs of all children" clause above, specifically since children who are differently-abled or who suffer from social anxieties might thrive in the music program in ways in which they might not excel in the districts sundry taxpayer-funded sports programs.
  • Others have suggested that Pequannock Board of Education Members have violated the public trust by failing to consult relevant stakeholders to the music program, a requirement which each and every Board of Education Member swore to explicitly in their oath of office: "I will confine my board action to policymaking, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them."

The process to bring about an ethics investigation is simple: A member of the public need simply fill out a form on this website, sign it under oath, be sure to reference the date of the ethics violations (probably the date of the Board's vote to cut the music faculty), and specifically reference which paragraphs of the ethical code were violated.

Quigley's assertion that an ethics violation need be costly was incorrect, as ethics investigations tend to be relatively straightforward with the complainant responding within 20 days of being served, and the School Ethics Commission ruling subsequently.  Ethics investigations typically do not require much, if any, time from the district Counsel.  It's not like a trial where people are in court for multiple days and many are settled with no verbal testimony whatsoever.

Quigley also implied that ethics complaint filers would need to hire an attorney.  That is completely false.

Quigley took pains to suggest that the Board might claim that any ethics complaints filed were frivolous.  That's not likely to hold up as the School Ethics Commission defines a frivolous complaint as:

  • Commenced, used or continued in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury; or
  • One which the complainant knew, or should have known, was without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.

As long as ethics filers believe their complaints are valid and are sure to carefully and specifically explain which paragraphs of the ethics code they believe were violated, an accusation of making frivolous claims is unlikely.

An ethics complaint in this case would not be a bad thing either.  The Pequannock Board of Education has been remarkably deaf to the will of the people in the matter of the music program and has willfully taken a contemptuous and aggressive position, epitomized by the comments of the Board Members at Monday's meeting and Muzzio's arrogant "Bring it on!"  An ethics investigation would level the playing field, empowering voters and ensuring that both parties' arguments are considered objectively by an independent authority.  Should the ethics complaint succeed, it is likely that the Board of Education would have to revisit the music program issue in the short-term and would not be able to delay the matter to the 2016-17 school year as they are already suggesting.

New Jersey School Board Ethics complaints also tend to be highly effective:

Like any other legal recourse, ethics charges brought against Board of Education Members are a tool.  Public comment at meetings is a tool, but the Pequannock Board of Education has worked to stymie that.  Elections are a tool, but the Pequannock Board of Education has moved its own election and appointed its own members twice in recent in memory.  The fact that 150 angry people showed up and that many got in line to comment at the Board of Education Meeting strongly suggests that they do not feel that their voice is otherwise heard.  The fact that members of the public are considering filing ethics complaints is evidence that other means of making themselves heard have failed.

The appropriate question is not "How can we scare people out of filing ethics complaints?" but, "Why do so many voters feel so disenfranchised by the school district?"

*Full disclosure, this author has made it pretty clear he would support an ethics investigation.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer.  My knowledge of school board law extends to the research I've done for articles like this.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Editor: Pequannock Board of Education Eviscerates Music Program

The Pequannock Board of Education just cut down 2 full-time music faculty positions to part-time positions.  This will render the Marching and Concert Bands without effective leadership immediately and within an estimated 5 years will end the music program entirely at Pequannock schools.

Let's be clear, which is important in cases like this: the vote to reduce two full-time music faculty positions to part-time was unanimous.  Kimberley Quigley, Matt Tengi, Sam Ciresi, James Farrell , Dr. Doug Muzzio, Tom Salerno, William Sayre, Vincent Siracusa, and Dr. Richard Thumann each individually voted to reduce those roles, despite the undeniable damage to our music program.

