WESTFIELD — Westfield residents filled the board room and stood in the hallway during Tuesday night’s board of education meeting, where concerns were raised regarding the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) curriculum, school-masking policies, and the Edison Field Project.
In a 5-to-4 vote, the board opted to table the district goals presented by Superintendent Raymond Gonzalez, Ed.D. As previously reported by The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times, the four proposed district goals included a safe return to school, student achievement, professional development and clear communication with the community. Tabling the motion was first presented by board member Tara Oporto.
Ms. Oporto asked Dr. Gonzalez for more information on the recently-implemented Responsive Classroom program. Dr. Gonzalez said he did not have the specifics in front of him and would be able to provide an update at a later date. Ms. Oporto said she would like more information on the professional development for the Responsive Classroom program before voting on the program as part of the district’s professional development goal.
Residents voiced concern about previous professional development training in the district, particularly in regards to DEI. James Lucarelli said there were three different teacher trainings on diversity in the last school year while students were “floundering” during the pandemic school year. He asked why the board spent so much money on this particular style of training.
There also were many comments on the differentiation between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Critical Race Theory. Robert Benacchio, who is one of the candidates running for a seat on the BOE, said, “We want it (DEI) to mean diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not division, exclusion, and indoctrination.”
Another BOE candidate, Emily Barker, made a similar statement. “Teaching children about different cultures is very different than teaching that one race is better or worse than another or that one race is an oppressor,” she said.
The New Jersey mask mandate also was a point of concern for some residents. Gregg Mele, who is a Libertarian candidate running for Governor of New Jersey, spoke at the request of parents in the district, he said. Mr. Mele said there was no “appreciable benefit” to wearing masks and urged the board to follow the example of other towns and write a letter to Governor Phil Murphy urging him to reconsider the mask mandate.
BOE candidate Mary Wickens gave the opposite view in her comments, thanking the board for “following the science” and following the mask mandate.
Those in the crowd made their objections known during multiple interruptions through the course of the three and a half hour meeting. Dr. Gonzalez told the assembled that he appreciates the passion for education within the community. He said there will be other forums for community input and discussion. Dr. Gonzalez pointed to the webinars from school principals that occurred over the last week as an example of possible forum.
The Edison Field project, a proposed 400,000-square-foot athletic complex with turf fields and lights, brought many residents to the microphone. The environmental impact of the chemically-produced turf was a point voiced by many speakers.
Resident Norm Yang, a retired chemical engineer, said, “artificial turf has many hazardous chemicals” and “there’s an increasing amount of evidence” that artificial turf will cause health risks. Many residents recommended updating the current Edison fields, and others around town in need of repair, with new grass instead of turf.
In addition to chemical concerns, residents raised the issue of increased traffic and exacerbated parking issues. With Kehler Stadium, Edison Intermediate School, Lincoln Early Childhood Center and Tamaques Elementary School all within a few blocks, the neighborhood is already a high-traffic area, residents said.
Quality of life was another matter brought to the board’s attention. Jan Amici, a retired pharmaceutical and research scientist, said there are biological responses, such as inflammation, to noise and light irritants, which would increase if the project goes through.
Board member Gretchan Ohlig pointed out that while the board did sign a letter of intent with the town to begin exploring the project, it is not a formal agreement. It was a “willingness to allow the town to enter into a conversation with the public,” because Westfield Public Schools owns the field. Ms. Oporto agreed with Ms. Ohlig, saying the letter of intent is “non-binding.”
In other news, the board approved a new four-year contract with the Westfield Education Association (WEA). The agreement was created after three sessions, said Board Vice President Brendan Galligan, who thanked the teacher representatives, Business Administrator Dana Sullivan and Personnel Director Barbara Ball, their respective teams, and the board members for working together. The WEA’s “initial proposals were very reasonable, which allowed us to reach a consensus as quickly as we did,” said Mr. Galligan.