Letter: Civility, Support Needed In School Discussions

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Dear Editor:

I have been a Verona resident for the past 17 years. I have three children who have gone through the Verona Public Schools, two are still in the high school. I have been an active member of the community having served on Verona’s Budget Review Committee, spent eight years as an SCA Board of Education Liaison, which led to a three-year term as a Board of Education member. Also during that time I was the Executive Director for a Montessori preschool in town, created and operated a Kindergarten Enrichment Program through the Montclair YMCA, received my Master’s degree in Teaching, taught elementary and middle school for Newark Public Schools, and I currently hold an administrative position in another district. I only offer my background as the basis to show my community involvement and that I am an educated professional in the area of education.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter. Our small community is in turmoil. People are angry and thereby lacking respect for one another. These are obviously unprecedented times for all. While our entire nation is in a divisive state, so is small town Verona. Most of the divisiveness seems to be aimed at administrative decisions made within our public schools during this global pandemic.

Things are tough. People are out of jobs. People have gotten sick and died. There is no doubt that teachers’ jobs have gotten even harder than ever before. And there is no doubt that the education of our youth is at risk. The world as we know it has changed. We can kick and scream, cry and complain, but that may only soothe temporarily. I agree with the voices I hear that say we need something more sustainable; we need to work together to find viable solutions; we need a plan that works for our town. All the while knowing that no plan or solution will ever appease everyone. Truthfully, there is no good plan. The phrase you don’t want to hear in education is “winging it”, but right now it’s trial and error. It’s a sign of the times; unprecedented times.

We all want solutions. But I think the masses are going about it the wrong way. Parental involvement and questions at Board of Education meetings are a must. Anger, disrespect, blame, and egos should be left at home (or at least off the Zoom call). Particularly, disrespect from one educational leader to another. Someone who is well aware how difficult this situation is for all, regardless of what may be working in another district. As we’ve all come to learn, not all Merv filters are created equal.

Now more than ever, our children need our support. Now more than ever, our teachers need our support. Now more than ever, our administrative team needs our support. As a school administrator myself, I assure you that decisions are not being made in a vacuum. Stakeholders are involved. Scenarios and options are talked about, questioned, and planned, incessantly, and can also change in any given moment. There are so many logistics to opening a school. And each school and their community are different. Stop comparing us to surrounding districts. We are not them. Trust your educational leaders who are feverishly playing this never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole on a daily basis. When you think you solve one problem, three more are bound to pop up. Hindsight is super clear for everyone. Instead of badgering and insulting them, offer them space and grace. At the end of the day, they have the best interests of the student body, as a whole, at the forefront of their minds. Their job is not to please parents, it is to educate and keep children safe. Offer them space and grace. Space to do their jobs; and grace to let them figure things out.

Warm Regards,
Michele Bernardino

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1 COMMENT

  1. As I’ve followed everything on-going in Verona regarding education, the BOE, and the long list of challenges we face – there is a common theme.

    Communication.

    In the end, we must find a way to effectively communicate with one another. This goes beyond, of course, the administration (which operates, as should be pointed out, uniquely compared to the actual BOE).

    This said, people want to be informed. Setting clear standards of how things will be communicated, following up on promised communication and being transparent are all of the highest priority.

    We aren’t going to have everyone agree – and that’s ok. This said, within communication, we must also be mindful of showcasing empathy in line with the facts of the matter.

    So, yes, I would love to see people come together. I also recognize – that in some cases – the outspoken parent whom even I don’t agree with – sometimes drives change, as they force a matter into the public.

    And in this, social media [which by many has been suggested to be] is not the enemy – it’s an outlet just as much as word of mouth to share one’s thoughts/questions/concerns. What is important, however, is that we continue to remind people (and I do think this is happening better now than it was a few months ago) that social media can be a great place to share thoughts/feedback and to even organize [groups are an exceptional tool for this] – but we must be present at these meetings.

    On the other side, when people come to the meetings, voices need to be heard so it’s on the public record (which emails are not).

    In the end, while I agree with much of what is said [teachers, administrators, children, AND parents do need support] – I don’t honestly believe most people think decisions are made in a vacuum. Not everyone’s approach is perfect – but in the end, I remain confident we’ll all come out of this ok – because we are just that, a community. If we focus on the facts of the situation and communicate them effectively, I’m optimistic.

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