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Parents, Students Speak Up To Save Teachers' Jobs

It was a full house at Fort Lee High School Monday, as people turned out in droves to urge the school board to reconsider a decision not to renew the contracts of two middle school teachers.

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.

William Mays May 08, 2012 at 11:58 PM
Yes Tracy, its really me. Just because I was against the referendum, that doesn't mean I am going to stand by silent as some moron tries to fire two good teachers.
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Toni, this is different. He intentionally avoided the meeting because he didn't want to face parents.
Tracy May 09, 2012 at 12:09 AM
Hey Billy, you have softened up a lot. I have to hold off on the judgement of good teachers or not, I will let the process play out. If they are good, I am sure things will go their way, if there are things we can never know about, so be it too. Conferences just don't get made up or arranged, someone told me at the ball field he was in DC, I didn't know about it then but did ask when I got the chance, so I guess many people knew before hand too. And you are standing by in silence, you are a pseudonym.
Tracy May 09, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Billy-- statements like this are why I can't believe its you. IDK something just is off. Like I said, people knew beforehand, I was told he was in DC before the BOE meeting, so people knew he was not going to be there. I don't quite get the big deal anyway--- call him up, go to his office.
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 12:23 AM
I actually e-mailed him. Also, it seems that people were trying to contact him via Twitter and he was avoiding them. Why the hell was he in DC? I hope we aren't paying for that trip.
Tracy May 09, 2012 at 12:41 AM
who is emailed him? twittering? I tried that, I don't like it. I never have trouble getting a hold of him, but I just call him--- eh whatever, people will complain about everything when they cannot control it, don't understand it and again, those same people complaining knew he was in DC--- before the meeting. Its a conference on online classes for enrichment or AP classes etc. We would have to check the agenda and minutes of the past six months to verify it.
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 01:14 AM
Lets see Toni, maybe that he probably knew how many people intended to show up?
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 01:19 AM
I doubt they called him to let him know they were coming. Have you met him? He is no shrinking violet. I doubt he'd run from any decision he makes. Maybe, just maybe we should find out when the DC conference was. It's more likely they knew he was away and decided to show up to bad mouth him without him being there to defend himself.
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 01:43 AM
Totally Floored. Let me wrap myself around this concept. I don't know these teachers so I hope the right decision is being made or that someone corrects it, but, if we are balancing the good of the ALL students, let's balance going to a meeting for two teachers versus going to a meeting that is going to bring 900 new apartments less than a block from the high school. Where should these people and the FLEA have been? Wait, where was the President of the FLEA since the article says the treasurer spoke? Was he absent? Was he "intentionally" missing the meeting? I really don't care where he was, I'm just making a point for all the baahaas who are going after the Superintendent cause he couldn't make the meeting.
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Toni, except you are forgetting that peoples jobs are at risk here. They aren't at risk because of Centuria.
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 02:20 AM
See that's the problem. Instead of worrying about the community, we worry about the selfish needs of two people. I realize these two are in trouble, BUT, when there are two conflicting meetings and one is to grandstand (cause nothing productive will get done but embarrassing the BOE) and in the other meeting, it effects every single child, teacher, administrator, taxpayer in town, where should we go? What are the existing teachers going to say when they have double the students in their classrooms because of the additional development or when they can't get to work in the morning because of gridlock?
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 03:21 AM
Selfish needs? What selfish needs? It's a selfish need to want to have their jobs?
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 04:34 AM
Yeppers, that's the definition of selfish - when someone thinks their individual needs are more important than the good of the community. Two jobs are not more important than the consequences of that crazy development.
Wonk May 09, 2012 at 05:11 AM
Toni, I do not understand what you are saying. The development project has absolutely nothing to do with these people getting let go. They were very well liked teachers who seemed to have good reviews from their supervisors, and were let go seemingly without warning against the recommendation of their principal. Besides people wanting to know why their children's educators were let go, this is their livelihoods, and certainly should not be taken lightly. I do not understand what was selfish about the community asking what happened, or the teachers themselves wanting to know for that matter. I think it was very poor timing not to have the acting super there to answer, and that board attorney made things worse by not giving clear or accurate answers. I am very curious about this conference the acting super went to.
Mike R. May 09, 2012 at 12:17 PM
The president of FLEA *was* there, and did speak, about these two teachers, about good teachers fired in the past, and about teachers retiring because of the way they're treated. I guess it's pretty clear that YOU weren't there, or you'd have known that. Or do you only know what you read in the "papers"?
