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Hi's Eye

The Student News Site of Westfield High School

Hi's Eye

Emotions run high at October BOE meeting

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Photo by Gianna Puglisi
BOE meeting on Oct. 17 in Cafeteria B

*Please note that all comments made by members of the BOE in this article were made within their personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the Board as a whole.

Members of the Westfield community gathered at the BOE meeting on Oct. 17 to voice their criticism of Superintendent Dr. Raymond González and Board Member Sahar Aziz following their public responses to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

School Resource Officer Nick Callelo, 1 of 5 Westfield Police Department officers present at the event, approximated attendance to have been “between 150-200 people.”

Aziz’s three-year term began in 2021 and ends in the upcoming election in April. Recently, she has upset members of the Westfield community with social media content posted on platforms such as Twitter/X, Facebook and Instagram about the initial attacks on Israel.

Board policy 0169 reads that Board members be more mindful of conduct and ethics than a standard user, stating, “A Board member’s use of social networks shall not damage the reputation of the school district, employees, students, or their families.”

Audience members came to the meeting with one of Aziz’s posts from Twitter/X printed onto a sheet of paper under a title in large, bold font that said, “Get supporters of terrorism away from our children.” The post itself read, “#Israel can’t imprison 2 million Gazans Without Paying a Cruel Price.” The post is no longer accessible on Aziz’s feed.

Similarly, González is facing backlash after sending an email to the district on Oct. 11 where he addressed the “ongoing events in the Middle East.” Those unhappy with his response, like senior Georgia Richman, say the message was “generic and uneducated.”

Although González noted the public’s frustration with his response, he upheld his previous statement and asserted, “It is my firm belief that my personal feelings about matters outside the jurisdiction of the school district, on any given topic, have no place in any of my communications with the school community.” He added, “What matters [most] is what we as a school district are doing to support all students and staff.”

Student Government Association president and liaison to the BOE, Casey Isser, spoke next with the WHS student report. He closed his statement with an address to the BOE and the audience, noting the impact of the “significant terrorist attack by Hamas.”

The audience immediately erupted in applause, table-banging and whistling. Soon after, disputes about an attendee filming the audience brought the Board to a 10-minute recess.

BOE meetings are pre-recorded and are made available to the public. While it is legal for an attendee to film the meeting, it made members of the crowd and Board uneasy. In a follow-up statement, Board Member Leila Morrelli stated that she felt “extremely uncomfortable,“ and that “it was unclear why [filming] was necessary…It was intimidating and distracting.”

After the recess and a brief comment encouraging more civil behavior, BOE President Sonal Patel resumed the meeting by allowing Isser to finish his speech.

Patel then opened the first public forum with ground rules stating that attendee participation was permitted as long as it pertained to policies on the agenda and was limited to three minutes. Board Members were unable to respond to any statements. Morrelli explained, “If one board member is allowed to use this forum for their ideology, that opens up the platform for any board member to speak.”

Policy items that incited disapproval were Policy Item P on the recently implemented Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position and Agenda Item 9C, González’s Strategic Plan. However, once audience members realized their limitations within the confines of ground rules, participation lessened, as most attendees planned to speak during the second public forum that allowed statements on any topic. When that public forum was officially announced, 15 people lined the Cafeteria wall.

The first speaker was WHS senior Leo Saltzstein, who adamantly voiced his concern about Aziz. He claimed that her role on the board was assumed “for all the wrong reasons” and stated that she “seems to prioritize [her] professional advancements over advocating for the real needs of Westfield students.” Saltzstein was the only student other than Isser to speak.

Directly following another recess about unwanted filming, other speakers rose to the podium with emotionally charged calls for the resignation of Aziz and shamed the board for their continued silence. Audience outbursts also addressed González, with one saying that his “days are numbered” and that he “will not be superintendent for long.”

Frustrated attendees even went as far as stating Aziz’s Westfield home address instead of their own during their introductive statements. One speaker also yielded 50 seconds to the Board to break their silence. None did, though Morrelli said this was difficult for her “since so many community members were hurting and were asking to hear support from the board.”

Notable statements made by audience members included those from Resident Julie Steinberg, Former Board Member Michael Bielen and local Rabbi Ethan Prosnit.

Referring to Aziz’s activity on social media, Steinberg implored, “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Rabbi Prosnit attempted to unite the leaders of the community and orient the Board toward future action. Bielen called for the resignation of Aziz and cited legal precedent for removal.

While many audience members called for Aziz and González’s removal, there are limited pathways to remove either person. The only viable way for voters to remove Aziz is through the Uniform Recall Election Law, which allows those governed by a BOE member to petition for their removal. The law states that a recall election cannot be held within the final six months of the Board Member’s term. Currently, a petition entitled “Remove Sahar Aziz from the Westfield, NJ Board of Education,” as of Hi’s Eye’s print deadline, has 4,496 signatures on change.org.

As for González, according to district policy 1220, a superintendent cannot be dismissed except in a case of “inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming a Superintendent, or other just cause.” At this point in time, there has been no BOE-recognized indication of González violating these specific terms. More information about this can be found under the “Policies and Regulations” tab on the district website.

Aziz spoke to Hi’s Eye about the events of the night and her social media posts, saying, “There is no evidence that I have allowed my professional work, the advocacy that I engage in and the work that I do as a human rights lawyer [to] in any way adversely impact students in Westfield vis-à-vis votes that I take.”

She also stated that she feels “very unsafe” in Westfield and is “worried for [her] children” and fears that “[her] house is going to get vandalized.” She said that she plans on “filing a police report to get protection.”

Vice President Robert Benacchio remains confident that, in time, the Westfield community will overcome this conflict: “In conversations I have had with residents following the meeting, and in seeing the steps the students in our high school have taken to start their own discourse already, I am certain there are multiple paths toward unity, resolution, and healing.”

The next regularly-scheduled BOE meeting will be held on Nov. 21 at 7:00 p.m. in Cafeteria B.

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