Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio told the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, July 27, that Verona’s public schools are planning to be “full day every day” when schools reopen in September but said that the district will await guidance from the Montclair Board of Health on whether or not students will need to be masked. The Montclair government agency has provided health guidance to Verona’s schools throughout the pandemic.
Joe Higgins, Verona’s director of facilities said the installation of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in the four elementary schools and H.B. Whitehorne Middle School is nearing completion. He also said the district had to ask PSE& G to install new transformers at Forest Avenue, F.N. Brown and HBW to accommodate the systems. Verona voters approved air conditioning at all six schools as part of the 2019 referendum. The work at Verona High School was completed last year, but the other five projects were held up by manufacturing and installation delays caused by the pandemic.
Dr. Dionisio announced the appointment of Laura Palmerezzi, the coach of VHS’ boys cross country and track teams since 2008, as the district’s new director of athletics and special programs. She succeeds Bob Merkler, who was named assistant principal at VHS earlier in July. Palmerezzi is the first woman to be director of athletics in Verona.
The superintendent also spoke broadly about hiring for Verona schools. He said that since he came to the district in 2014 he has worked to develop a consistent process for both administrative and teaching positions. The district posts available positions on several education-specific job boards and sometimes on NJ.com, although Dr. Dionisio said the latter is expensive. There are several rounds of screening before candidates are referred to an interview committee comprised of administrators and sometimes teachers, which recommends the top candidates to the superintendent.
When the meeting opened for public comments, there were a series of pointed comments from the audience about the end of the live streaming of BOE meetings and a lack of diversity in the hiring of teachers and administrators, which several said could leave students ill-prepared for the workplace in the future.
Denise Verzella said she had analyzed hiring since 2014 and found that no non-white women had been hired during that time and that positions were overwhelmingly filled by white men. “There needs to be an examination of the underlying hiring practices and prejudices, unconscious or not, that are part of the hiring process,” said Verzella, who noted that she has both a Black and a white daughter.
Danit Brahver said she grew up in Teaneck, a public school system that “got it right” on diversity and had teachers from many different backgrounds. “The teaching and administrative staff in Verona does not reflect the growing diversity of its student body,” she said, “and the selective promotion of white cis men in our school system is harming all of our kids.” (Cis is shorthand for cisgender, which is a person whose gender identity matches their identified sex at birth.)
Karen Andre, a Black student athlete who graduated VHS in June, said that out of the 24 teachers she had during her time in school, only three were people of color. “While I was lucky enough to have teachers who advocated for racial justice, taught about Black history and educated students about systemic racism today,” she said, “it did not make up for the fact that I never had a teacher that looked like me to fully understand.”
When the public comment session closed, Dr. Dionisio thanked those who had spoken up. “I know we all took notes here and we appreciate the feedback,” he said. “And we will certainly take it into consideration and we thank you for everything that you share.” Dr. Dionisio, a first-generation American who did not speak English until he entered kindergarten, also said that the district would be re-starting its diversity, equity and inclusion committee and would be sending out an email to see if other community members want to serve on it. He also said that Verona would participate in additional new teacher job fairs, which are typically scheduled in January and February.
But several people in the audience were not happy that the BOE had not responded to their questions and began to shout over closing remarks by board President Lisa Freschi and member Sara Drappi. “I would like to just remind the public that our board meetings are for the board in front of the public, it is not a back and forth,” Drappi said. “We are listening to your comments. I’m going to continue to speak. If you would like to listen, you’re welcome to. We’re going to take your comments and we will discuss it and then we can report on them at the next meeting.”
You can watch the full meeting in the BOE channel on YouTube.