The Mendham Township Committee had a long session of deliberation on the topics for study in the regional school district feasibility study on May 29. The Committee decided they were interested in seeing two options explored by the regional school group's feasibility study.
Mayor Sam Tolley revisited the issue at Tuesday's committee meeting, and what followed was a longer deliberation that included more public participation and less civility.
Invited to speak to the group by Mayor Tolley, the moderator of the regional group Christine Meyers-Gorski (who came with her arm in a sling and her own pillow for support as she continued recovering from surgery), explained the details of the options that were on the table and answered questions on them and the mechanics established for moving forward.
Meyers-Gorski outlined the three primary choices to come out of the last redistricting meeting which included a combined K-12 district, a separate K-12 for Washington Township and a K-12 for Mendham and Chester and a separate K-12 for Washington Township and a limited 9-12 for Chester and Mendham keeping their K-8 system intact.
Tolley began the discussion by forgoing the committee comments and opening directly to the public. Many had questions about the inclusion of the K-12 for everyone as an option, which was a sticking point throughout the evening.
“Since some of us feel we’re overfunding the regional high school structure, how does going to a single K-12 as an alternative make sense?” said resident Denis Deegan. “We would be allowing another jurisdiction to have more control and cost us more. This could put Mendham Township to at more of a risk than it is even in now.”
Deegan’s comments were echoed by others, who were concerned once that option was present, it could be pushed through.
“All the options decided on unanimously by the mayors would go through the feasibility study and we would expect that they would come back with other options as well. They may come back, as consultants, with the best idea we never thought of,” Meyers-Gorski said. “Once it comes back, your representatives would all take it back and discuss it with their governing bodies before it would get to a voting step. It might be that if we look at a holistic approach we can feel satisfied that we overturned every rock.”
Meyers-Gorski also elaborated on the process for taking minutes at the mayor’s meetings.
“You all have those minutes. I saw the e-mail. All the meetings, we have a process for taking minutes. They are taken by appointed members, then they are written up and sent around so everyone has the opportunity to edit,” Meyers-Gorski said. “They are defined verified , rationalized and sent out.”
Beyond the financial issues with the current district, some residents mentioned the disparity of services.
“When my daughter first got to the high school there was no competition cheerleading squad,” June Cioppettini said. “But they had one at Central. We were told to self fund for three years before the board would finance the program. And it wasn’t just cheerleading. Programs like fencing too. And there was no offer to include the kids from Mendham to make it a ‘regional team.’”
Resident Michael Merritt expressed his concerns about some of the comments he heard.
“I am concerned about the tone of many of the comments tonight. It seems like Mendham Township, which is disadvantaged in the current funding formula we are asking our neighboring communities to look into making a change and we need to work together,” Merritt said. “And there is a concern that there is a tone that is very much our way or the highway and I think that is a recipe for disaster. If we keep it up we will reach the limit withour neighboring communities and we will be stuck. We need to be more open to compromise than I am hearing tonight.”
Compromise was very much a part of Tolley’s message.
“When we work with other people we have to consider others point of views. I was the only mayor who was against studying the K-12 for everyone. All others towns seem to be agreeable so I brought it back to discuss it further." Tolley said. “If you don’t want to compromise, you aren’t going to really be a part of a group. I will represent whatever the committee decides, but a lot of the other towns aren’t that concerned. It doesn’t bother me to study anything. As part of a group, we have to consider compromise. Being part of a group is not to force anything down anyone’s throat. And not to scream and shout.”
Cecelia Donato did not see compromise the same way as Tolley.
“We are failing to compromise because Washington Township is being a bully and insisting that we study an option we have no interest in? You can’t fly in the face of your constituents. We don’t want that,” Donato said. “Why don’t we all sit out in front of Kings and Shop Rite and get signatures and withdraw. We only need 100 signatures from each town.”
Jamie Button, Mendham Township’s representative on the regional board of education wanted to disengage from Washington Township altogether immediately.
“There have been a lot of someone conflicting statements tonight,” Button said. “Three of the five municipalities said no to the mega-district. Our moderator has made, what I think of a misleading statement, by saying a majority is needed to move forward. Anyone could move forward without the others. And that is what I would like to see. The Mendhams and the Chesters to do their own feasibility study.”
At the conclusion of the public commentary, committeeman Rob Strobel took exception with the way in which Meyers-Gorski was treated at the meeting.
“I was at the meeting and to say that Mrs. Meyers made a misleading statement is extremely disheartening,” Strobel said. “I think she does not have to be disparaged in a public meeting.”
Fellow committeeman Frank Cioppettini reiterated the point he made at the last meeting that there was no record kept at the mayors meeting and no minutes that he saw, which brought a challenge from Meyers-Gorski.
“Frank, to suggest that no minutes were taken, after I have stated that minutes were taken and turned around for verification and edits isn’t accurate,” Meyers-Gorski said. “
“You were not there,” Cioppettini said. “There was no mention of Mr. Short making his admission to conflict of interest.”
Meyers-Gorski did acknowledge she wasn’t there at the last meeting, as she was undergoing her arm surgery.
“But the next day I received the minutes in the hospital,” Meyers-Gorski said. “And I sent them to your members who all signed off on them.”
Tolley did say that while he had difficulty forwarding them on, he did receive them and was “relatively satisfied with their accuracy.”
Committeeman Rick Merkt was concerned about being responsive to the concerns he hears in town.
“I’ve been approached by residents who are angry as hell. We are studying, studying, studying and not acting. We aren’t acting,” Merkt said. “And the state is not objective in this. If you give them three options and one is a massive consolidation, they are going to go with that.”
Before voting again on what options to bring back to the larger group, Strobel and Cioppettini exchanged parting shots.
“If we’re going to sit here and prejudge we are wasting our time and our taxpayer’s money,” Strobel said. “We’re wasting peoples time and money.”
“We have an obligation to the people in this room to do better for our residents,” Cioppettini said. “And I am not giving up.”
At the end of the night, Mendham Township was essentially where they were at the start. Holding tight to two options, and hoping everyone else would follow suit.