OCEAN CITY — Chris Halliday may have spoken too soon.
The president of the Ocean City Board of Education closed the February meeting saying he was happy to leave the divisions of the past year behind.
“It seems like we’re moving past certain things that were distractions over the previous year,” Halliday said.
After the meeting, he said he was referring to arguments over state education standards that roiled the district in 2022 and were a major campaign issue in November.
At the next meeting, set for 7 p.m. March 16 in the Ocean City High School library at 501 Atlantic Ave., members who were elected last year plan to revisit the issue.
Robin Shaffer said he and two other school board members, Catherine Panico and Liz Nicoletti, plan to seek a vote on a new resolution stating the board “strongly disapproves” of the new state standards, which include standards on sexual education and gender identity that have proven deeply controversial.
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He described it as the “protecting our children” resolution.
In the November election, the three campaigned on challenging the standard, which the Ocean City school board accepted by a one-vote margin the previous summer.
The standards, and the trio’s campaign, drew demonstrations on both sides, with critics of the standards arguing they would bring sexual matters best left to parents into classrooms at far too early an age, while some students, parents and community members countered that the district risked further marginalizing gay and transgender youth who deserved support and acceptance.
“The standards promote age-inappropriate sexual content which infringes on a parent’s ability to determine whether a child is emotionally and intellectually prepared for sex education,” reads a copy of the resolution released by Shaffer.
He had planned to bring the resolution forward at the February meeting but later said there were other matters at the meeting that took precedence, including the appointment of a high school principal and athletic director.
Matt Friedman, appointed superintendent of the district last year, said approval of the resolution would not change how the district implements the standards, or the district curriculum that is based on them.
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“A resolution presents the opinion of the board. That is all it does,” Freidman said.
A change in policy would require a more formal vote, he said, including an introduction, advertisement and a final vote.
While the board narrowly voted to accept the standards, according to the Department of Education, school districts do not have much choice.
“The New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) are mandatory for Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to implement and failure to comply can result in disciplinary action,” said Laura Fredrick, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education.
Under state statute, children can be excused from “any part of instruction in health, family life, or sex education,” if the parent or guardian informs their school principal in writing that the instruction conflicts with their conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs.
“The New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) serves as a mechanism for the New Jersey Department of Education’s compliance monitoring and self-evaluation system for public school districts,” Fredrick said.
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Shaffer does not expect the resolution to rescind the district’s acceptance of the standards, a point he said he wanted to make “crystal clear” in a recent interview.
“It wouldn’t affect the implementation of the standards at all,” Shaffer said, saying it is the superintendent’s responsibility to implement the state standards.
“It would send a sharp message to our elected representatives in Trenton, as well as other state education officials,” Shaffer said.
“It seems political,” said Halliday in a separate interview. “School boards should not be political.”
Over the past year, multiple people have addressed the board on issues related to the education standards. During the campaign, Shaffer, Panico and Nicoletti participated in a rally outside City Hall supporting a parent’s bill of rights. Afterward, parents and students organized events and spoke at meetings with the theme “We Belong,” on behalf of LGBTQ students.
Shaffer has said the members support LGBTQ students.
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The proposed resolution states that the curriculum is to be posted on the district website and that any parent who opposes the curriculum will be able to remove their child from those lessons. Those are both already the case.
Halliday said the district administration and teachers have done an excellent job in creating and enacting the curriculum, balancing the community’s sensibilities and the demands of the state standards. The board should be involved in that process as well, Halliday said.
At the last meeting, Halliday said it is time for the school board to prioritize other issues.
“I’m hopeful that we can move forward as a district and focus on academic excellence, the health and wellness of our staff and students, communication and collaboration with our students, staff, parents and community, and to continue to be champions for educators and excellence by attracting, developing and retaining high-quality, talented and visionary staff members,” he said. “These are things we all want to be focused on. There’s a lot of noise out there.”
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