Westfield BOE Hears Concerns About Social Media; Debuts Budget

By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — Controversial social-media posts made by Westfield Board of Education (BOE) Vice President Sahar Aziz are still causing friction within the district. On Tuesday, the debate over individual expression and the responsibilities of public office picked up where it left off when several members of the public took to the podium to demand accountability as part of the public-comment section of a regular meeting of the board.

As was the case during the BOE’s meeting held on February 8, the comments pertained to posts that Ms. Aziz, a Rutgers University Law professor, re-tweeted via her social-media page. The comments in question extolled Pro-Palestinian sentiments and have been viewed by many in the community as having anti-Semitic undertones.

“I was shocked and appalled by the sideshow spectacle that was allowed to go on by this entire BOE,” resident Kyle George said, referring to a group of non-Westfield residents who came out to show their support for Ms. Aziz during the last meeting. Although the district’s bylaws allow anyone, regardless of residency, to speak for three minutes at a time during public comment on any subject that they choose, Mr. George said the board failed to intervene when things got out of control.

“This BOE allowed a parade of commentators to come in and turn [the meeting] into a political rally,” Mr. George continued, noting that he and many other residents who had been “upset and ostracized” by the comments felt that their voices, unlike those of Ms. Aziz’s supporters, were falling on deaf ears. In addition, Mr. George said, Ms. Aziz, who left Tuesday night’s meeting at the beginning of the public-comment period, further exacerbated the situation by responding to criticism in an unprofessional manner.

“Ms. Aziz was allowed to sit there unabated for 10 minutes and dismiss legitimate and tangible concerns. From the dais, she called [residents] either directly or through allusion Islamophobic, sexists, misogynists, etc.,” Mr. George said. “This is not about her identity; that assertion is unbelievable. This is about the ideas that she propagates and how they affect her ability to govern a school district for all children. Remember, we’ve had swastikas in Westfield High School. The BOE VP re-tweets about Israel being an apartheid state all the time, says ‘from the river to the sea’ is a call for unity, and yet parents are told that their concerns have no merit by the BOE. While I may be the one up here speaking, I know I am not the only one who feels this way.”

Although Ms. Aziz did not mention or respond to comments about the incident on Tuesday, she did share her thoughts on responsible social-media usage as it pertains to the general student body.

“This is a conversation that comes up, time and time again, because it’s something we all struggle with — adults as well as children,” she said after suggesting that the district may want to bring in an outside speaker to address the issue with younger students who typically get their first phones in or around the seventh grade. “Maybe social media might be too broad of a category, but communication via electronic means can create…it’s the type of thing where you write things that you would never say to someone’s face.”

“Social media has been an issue in this district since MySpace,” Board President Brendan Galligan said.

Following public outcry and an editorial by The Westfield Leader, Ms. Aziz amended her Twitter profile to include the phrase “RT [Re-tweets] not endorsement.” She has not publicly acknowledged her social media activity in any other way.

In response to public comment, Mr. Galligan later remarked on Tuesday, “I think we were all overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who chose to speak at the last meeting. We are elected to represent the parents and the taxpayers and students in Westfield, but from time to time we all do have something on our mind that we want to say, and Sahar took her opportunity last week to exercise that. I may not agree with what she said, but it was her right to say it. I hope that if I have something controversial that I want to get off my chest in the future, you guys all give me the same opportunity.”

Mr. Galligan paused before adding, “I don’t plan on doing that, but we all have that right.”

The board also introduced a preliminary $116,914,163 budget for the 2022-2023 school year that calls for a 1-percent increase in the tax levy, which roughly translates to an additional $103 in school-tax obligation per household.

“We have received information regarding our state aid for next year and just as a preview, it’s good for us, so we’re very happy about that, but we also received more refined health-benefit projections for next year,” Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., said. He added that while the projections are “better than originally anticipated,” they still represent a significant challenge for the district in terms of overall obligation.

This year’s state-aid packages, which were revealed earlier this week, indicate that Westfield is slated to receive an additional $1,069,093 in financial assistance this year, bringing this year’s total allocation to $6,583,617, up from $5,514,524 last year.

Despite the increases, Dr. González said that the district will likely still have to make staffing cuts in order to rectify a $2-million gap between its projected expenses and its available resources. The majority of the district’s spending, he said, is traditionally allocated to “human resources” such as salaries and health insurance. While teachers in the district average $63,127 per year, administrator salaries come in at more than twice that, with an average of $150,000 across nine different positions. Dr. González, meanwhile, draws an annual salary of $231,540.

Dr. González also announced on Tuesday that the district will make additional changes to its emergency protocols based on the latest pandemic guidelines provided by the state.

“The Westfield Public Schools district will no longer actively conduct contact tracing for all staff and students except for pre-kindergarteners who are still ineligible to receive the vaccine,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “I do want to underscore that that was a direct recommendation from all of our health-care professionals in coming to this decision. Covid-positive individuals will still be required to isolate per the most recent guidance, and those who self-report or identify themselves as close contact should follow the quarantine guidelines. As always, our school nurses and staff remain ready to help families navigate the isolation and quarantine requirements.”

The next meeting of the Westfield Board of Education will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 22, in the Westfield High School cafeteria.

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