Berlin school district hosts reorganization meeting

Discussions continue on controversial book and a teacher’s resignation

The Berlin Borough School District Board of Education held its annual reorganization meeting Tuesday, Jan. 5, swearing in three members while also briefly touching on the ongoing district conversation about a recently approved book.

At the beginning of the session, Solicitor Dan Long swore in Jocelyn Lewis to a new three-year term, after her reelection in November; she received 2,545 votes. Lewis was sworn in alongside Joshua Zagorski, who got 2,578 votes, and Sue Embrey, who won her seat on the board as a write-in candidate after receiving 38 votes.

Despite three open board seats up for grabs in the election, only two candidates submitted documentation to the Camden County Board of Elections by the deadline date. Embrey received the most votes of write-in candidates, of which there were 228.

Following the swearing-in ceremony for members, the board elected Lewis to once again serve as president, while Rebecca Holland will serve as vice president.

During public comment, a community member read aloud a letter sent to the board by the chair of the New Jersey Library Association Intellectual Freedom Subcommittee in support of the continued inclusion of a previously approved book in the eighth grade curriculum.

“On behalf of the membership of the New Jersey Library Association, we would like to express our support for the inclusion of the book ‘Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You’  into the curriculum,” Elayna Turner said in the letter. “While the content of this book has very clearly stirred strong feelings amongst parents, we believe that this book presents an opportunity for an engaging and informed discussion, and that any teacher presenting it should be granted a safe environment to do so with all of the support available to them.”

The letter was sent to the board last month, shortly after the staff member teaching the book resigned due to claimed harassment and intimidation from parents and community members. The board received another letter, that was included in the meeting record but not read aloud by any member, from the president of the state Association of School Librarians.  

“It has recently come to our attention that a Berlin Community School teacher has been the victim of harassment, intimidation and bullying from adult members of your community as a result of her teaching of the critically acclaimed book ‘Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,’” Beth Thomas said in the letter. “We are asking that you issue a public statement supporting your teacher and condemning the harassment that she and her students have been exposed to.”

The mid-December letter was also sent to the board last month in response to the teacher’s resignation, but not addressed in a public forum because the board’s scheduled December meeting was cancelled due to inclement weather, according to the district.

The book was approved earlier this school year by the board, a move the administration indicated was in line with the district’s cultural proficiency and equity work. According to Lewis, there has been no discussion of pulling the book from the school’s curriculum, and an additional text is currently being reviewed by the board for possible inclusion.

Long said a resignation letter and a second letter from the staff member who resigned were received but not read aloud at the meeting. He said the staffer asked for the resignation letter to be read aloud during the meeting, but that it was not something the board had done in the past, so the request was denied.

The board’s next meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 27, an in-person session at Berlin Community School starting at 7 p.m.