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Pleasantville school board at odds over solicitor

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High School, 801 Mill Road, Pleasantville

The Pleasantville Board of Education met Tuesday night and engaged in a heated battle over the next board solicitor. The school board, which oversees the town's schools including Pleasantville High School, pictured here, was criticized by residents at the meeting for "getting in the way of what the ultimate objective is supposed to be, which is serving the children of the district."

The city Board of Education was slated to vote Tuesday to replace the board’s current solicitor, Lester Taylor, whose termination is set to take effect Sunday. Three prospective solicitors were scheduled to be considered.

The vote combusted into a heated clash between board members. While some members said they were ready to vote, others said they were not given a chance to review the prospective solicitors’ proposals.

Among those objecting to the vote was board President Julio Sanchez, who held onto his office after a failed attempt to oust him during the October board meeting. Sanchez was among those saying there was insufficient opportunity to review the requests for proposals the district had issued or any of the proposals themselves.

“I don’t know how we make an educational decision on a new law firm when none of us have seen the information provided to the district,” Sanchez said. “We have something sitting before us that hasn’t been discussed at all.”

Board member Jerome Page rebutted Sanchez’s objections, and said what was transpiring Tuesday was similar to how Taylor, the outgoing solicitor, was hired — something Sanchez disputed.

The board’s actions were further complicated by its impending reorganization in January, which will see newly elected members take their seats on the board. Taylor said any significant action the board takes that binds the incoming board might run afoul of New Jersey lame-duck laws.

The board ultimately voted 7-0 to pull the motion appointing a new solicitor, and agreed to discuss the matter in a special meeting. Page abstained from the vote, and board member Yadira Falcon was at that time absent from the meeting. Falcon later joined the meeting remotely.

The controversy began during the board’s Oct. 12 meeting, when Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee was placed on leave by a 5-2 vote, from which Sanchez abstained. Karin Farkus was appointed interim superintendent. At Tuesday’s meeting, Farkus was given a $150-per-day stipend by a unanimous vote.

Later during the Oct. 12 meeting, the board tried to vote to remove Sanchez, using a procedure Sanchez had said was invalid under state law. Sanchez later told The Press of Atlantic City that Atlantic County Executive Superintendent Robert Bumpus had agreed the vote was invalid.

The board later also required that Taylor leave his position as board solicitor by Nov. 21.

Tensions over who would replace the outgoing solicitor escalated into personal clashes during the meeting, which lasted more than three hours. Sanchez frequently asked Page to keep his mask over his nose, and later questioned how well Page lived up to his commitment to Pleasantville students.

The arguments between the board members were met by frustration from the crowd. During the public comment section, residents criticized board members’ behavior as petty.

“The behavior is unacceptable, combative banter is unprofessional,” said resident Priscilla Noel.

Eric Moore, a local coach in Pleasantville, was similarly critical of the board. He said he had six children in the district and that the behavior of the board was detrimental to the reputation of the district and its ability to teach children.

“From the outside looking in, it feels like there are a lot of personal agendas that are getting in the way of what the ultimate objective is supposed to be, which is serving the children of the district,” Moore said.

Sanchez eventually apologized for perhaps being too argumentative during the meeting and later said he only became emotional because he was seeking to protect himself from lies from other members. He also asked that residents show the board patience in a “transitional time.”

Board members said they would try to have a special meeting Monday to fill what will then be the vacant position of board solicitor.

Contact Chris Doyle

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