‘Time to move on’: Gundersen criticizes mayors’ letter to BOE

Monday’s BOE meeting also discussed when Hills will be able to implement the new CDC guidance of three feet of distancing in classrooms.

Mondays Board meeting was held in person for a limited audience while also available for members and the community to attend on Zoom.

Jared Mitovich

Monday’s Board meeting was held in person for a limited audience while also available for members and the community to attend on Zoom.

The highlights of Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

In response to a letter from the Pascack mayors seeking an investigation of the mascot replacement process, Superintendent Erik Gundersen said Monday that the Board of Education’s actions were “proper and warranted” and the letter was designed for “maximum sensational impact.”

The district attorney told the Board that the mayors do not have the legal authority to call for an investigation of the Board or the superintendent, Gundersen added.

Signed by Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali, Hillsdale Mayor John Ruocco, and River Vale Mayor Glen Jasniowski, the letter focused on the Board’s actions in removing the mascots eight months ago and why the mayors believe the Board and Gundersen’s actions were “ill-advised.” It was sent to the Board on March 10 and posted on Facebook.

Gundersen delivered his extensive response to the letter at Monday night’s Board meeting, which was held in person at Pascack Valley and virtually. He said the mayors’ allegation that students’ voices were not heard “was not true” and the removal of the Cowboys and Indians mascots was supported by quantitative and qualitative data.

Read next:  Pascack mayors call for investigation of BOE mascot decisions

The mayors argued that the contents of two emails sent by Gundersen before the mascot removal showed that he had a bias towards those who opposed the Cowboys and Indians mascots, such as the One Spirit Club at Pascack Valley.

But Gundersen said the club’s presentation of its research to the Board was “doing exactly what we teach our students,” which he said is “when you recognize that there is a problem, you research and collect data, listen, formulate your own opinion… and share your own opinion.”

While he acknowledged that a majority of the community may have supported keeping the Cowboys and Indians mascots, Gundersen said there were “legitimate stories” of students feeling “marginalized and undervalued by” both mascots.

He also said the Board did not receive a call from the mayors “to ask for perspective or clarification” prior to the release of the letter on Facebook. “They simply issued an email to the Board and shared it with the Pascack Press just hours” before the print deadline, Gundersen said, noting that the two emails criticized by the mayors were released under the Open Public Records Act five months ago.

Gundersen said that criticism of the mascots was coming mostly from “a small but very vocal group of adults not ready to accept that students are ready for new mascots.”

Those who commented during the public comments portions of Monday’s meeting were all adults, and those critical of the process frequently directed their comments to Gundersen or Board President Tammy Mollinelli.

While Hillsdale resident Gia Guzman stated that Board member Michael Weaver belongs to a Facebook group titled “Save the Indian,” Weaver explained that he belongs to that group and other Pascack community pages in order to get a “pulse of the community.” Guzman went on to say that, if an investigation were to be conducted by the school ethics commission, its purview should extend to all Board members.

Speaking to the Board, Hills parent Kari Solomon said, “I worry you’re hearing from a disproportionate number of people opposed to your decision [to replace the mascots].”

Hillsdale Mayor Ruocco was among those who commented. After releasing the joint letter, Ruocco said the mayors received what he said were coordinated emails accusing them of “being racists and bigots” and “creating division within the community.” He also said conservative students “felt threatened” speaking their minds in class.

The mayors’ letter evidently increased an already heated dialogue around the mascots; there was nearly an hour of public comments. Board members also weighed in on how the body should respond. Joseph Blundo, a former mayor of River Vale, suggested the Board come up with “whatever [it] thinks is an appropriate response.”

New mascots for both schools –– the Broncos at Hills and Panthers at Valley –– received a commanding majority of their respective school-wide vote among students and staff in late February. Roughly 75% of eligible students and staff at each school voted.

Read next:  Broncos wins school-wide vote for Hills' mascot

“This is a final decision,” said Board President Tammy Mollinelli of the Board’s vote on March 8 to approve the new mascots. “The dialogue around any other mascot is not on the table for the school district right now. That’s the factual place that we are now and moving forward.”

The Board voted March 8 to approve new mascots for Hills and Valley.

Committees at each school are beginning the process of selecting logos for the new mascots. Gundersen said artistically inclined students will be “part of this process” and their ideas “will be moved forward for consideration” along with those of other students and the rest of the committee.

Lori Perlow, a branding consultant, was hired by the Board to ensure that the new logo and designs are consistent across all mediums. Perlow’s services will not cost more than $11,926.55.

Blundo approved as BOE vice president after Bissinger resigns

Joseph Blundo, who represents River Vale, was approved by the Board to succeed Janet Bissinger as the Board’s vice president. The vote was unanimous except for Blundo’s vote to abstain.

A reason for Bissinger’s resignation, effective March 16, was not immediately given. She represented Montvale on the Board since 2013 and was described as a “great teammate” and a “quiet assassin” by her colleagues, who noted her advocacy for the district robotics team.

Read next:  BOE Vice President Janet Bissinger resigns

Bissinger’s resignation leaves her seat on the Board vacant. Gundersen said an advertisement will soon be placed on the district website homepage detailing the criteria for filling her seat for the remainder of her term, which ends in December 2021. There will be a deadline for when Montvale residents can submit their application; after that, the Board will establish a meeting date to interview interested candidates in public. Voting for the new member will also “take place in public session,” said Gundersen.

Classroom social distancing to remain at six feet for now

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that schools could decrease social distancing in classrooms from six to three feet –– if they aren’t located in a high transmission area, which the Pascack region currently is.

Gundersen said the district is expecting new information from the state, and once local officials are comfortable with three feet of distancing, the district “will certainly move forward to see how we can make that happen.”

Only 25 staff members in the district have yet to schedule an appointment to receive their Covid-19 vaccine, Gundersen said in his report to the Board, and many staff members teaching remotely will return in person after spring break.

Members of the Board met with the administration earlier in the afternoon during a “mini-retreat.” At this conference, the PV Student Publication reported that topics of discussion included ongoing efforts to improve student wellness and the assistance of school nurses with tracing Covid-19 cases. According to Hills Principal Tim Wieland, 58 students and staff at Hills have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the school year.

“A lot is going on,” Blundo sought to assure the audience during a meeting that was dominated by mascot discussion. “The business of educating the students has not gone by the wayside.”