WESTFIELD — A meeting of the Westfield Board of Education was gaveled to an early adjournment for the second time in as many months on Tuesday when residents refused to adhere to the board’s policies on meeting decorum.
During the final public-comment session of the calendar year, residents continued to shout over each other and call out regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, which some parents say has led to escalating incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying within the district. After attempting to regain control over the room for several minutes, Board President Sonal Patel called for a motion to end the meeting ahead of schedule, with a number of residents still waiting to speak.
Earlier on in the proceedings, the board led a brief discussion about the possibility of reducing the number of public-comment sessions at each meeting from two to one.
As things currently stand, residents are permitted to speak only on agenda items before the board takes any official action and are then allowed to speak again on any topic that they wish towards the end of each public session.
The potential consolidation of the two sessions, board member Mary Wickens said, would allow meetings to “run more smoothly” and would give residents the opportunity to address the board on any topic without having to stay for the duration of the meeting.
The suggestion was fairly ill-received by members of the board and residents alike, many of whom agreed that public comment represents an integral part of the democratic process.
“The reason that we have two sections is so that we can hear from residents before we vote. If we limit public comment to one general session, those tailored comments will get lost,” board member Brendan Galligan said. “If we were to change this policy at all, I would recommend that students and staff members be allowed to speak before other members of the public so that they can leave a little earlier.”
Board member Sahar Aziz attempted to read the Open Public Meetings Act into the record as part of the conversation, but was gaveled down by Ms. Patel for deviating from the topic at hand.
Ms. Patel then called for a five minute recess before returning to public session.
The board’s livestream was muted for the duration of the recess.
The board also introduced a new policy (55-20) on Tuesday that, if approved on final reading, would more strictly codify the rights of students to stage protests or peaceably assemble on school grounds.
“The board will not permit the conduct on school premises of any willful activity engaged in by an individual acting alone or by a group of individuals that interferes with the orderly operation of the educational program or offends the rights of others,” the policy draft states. “The board specifically prohibits any assembly or expression that materially disrupts instruction; is obscene, slanderous, or grossly prejudicial; advocates the use of dangerous or harmful materials; advocates the use of force or the violation of law or school rules; or advertises goods or services for unauthorized commercial gain.”
“There was an inquiry regarding what our student demonstration policy was, and in reviewing that information, we realized that we didn’t have one,” Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., said.
Ms. Aziz cautioned that restricting the student body’s constitutionally protected rights to free speech and assembly could open the district up to potential litigation. The policy will be presented for a second reading at an upcoming meeting of the board.
Early discussions surrounding next year’s budget also have already begun, Mr. Galligan said.
“We’re anticipating increases in transportation, special-education and insurance costs, but it’s not as bad as it could have been,” said Mr. Galligan, who serves as chair of the board’s Finance and Facilities Committee.
Next year’s budget, which will be put to a public vote in accordance with state law, also will include provisions to hire two new field-maintenance workers.
Additionally, work is progressing on the exterior renovation project at Roosevelt Intermediate School.
“We know that the façade panels are already being re-installed, so that’s good,” Mr. Galligan said, adding that work on the building is likely to finish up for the season within the coming weeks.
“There is still some work that needs to be done on the roof, but we knew that that would take some time,” Mr. Galligan said.
The board also recognized the notable achievements of some of its student athletes, performers and coaches on Tuesday evening, including Matthew Varhley, who was recently inducted into the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame; Beverly Torok, recognized as NFHS Section 1 Girls Volleyball Coach of the Year; the boys’ crosscountry team (state and sectional champions); the girls’ cross-country team (sectional champions); the girls’ volleyball team (sectional champions); the girls’ soccer team (sectional champions); and the boys’ soccer team (sectional champions).
“We always like to round out the calendar year by recognizing the achievements of our fall sports program,” Dr. González said. “We’re very proud of all of our coaches and athletes.”
The next regular meeting of the Westfield Board of Education is scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 23, 2024, in the Westfield High School cafeteria.