Board talks return to school and budget in tense meeting

Tabernacle Board of Education passes 2021-‘22 budget with tax increase

Tensions ran high at Tabernacle’s April 26 board of education meeting, where attendees discussed the budget, privatization of paraprofessionals and a return to school for five full days a week.

School Superintendent Shaun Banin announced plans to bring all students back to school for five full days in the fall, with some changes. Remote learning would no longer be optional, he explained, unless students can prove a medical need. Sports, clubs and activities are expected to begin again, along with recess and related arts.

Sixth to eighth graders at Kenneth R. Olsen Middle School will adjust to a new schedule that  includes a “WIN” free period that can be used for studying, club meets and other activities. 

Traditionally, students have traveled from class to class with a group of kids at the same learning level. Next year, Banin said, students will no longer be restricted to a group and they can  take classes in different learning levels.

For example, a student who excels in math but not English will now be able to take accelerated math while remaining in a standard English class. 

Board member Brian Lepsis said waiting until next year to go back to school five days wouldn’t give the district the time it needs to work out potential issues.

“Many other districts started to open around the state and around the county, and we asked you to follow them and you refused,” Lepsis told Banin. “I’m sorry I’m emotional. I’m sorry I’m angry, but I’m not the only angry parent here. This is inexcusable.”

Lepsis claimed Banin was waiting to reopen schools because it would be easier on administrative staff to wait until fall, and he argued that waiting was detrimental to students.

“To say it’s inexcusable, that we don’t care about kids? First of all, you clearly don’t know me, sir,” Banin replied.

He explained the district had decided to stay with a schedule of five half days when it was first announced, something board members were invited to a meeting to discuss.

“There was one board member, Mr. Lepsis, who chose not to have that opportunity,” Banin noted. “You, sir, had an opportunity to be informed about things and you chose not to.”

During public comment, parents were split. Several parents defended Lepsis, while others expressed their contentment with the current schedule of half days.

In other business at the meeting, the school board passed a final version of the district’s $14.3 million budget for the 2021-‘22 school year. The plan, presented by School Business Administrator Patty Palmieri, allows for all current programs to be maintained as well as  improvements in curriculum, social and emotional learning and technology. The district used its allotted 2-percent tax increase, which Palmieri said would add about $17 in annual taxes for the average homeowner. Lepsis believes the tax increase will be closer to $70 per household; Palmieri said she will double check her math.

“I just don’t wanna mislead the public on this,” Lepsis argued. “People might hear 17 and say,  ‘I’d gladly pay twice or three times that.’ But I think the real number is five times that.”

As discussed at prior meetings, the board is considering privatizing the district’s paraprofessionals, something many parents, teachers and advocates have spoken out against.

Though the board has not yet made a decision, community protest continued. Several Tabernacle district staff members read letters written by parents pleading with the board to continue paraprofessional employment.

Meghan Valente, a preschool teacher, spoke on behalf of parents Amy and Jason Giroux.

Their letter told the story of how their shy daughter came out of her shell because of paraprofessional Amy DiOrio.

“We thanked God every day because of her,” the parents wrote.

Special education teacher Lisa Egan read a letter from parents Dennis and Alyssa Sweeney. 

“They have worked to make sure all children feel happy, safe and heard,” the parents wrote in praise of the paraprofessionals. “Please don’t make a decision that will directly impact our kids in a terrible way.”

The next board of education meeting will be held via Zoom on May 10.