By JENNIFER GLACKIN For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — Many residents came to the microphone during the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s Westfield Board of Education meeting to read excerpts from “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, which was on the agenda as part of an elective entitled American Studies. The class currently is running at the high school and the curriculum was on the agenda as part of a cyclical review. American Studies is a full-year elective that connects social studies and literature to “explore the experience of individuals and groups from the post-World War I period to the present,” according to the curriculum posted on the district website.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “Native Son” by Richard Wright also are among the works listed for the course. According to the curriculum, “The Bluest Eye” is used “while analyzing the causes and the powerful effects of internalized racism on an individual and on a community.”
Camille Prip, whose son currently is reading the book as part of a class, expressed concerns that the book’s graphic depiction of incest and of a pedophile’s internal thoughts could disturb students who have been victims of similar issues or other types of sexual assault. “I don’t believe in book banning. I think this book is fine as elected reading for adults at the college level. The proper place for this book is just not in the high school,” said Ms. Prip.
The American Studies course was approved in 2016, according to Board President Amy Root, and was on Tuesday’s agenda for a first reading as part of the review cycle. Ms. Root said the curriculum is similar to what was passed in 2016 and includes the same books as the previously-approved curriculum. All course curriculums have a two-part approval process, with the board needing to pass it on both a first and second reading.
Board member Leila Morelli said she does not have a problem with the course but has questions about “The Bluest Eye.” She said she would like more information from the teachers and suggested the board table the curriculum. The motion to table was officially made by board member Gretchan Ohlig. Tabling the curriculum passed with a vote of 5 to 2. Sahar Aziz and Ms. Root voted not to table. Ms. Ohlig, Ms. Morelli, Sonal Patel, Tara Oporto and Brendan Galligan voted to table. Michael Bielen and Robert Garrison were absent. The rest of the curriculum courses passed with unanimous votes.
The meeting also addressed the continued discussions about full-day kindergarten. Ms. Ohlig, chairperson of the Long-Range Planning Committee, reported that just prior to the pandemic the district had been looking into private space that could be leased, but those options are no longer available.
Ms. Ohlig also reported the overall cost of constructing new classrooms to accommodate the additional students in a full-day kindergarten program “have increased substantially.” In August of 2019, The Westfield Leader reported the proposed cost of new construction was estimated to be $11.86 million. The cost is now estimated to be roughly between $14 million and $18 million. Recent inflation of building materials was cited as the reason for the increase.
Business Administrator Dana Sullivan confirmed that estimate later in the meeting and added that the operating budget would need an additional $3 million to accommodate the staff needed for the program, which would then continually increase the operating budget in the years following due to increasing salaries and health benefit costs.
The continuing conversation about full-day kindergarten will coincide with budget projections for the next few years and a facilities review Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D. is undertaking with the district administrators, added Ms. Ohlig.
Residents also addressed the board with their concerns about the Edison Fields Project, namely the additional traffic, nighttime lights and possible health and safety effects of artificial turf fields. The cost of turf fields rather than natural grass also was an expressed concern. Resident Steve Kircher said the project is not about field capacity, as the town council claims. Mr. Kircher added that if the project was about field capacity, “the town would rebuild and properly maintain” four low-quality school fields for an “approximate cost of $1.6 million, not $9 million” so they can be used.
On a separate matter, Judi Lynch, president of the Westfield Association of Educational Secretaries, said, “On behalf of our members, I would like the Westfield community to know that the secretaries have been working without a contract since July 1 of this year.” Ms. Lynch said they look forward to working with the board and their negotiator to come to a fair agreement.