The auditorium was packed to near capacity Monday evening, as parents, students, faculty and community members attended the ’s regular business meeting to express their support for two teachers whose contracts recently were not renewed.
Nearly everyone among the dozens of people who commented either sung the praises of seventh grade Language Arts teacher Christina Martelo and seventh grade Science teacher Ian Zellman, questioned the board on the circumstances surrounding their non-renewal or asked why Interim Superintendent Steven Engravalle, whose recommendation it was not to renew the two teachers’ contracts, was not in attendance at the meeting.
Most also urged the board to reconsider that decision.
Before the school board opened the meeting up to public comments, however, board attorney Matthew Giacobbe warned that, “If there are people here that are going to be discussing non-renewals, the board will not comment on a non-renewal.”
“The employees have not received a Rice notice for us to comment on them, and there’s a legal process; if somebody has received a non-renewal, they have legal rights,” Giacobbe said, adding that “the superintendent, under the law, has the unilateral power to recommend a non-renewal.”
“If an employee decides that they don’t agree with the superintendent’s recommendation of non-renewal, they have a right to request a statement of reasons from the superintendent,” Giacobbe explained. “They also have a legal right to what’s known as a Donaldson hearing, to appear before the board in a closed executive session to convince the board to override the superintendent’s recommendation of non-renewal.”
Asked why Engravalle was not at the meeting, board president Arthur Levine said, “Mr. Engravalle requested the day off.”
But in spite of Giacobbe’s assurance that the board would not be commenting on non-renewals, members of the public stepped to the microphone, one after another, to read prepared statements or simply voice their support for one or both of the teachers, often receiving a round of applause after doing so.
Fort Lee Education Association (FLEA) treasurer Howard Lipoff concluded his three-minute statement by saying, “I think it is essential to remedy a perception that Fort Lee does not respect its teachers, and that its evaluation system is meaningless.”
Ray Diaz, the parent of a seventh-grader at the middle school, said the students are the “best judges of the quality of work that these teachers do.”
And many of the comments came from current and former students of Martelo, Zellman or both, and their comments about how they were inspired by them often drew the biggest rounds of applause.
Seventh-grader Anselm Kizza-Besigye, who said he’s been positively influenced by many teachers, having attended schools internationally and in Fort Lee, where he’s been a student since second grade, was particularly eloquent in his remarks for which he earned a standing ovation.
“Just based on how many people are here, I think it’s obvious what the people want,” he said. “Everybody wants Mr. Zellman and Mrs. Martelo to stay. They’re outstanding teachers, and it does not make sense that the Fort Lee School District would make such an egregious mistake as not renewing their contracts.”
Many parents also shared personal stories about how they’ve seen their children impacted by Zellman’s and Martelo’s teaching, and at one point, Martelo’s father even got up to speak on his daughter’s behalf.
“I stand before you tonight confused but really filled with pride as a result of the overwhelming level of support that my daughter and her fellow teachers are receiving here tonight,” said Ramon Martelo. “I believe the parents of students and fellow teachers that are here tonight make a profound statement about the outstanding professional qualities of these two teachers.”
Fort Lee parent and noted that in three or four years of regularly attending BOE meetings, he’s never seen “an outpouring of support … so substantial for any member of the faculty.”
Sarnoff and others were also critical of Engravalle for missing Monday’s meeting.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that Mr. Engravalle is not here; I think it’s equally unfortunate that three members of the board are not here,” Sarnoff said. “Mr. Engravalle has been in this position for such a short period of time, less than a year … I think the critical question is did he ever personally review the conduct of these teachers? Did he sit in their classroom?”
He went on to urge the board to convey to Engravalle and board members John Bang, Helen Yoon and Peter Suh “the passionate emotion” of the meeting and “how this community wants these teachers here that a video from 50 feet back is not going to do justice to.”
Board member Yusang Park said he respected the public for expressing their support for Martelo and Zellman.
“I see a lot of passion, and I see a lot people that care about the school district,” Park said. “And I did not feel any animosity at all.”
Patch will have more on Monday’s BOE meeting.