Here's what I am asking each and every reader within driving distance of Pequannock: Go food shopping.  Go shopping at Stop & Shop, go to church if you're inclined, eat at the Pompton Queen, and go about your daily business.  Do the things you always do, but when you're returning a book at the library and you run into Board President, Kim Quigley, politely ask her how she could possibly short-change our students by voting to cut the music program.  When you see BoE Vice President Matt Tengi buying pastries at Stop & Shop, which are quite good, ask him, always politely, why he feels that against all evidence, music skills do not improve math skills (the M in STEM).   Pequannock is a small town.  We the people have to live with the consequences of the decisions of the Board of Education Members, so why should they be afraid to answer a simple, polite question about their position?  Who knows, maybe once they present their reasons, you'll walk away convinced of their correctness.  Just politely ask Board Members for clarification of their position, that's all I ask.  -- (Note: We've repeatedly asked questions, over and over again, at Board of Education Meetings during Public Comment and the Board nearly always refuses to answer.)

The Pequannock Marching and Concert Bands, along with the Choir, Jazz Band, and other ensembles, have been a shining beacon in the region's high school music competitions since time immemorial.  The trophies, medals, and plaques earned by conservatively 3 generations of Pequannock students over some 40 years can and do fill a wall, but it's not about achievement.  As strange as it may sound, the music program is not about achievement at all, it's about excellence.  Trophies are an outward sign of excellence, but equally so are Volunteerism, Community Spirit, Leadership, Diligence, Respect, and Discipline.  If you wrote a curriculum for the Pequannock music program from scratch, those signs of excellence, not music education, is what you'd end up teaching.  Volunteerism, Community Spirit, Leadership, Diligence, Respect, and Discipline; cut the music program and you are cutting these ideals out of the heart of our community.

I know this because I am not naturally skilled at music.  My parents encouraged me to play the clarinet in Middle School with Mr. Piekart and later Mr. Venezia as my teachers.  By encouraged I mean that I wanted a trumpet, or drums, or a sax, but was issued a clarinet (I think the payment plan helped), and that was that.  I was... well, I was 3rd clarinet (mostly because there was no 4th clarinet) for quite a while.  When I got into High School I briefly tried my hand at drums (an unmitigated disaster), then moved on to... Bassoon?  "Why the Bassoon?" you may ask.  Well, our Band Director, Mr. Rick Summers, needed a Bassoonist for the Jaws Theme during Concert Band and I was washing out at nearly every other instrument put in front of me.  ...and there is no shame in that.  Literally, there is no shame in that, because while the band needed musicality, or "excellent musicians," it accepted anyone willing to work hard towards that goal and to pursue excellence, regardless of musical ability.  During the worst points of my High School musical career, I helped load heavy percussion equipment with the "Sidelines" and at the least could fill a space on the field at a Marching Band show, even if some of the more complex musical parts left me somewhat mute.  Thank goodness for all of that too, because later I would take up trumpet (finally!), and make friends which I still have to this day.

I'll say it again, I am not naturally skilled at music, but I was willing to load equipment, to show up for practices throughout the Summer, the last week of August, weekday afternoons throughout the school year, and Saturday mornings.  I showed up at every football game to play with the Pep Band (a requirement) and gave up a huge amount of time to competitions.  As a High School student, I had much less "free time" than other students because of the music program.  To this day I remember marching endlessly across "practice fields" that were nearly entirely dirt, the smell of it drifting in the air mixed with cut grass and diesel.  I remember all the times Mr. Summers would say something like, "Guys, it's raining!  Quick, put your instruments inside with your uniform jackets, then get back out here so we can go through the show 2 more times!" (He did say "Guys" a lot.)  I also remember how many times we'd be asked to go through the show "one more time" (it was often around 3!).  

I guess what I'm saying is, a lot of us would appreciate it if the Board of Education would fund full-time positions for music faculty at the High School because it would allow dedicated students to work endlessly in all sorts of weather with little thanks and for no material gain, all in pursuit of excellence.  We don't need the Board of Education to show up to shows.  We don't need the Superintendent at competitions.  Sorry, Board of Education, we don't need you!  All we need is for you not to cut the legs out from under the music program like you're doing.

