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Pleasantville Board of Education appoints new solicitor

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Pleasantville School District file

Pleasantville High School

PLEASANTVILLE — After its third meeting on the matter in as many weeks, the local school board finally has a board solicitor — at least until January.

The Pleasantville Board of Education selected the law firm of Parker McCay to fill the role of solicitor during a special meeting Monday night. The selection followed two previous board meetings in which members traded barbs over their commitment to the school district and ultimately failed to appoint a solicitor.

The nine-member board voted 4-3 to appoint the firm, with President Julio Sanchez, Vice President Elysa Sanchez and members Richard Norris and Jerome Page voting in favor. Those voting against were Alejandrina Alberto, Yadira Falcon and Sharnell Morgan. Board members Cassandra Clements and Anny Melo were absent from the meeting, the latter due to a death in the family.

Parker McCay will fill the solicitor position only until the board’s reorganization meeting in January. At that point, the school board determined by the November elections, which will include two new members, will vote to appoint another solicitor.

“I want to first commend everyone who made the correct decision in the best interest of the district to come to an agreement on selecting a solicitor no matter how temporary this may be,” said resident Priscilla Noel during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It is a positive step.”

Phillip Norcross, brother of Camden County Democratic powerbroker George E. Norcross III, is the managing shareholder and CEO of Parker McCay.

The two firms that had drawn the most attention from the board prior to Monday were the Carroll Law Firm and Capehart Scatchard, Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Cappelli, Tipton, Taylor LLC. The former firm is headed by Jim Carroll, who previously served as the board’s solicitor during a multiyear tenure that stoked controversy on the board and in the community. The latter firm includes former Solicitor Lester Taylor, whom the board voted to remove in October and whose termination became effective Nov. 21.

The board also appointed Parker McCay to fill the position of board labor relations specialist by the same 4-3 vote.

Norris, who lost his bid for reelection to the board in November, said he was concerned about the future of the school district. He told The Press of Atlantic City before the Monday meeting that he believed the discord and disarray involved in appointing a new solicitor indicated the board still needed reform.

Among his recommendations were that a referendum be held to create a board constituted by members appointed by government officials, rather than elected. He said he was open to having both the state and city officials appoint members to this hypothetical board. He also said the state should reappoint a fiscal monitor to watch over the district.

“As a city and a school board, we need help,” Norris said.

The board last scheduled a motion to appoint a new solicitor at a special meeting Nov. 22. During that meeting, the board was split between a bloc that supported appointing Carroll to the vacant solicitor position and a bloc that did not.

Page was absent from the Nov. 22 meeting, leaving the board evenly divided between pro-Carroll and anti-Carroll members. After a series of 4-4 and 3-4 votes in which all solicitor candidates nominated failed to win majority support from board members present, the board adjourned and scheduled Monday night’s meeting.

Those opposing Carroll included Julio Sanchez, Elysa Sanchez, Clements and Norris. Those supporting Carroll included Alberto, Falcon, Melo and Morgan.

A motion to appoint a new solicitor was first scheduled during a regular meeting Nov. 16. The board eventually voted 7-0 to adjourn so members could have an opportunity to review the proposals of the solicitor candidates because those proposals had not been forwarded to board members in advance. Page abstained from that vote, and Falcon had not yet arrived at the meeting.

The struggle to appoint a solicitor began at the board’s Oct. 12 meeting. At that time, the board voted to remove Taylor from his position as solicitor effective Nov. 21, and put Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee on leave by a 5-2 vote. At the Nov. 22 meeting, the board unanimously voted to give interim Superintendent Karin Farkas a $150 per day stipend.

The board also voted Oct. 12 to remove Julio Sanchez as president. Sanchez maintained the vote was invalid under state law. Sanchez, who has kept his seat as president, later told The Press that Atlantic County Executive Superintendent Robert Bumpus agreed that the attempt to oust Sanchez had been illegitimate.

The Oct. 12 meeting was the first held after the New Jersey Department of Education allowed the school district to operate without the oversight of a state fiscal monitor for the first time in over a decade. At the Nov. 22 meeting, Sanchez observed that the present discord on the board began “the very day we lost our state monitor.”

Joe Manetta, president of the Pleasantville Education Association, said during public comment that the disarray on the school board has impaired contract talks with teachers.

“What direction is this district going in?” Manetta asked. “Are we looking at the betterment of not only the students, who come first, but also the staff that teaches those students and are with those students every day?”

There were also concerns raised at the meeting about staff absences at Pleasantville schools and cyber bullying, with residents pleading for the board to refocus on its mission of educating Pleasantville children.

Julio Sanchez said the district would work to address those issues, noting that staffing shortages were being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Chris Doyle

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