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Wonk, my point on the development project is that it will have a much bigger impact on the schools than the release of 2 teachers. Clearly the FLEA knows that the issue would not be discussed in public, so why not follow the appeal process. Mike R, no I wasn't there, I was at the meeting that has the most impact on the community, not the grandstanding at a location that did more harm then good for these 2 teachers. What district is going to hire them knowing they were fired from Fort Lee? I don't know why the NJEA is so surprised that our Governor is focused on them considering how much membership money they used running negative campaigns against him.
Mary Day May 09, 2012 at 06:07 PM
The unjust "Non Renewal" happened also to many other dedicated and qualified teachers. Teachers who have been promoted during the school year (for example; from an aide to a teacher and again to another classroom with even more responsibility. And said teacher gets a Non Renewal. Something is wrong with this picture. I think the critical question is did he (Mr. Engravalle) ever personally review the conduct of these teachers? Did he sit in their classroom?” The answer, in my opinion of course, is definitely Not! I think that the individuals that are given the power to make these decisions need to be evaluated with their work ethics and POLITICS.
Mary Day May 09, 2012 at 06:12 PM
Well Said!
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 07:05 PM
The district that sees that so many students come out in support of them.
William Mays May 09, 2012 at 07:20 PM
I was actually at the meeting Tracy, I didn't speak though.
Paul Umrichin May 09, 2012 at 08:40 PM
As a person who was at the meeting and spoke up about both these teachers it's pretty offensive to say that this was an act of the teacher's grandstanding. At no point did the teachers themselves tell teh community to support them. They certainly did not tell my middle school students to show up and support 2 teachers that have impacted their educational live. Toni - this meeting is just as important as the one you attended. Without quality teachers as these two are the district(Mr. Engravalle) is setting a bad precedent as to what we are looking for as teachers. I can say from experience they are quality as 3 of my kids have had at least one if not both when they were in the middle school. My son who has had problems in LA has been shining and doing much better all around due to Ms. Martelo and Mr. Zellman's approach to teaching makes the kids interested in going to the class and has them questioning everything. The students who spoke didn't speak selfishly, neither did the parents. So please in your wisdom Toni please tell me how this was the teachers grandstanding for their positions? As far as the redevelopment project... Everybody knows that this will impact the schools and there is nothing we can do about it at this point because there is nothing we can do about that now. We can just wait and see how big of a band aid we are going to have to use because of the sudden push after 40 years to finally put something on that land.
Toni M. May 09, 2012 at 09:15 PM
First of all, I never said the students were grandstanding. I do believe the FLEA was grandstanding because it knows the proper procedure, but it needed to work with what it had to push misinformation while the Superintendent was away. I remember u saying that u ran for the BOE, if so, then u know the procedure. The teachers weren't riced, the BOE was PRECLUDED from saying ANYTHING, so what was the point other than to grandstand. Secondly, how can you say that the redevelopment is a done deal when public hearings are still going on? So I'm clear on your point, it's important to go to a meeting where nothing can be accomplished and where no discussion can take place BY LAW, but it is a "done deal" to attend a meeting where public input is invited and plans are still being revised for the good of the community and school? Finally, I have never ever ever commented on whether these are good teachers or not. That is not the point. There is a time and a place for that discussion. The display at the meeting was grandstanding. The outrage because Mr. Engravalle could not attend was grandstanding.
CD Cantelli May 09, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Funny thing is when I posted the link showing bad reviews, Paul Umrichin commented that you can't take what a student says. But when the students are thinking like you want them to then it's time to listen to them. The parents and students were told to go.
William Mays May 10, 2012 at 12:07 AM
CD, that is one rating, look at how many students came out to defend their teachers. Either way, Toni, the FLEA isn't there to tell the town whether to build high-rises. It's there to defend teachers.
CD Cantelli May 10, 2012 at 12:11 AM
It wasn't one rating, the comments were pretty bad and if you had looked at it you'd know that.
William Mays May 10, 2012 at 12:19 AM
CD what I meant is that is one site. Toni, I can somewhat agree with that, but in this case, they are defending two good teachers.
Ivy P. May 10, 2012 at 12:57 AM
He was in D.C. 2 weeks ago when he chose to not renew these teacher's contracts. It's quite coincidental that he's in D.C again for this board meeting. Anyone with any intelligence can see that he avoided this board meeting because he knew he could not justify his actions.
Ivy P. May 10, 2012 at 01:00 AM
I don't think that has anything to do with the issue. The issue is, Steve Engravalle unjustly took jobs away from 2 excellent, highly qualified teachers with nothing but superior evaluations for the past 3 years. FLEA and the members of FLEA were present to protect and stand behind its fellow members.
Toni M. May 10, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Hey genius, he said he was in Virginia. Might want to read that again. I knew he would need his travel logs. JEEEZ.
Toni M. May 10, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Now who is being less than truthful Ivy P. The BOE vote not to renew. They could have voted to renew so your statement that the Superintendnt "unjustly took jobs" is a big ole fat LIE. Ur spin not working Ivy P.

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