Of course, the High School Music Program needs to pull its weight financially... and indeed it always has!  The Band Parents have worked with students for decades to raise funds for band trips, uniforms, equipment, and to help pay for the financial necessities of those students who have less.  Yes, that's right, in addition to paying for the majority of their own equipment, due to the generosity of its members I have never heard of a student being turned away from a trip due to lack of financial resources.

None of this is possible without skilled and dedicated full time directors for the music program.  This has traditionally consisted of 3 to 4 positions: Band Director, Choir Director, Orchestra Director, and at times Assistant Band Director.  The Board of Education has not eliminated the music program, but has instead instituted a series of changes which even the layperson can instantly see are detrimental to the future of the program.  The music offering has been reduced with both orchestra and the jazz band eliminated entirely.  Other music courses are now scheduled at the same time, or in conflict with honors and AP courses, preventing students from enrolling as a result.  Now, the Board of Education has decided to reduce 2 full time music faculty positions to part time and they'd have us believe this is the result of declining interest, not the slow process of ham-stringing the program they've been complicit in.

More baffling, several members of the Board of Education who voted to cut the music program have benefited greatly from the music program themselves.  One Board Member has had 2 children go on to Area Band, which is quite an honor.  That information is a matter of public record, though I've been asked not to name the individuals involved.  Board Member Tom Salerno played viola in the orchestra while he attended Pequannock High School and was very vocal about his opposition to the elimination of the orchestra program before he was elected to the Board.  His position appears now to have shifted.

Compounding the entire issue, the Pequannock Board of Education has been spectacularly uncommunicative about the cuts they've made.  No Board of Education Member will agree to speak publicly about their vote, leading to more than a few rumors of collusion.  Reasonably, I presumed that some standing gag order existed to prevent Board of Education Members from speaking to the public, but former Board of Education Member Ken Hardaker asserts that this is not the case and that no such gag order exists (of course the Board of Education could neither confirm nor deny this).  Some have been quick to blame the Interim Superintendent, Maria Nuccetelli, who is retired with a pension of over $130,000.00 but is employed by Pequannock through a legal loophole at a rate of $157,500.00 annually.

Technically, Nuccetelli isn't actually the problem, since it appears that she's been brought in solely to eliminate the Latin, Orchestra, and Band programs so that Pequannock can create a STEM academy designed to attract lucrative out of district students, elevate test scores, and potentially apply for State and Federal subsidies funded by taxpayers.  To put a fine point on it, Nuccetelli may or may not be here after July, but you can bet whomever the Pequannock Board of Education hires as Superintendent in 2015-16 will coincidentally also share the Board's goals of eliminating the music program and creating a STEM academy.

It's easy to see why residents, busy raising kids, having careers, and trying to pay off a mortgage, might quickly become fatigued by the unquestionably tangled politics of Pequannock's school system.  That's a big part of the problem.  The entire situation described above does not even begin to convey the whole of how we got to this point.  I've left out the part where the Board of Ed moved its own election, coincidentally eliminating public input on school budgets in the process.  Or how on occasion, the Pequannock Board of Education appoints its own members rather than even bothering with an election -- (TWICE), and just all around subverts the democratic process wherever convenient. This article is pages long and yet somehow I still haven't even touched on that.

If you've read this far, thanks for joining me in some nostalgia and kudos to you for seeking to become an informed constituent (it's not easy!).  If you want my advice, here it is: Put your kids in a school with a robust music program and ensure that they learn an instrument.  The effort is well worth the payoff.  If you feel inclined to get involved in Pequannock's Board of Education politics, sign all the petitions, write letters to the Board of Education, write newspaper letters to the editor, and show up at Board of Education Meetings, not because it will help, but because it can't hurt.  If you have a mind, help keep the Board of Education Members accountable by submitting an Open Public Records Request for records related to their elimination of the music program.  Finally, file an ethics complaint against the current Board Members, because they sure don't represent you or me.

Thanks for former Pequannock Band Director Rick Summers for uploading a ton of Pequannock Band Competition videos at this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_eAlO5BhGO5ixMtchpBv5A