A representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association led discussion at the Toms River Regional School's policy committee tonight, advising the school board on how to proceed amid the complexities of the coming criminal trial of the district's former superintendent.
The discussion: don't individually address the media, use a spokesperson, weigh the option of televising meetings.
Kathy Winecoff, a Field Representative for Monmouth County and some Ocean County schools representing the New Jersey School Boards Association, was in attendance to make recommendations to the Toms River board.
Winecoff said that as the trial of former Superintendent Michael Ritacco begins in less than a month, the board may find itself in unprecedented territory.
Ritacco has plead not guilty to the 27-count indictment for such charges are bribery, kickbacks and fraud. He retired the same day as his October arrest, and the board members are currently being sued by Ritacco for his unused sick and vacation time and deferred compensation plan.
The board invited the NJSBA for a presentation to hear its advice and weigh what policies it could inact for Toms River. It was an informal presentation to discuss matters such as televised meetings, public interaction, and media requests.
Public Statements Through Central Representative
“You will be inundated with [media requests],” said Winecoff to the board members when asked about speaking to the media and what protocol the board should take as the trial commences April 9.
Winecoff stressed putting a policy in place stating that no one has authorization to speak to the media except an assigned spokesperson (such as the Board President). Toms River Regional already has a spokesperson, Tammi Millar, who is employed by the district to coordinate media requests and issue official statements.
Currently at the Toms River Regional school board meetings, the public comment portion is listed on the agenda as comments from the public and the press, and the meeting is lead by the board president, as previously reported in Toms River Patch. Ed Gearity serves as board president for Toms River Regional.
Winecoff also suggested specific actions the board should take internally to account for a difference in opinion among board members, as it crafts a response to a media inquiry or question from the public.
Winecoff recommended the Board to “exercise extreme caution” when speaking publicly to be sure that only accurate information is given to the media.
The discussion included whether the board could create a policy that would reprimand or censure board members who violate a policy about talking to the media.
Televised Meetings Still A Concern
Another topic was the potential to televise the board meetings, so viewers could watch on public access television channels or on the Internet.
Some of the concerns of televised meetings were the potential for grandstanding and loss of privacy of the residents in attendance at televised meetings.
Winecoff agreed with some of the board member’s concerns that the general community may not be interested in appearing on television, which would in turn lower the attendance of the public at school board meetings.
Winecoff also said that “film can be damaging to the board or to individuals” and that many things need to be considered if the meetings were to be televised, such as the welfare of the students and members of the community that may appear on television.
Linda Downing, principal at East Dover Elementary School attended the meeting and had concerns about televising school board meetings.
“Televised meetings tend to bring out negativity,” Downing said. “It can become a platform for [one’s] political agenda.”
The Toms River School Board meetings are recorded as a written transcript and audio recording, and upon request either can be provided.
Three members of the board campaigned last year in hopes that the district would go farther than the audio recording, and hoped to pursue televised meetings. While Loreen Torrone, Ben Giovine and Alex Pavliv urged the nine-member board to vote at its last monthly general meeting to televise the meetings, the motion did not carry but gained the tentative support of board members Jack Reuther and Gus Kakavas.
Previously, residents have asked the board at its meetings to consider televising the events, saying it will allow those who are otherwise unable to attend a chance to know what the school board is doing.
Winecoff suggested determining policy and protocol if televising the meetings was indeed an interest of the board.
The board members thanked Winecoff for her presentation and for attending the meeting. No action was taken to create any new policies for the district based on her presentation.
Editor Catherine Galioto contributed to this article.