MULLICA TOWNSHIP — School board members spoke out for the first time Friday night in support of Superintendent Brenda Harring-Marro, defending her leadership in the face of criticism by parents and teachers who don’t want her contract renewed.
Mullica Township Education Association President Barbara Rheault said communication between MTEA members and Harring-Marro had broken down to such an extent that the board must create a board/staff relations committee so teachers and staff can get the information they need.
“We cannot move forward with the education of children at this point,” Rheault said at the school board meeting.
Board Attorney Will Donio said the board would form the committee, which is required when requested under the union contract.
Parents and teachers had attended previous meetings to complain that Harring-Marro had showed bad judgement in moving to fire tenured kindergarten teacher Kelly Mascio, after Mascio reported that two students told her they had engaged in sexual play in a class bathroom.
Harring-Marro also was criticized for making changes that critics said had resulted in poorer test scores and loss of staff and programs.
In response, board member Joy Wyld presented information showing that involuntary transfers among teaching staff are common in most school districts; board member Vickie Tomasco shared data on how the district is saving money through privatization of the cafeteria and afterschool program; and board member Susan Brownhill gave a talk on how declines in test scores were related to changes in state tests and predated Harring-Marro’s tenure. She said the district performs at about the state average or slightly above in most measures.
Brownhill also described how the gifted and talented program is being restructured, not ended, and shared data showing teachers are retiring in large numbers all over the nation and state, not just in the township.
“In summary, complaints against the superintendent are factually inaccurate,” board President Mia Jones said. “We may not agree on all decisions, but we listen and reflect. ... There is no just cause to justify firing Dr. Harring-Marro.”
Jones said the district is nearing the end of the least contentious round of contract negotiations with teachers and staff in 10 years, and taxes have been flat under Harring-Marro, the former Mullica Township Middle School principal who became superintendent in 2010.
Board member Bob Stollenwerk, the only member of the nine-member board who did not vote to certify tenure charges against Mascio in February, said the board still needs to figure out how to win back the trust of the community.
“My concern is where is the disconnect, and how to address the disconnect,” he said. “The data says one thing, public perception says another. How to fix that is the main issue.”
Also at the meeting, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Karen Gfroehrer gave a presentation on the proposed $10.1 million school budget, which raises $3.6 million in a tax levy and keeps the tax rate virtually flat. The 2014 spending plan eliminates separate principals for the elementary and middle schools, replacing them with one principal and one vice principal for both schools together.
In a letter read by his wife, Lisa, former board member Walter Lyons questioned why Harring-Marro and the board are ending the job of Elementary School Principal Jeanine Middleton and giving the job of principal for both schools (which will require a waiver from the county schools superintendent) to Middle School Principal Matthew Mazzoni.
Mazzoni is the person who filed an incorrect police report in September, stating the children involved in sexual play in Mascio’s classroom were naked when found by Mascio, when in fact they were fully clothed. Although the report was sent to the school, it was never corrected. News reports relied on the police report and included the incorrect information until the tenure charges were made public at a Feb. 26 board meeting, and it was clear the police report was wrong.
No one from the district has been able to clarify why the police report contained wrong information, or why it was not corrected in a timely manner.
Mascio’s tenure hearing in front of a state arbitrator is set for May 7. The arbitrator will decide if she should lose her job over her failure to supervise her students and prevent two children from entering a bathroom together for a period of at least five minutes last September, according to the tenure charges.
The MTEA took a no-confidence vote in Harring-Marro in March and is requesting her contract not be renewed. In addition, more than 700 residents signed a petition in support of Mascio and asking the board not to renew Harring-Marro’s contract, although some signers alleged later they thought it was only in support of Mascio.
The school tax rate will remain about $1.248 per $100 valuation, for a school tax bill of $1,448 on the average home valued at $116,000.
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