A 40-year tradition appears to be on the verge of ending – again.
But no one seems to know for sure.
“I am not involved with that program at all,” said Joseph H. Vicari, superintendent of the Berkeley Township School District, when asked if the sixth-grade trip to was still in the plans for the end of the current school year. “You would have to talk to Jim Byrnes or Jim Roselli.”
Lori Fitzsimmons, a parent of a sixth-grader at , says she has asked James Roselli - who until January was the principal at BTES - and his answer was that it hadn’t been decided yet.
“We just want to know: Are we definitely still going or not?” said Dana Dozois, another parent of a sixth-grader.
Byrnes - who was president of the Berkeley Township school board until Jan. 17, when he was appointed to the Township Council and - said he was not sure whether the trip will happen because there has been no money raised.
Roselli, who several parents claim told the students in September that the trip was going to happen, could not provide a definitive answer either.
“An independent foundation was created to raise money in an effort to continue the trip and that is all that was shared with Mrs. Guinan and myself,” Roselli said in an e-mail in response to a question about the status of the trip. “Perhaps members of the Foundation will be able to provide some insight, as we have not been notified one way or the other if the trip is on or off.”
The Stokes trip – a three-day, two-night program at Stokes State Forest in Sussex County run by Montclair State University’s New Jersey School of Conservation – was a part of the curriculum for the district’s fifth-graders for 40 years, until the program came under fire during the 2008 budget process.
After a failed referendum on the program resulted in its cancellation for the 2008-09 school year, a grassroots campaign by parents, students and some members of the school district’s staff resulted in it being reinstated in the budget for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.
The trip was cut again from the 2011-12 budget.
"It’s a good program," Vicari said. "In good times there's no problem" funding such a trip. But the economic downturn has forced many cuts, he said.
That's was why a nonprofit foundation — the — was formed to ensure funding for the trip every year, without it being funded through taxpayer money.
Trip in Jeopardy
On the surface, it would seem like the obvious solution is to maintain a program that is a part of the fabric of Berkeley Township, which has been sending students to the program since 1966.
The foundation was chartered in March 2011, with Byrnes and school board members Dawn Parks and Michael Hill as its charter members.
But 11 months after its formation, the foundation has raised no significant money. The trip that generations of students have loved, that parents have fought for, is seriously in jeopardy at this point.
The school district administration says there hasn't been money raised for the trip, which has been estimated to cost $80,000 to $90,000.
Foundation members say every attempt to raise money has been thwarted, and they charge that the administration has undermined the trip at every turn.
One thing can be said for certain: the trip is no longer on the list of school board-approved trips for this school year.
The trip was included on a list that was approved by the school board in August, but at the November meeting an amended trip list was approved. That second list did not include Stokes.
“That (the first list) was just copied from the previous year’s trip list,” said Laura Venter, the Berkeley Township Schools’ business administrator and school board secretary. Stokes shouldn’t have been on the list for approval because it hadn’t been properly vetted for approval, she said.
“We are waiting to find out if the trip is funded,” Venter said.
Foundation member Peggy Crawford and Cheryl Altieri, a chiropractor in town, say they have had a number of ideas for fundraising, but have been blocked in their efforts.
“We were told by the board we could move forward and then it was rescinded,” Altieri said.
Altieri said she was so frustrated by the inaction that she walked away from the foundation in December.
“There’s been no reason given,” said Crawford, an aide in the school district. “We’ve been trying to request a sitdown and have gotten nowhere.”
While Byrnes and Venter say the issue is the lack of funding, Crawford and Parks say the issues are far more than the money.
They say insurance coverage was approved then pulled back, and the specter of sexual abuse was raised in the wake of the Penn State scandal.
“We could have supported it (the Stokes trip). I don’t think it’s ever been about the money,” Crawford said. “I don’t like the feeling of answers not being given.”
“We have grant applications we’d like to submit, but the paperwork has to go through the (school) board,” Crawford said. “We had an idea for a cookbook that could have doubled as a writing assignment for the students.”
But the school board has not acted on either idea, Crawford, Altieri and Parks say.
One grant – a significant one – is available through Exelon, the company that operates the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey.
Crawford said the grant paperwork requires information that the foundation does not have. It also requires a statement from the school board saying the trip is supported by the school board and that it is willing to accept the money for the purpose of the trip, she said.
Venter said in a telephone conversation on Feb. 1, that she compiles the school board agenda, and has not been asked to put the grant on the agenda for discussion.
Crawford and Parks said the cookbook proposal has been lingering since late October. Crawford said the idea was the students at Berkeley Township Elementary School, where the fifth- and sixth-graders attend, would contribute to the cookbook and then the cookbook would be sold through the schools.
“We thought it would make a good Christmas gift idea,” she said.
Byrnes said he was aware of the cookbook proposal.
“Any book that comes through the school district must be approved by the board,” Byrnes said, and said the cookbook request went to the board office.
Parks said she sent an e-mail to Deborah Kulka, Venter’s secretary, on Nov. 9, requesting budget information for the and asking for a meeting between Crawford and Roselli to discuss the cookbook. She followed up with an e-mail directly to Venter the following week, again requesting the meeting.
The meeting was never set, said Parks, who has two sons, one of them a sixth-grader, in the district. She also serves as the chairwoman of the Democratic Party's municipal committee.
Altieri said Byrnes was at least partly at fault, and all three women said Byrnes had missed several of the foundation’s meetings.
“He could have put that (the cookbook) on the agenda,” Altieri said, adding she felt Byrnes has not pushed hard enough for the foundation.
"Give me a break," Byrnes said.
He said he missed just two foundation meetings – one of them because it was his daughter’s birthday. "There has been no correspondence sent to the board."
“I put in my time and I put in my money,” he said, pointing out that he wrote the first check to the foundation, which was presented at a school board meeting last spring. He rejected the notion that he has been impeding the trip or the fundraising efforts of the foundation.
“I was one of the founders of this with Dawn Parks,” Byrnes said, referring to the foundation. “My granddaughter went to Stokes. I went up there last spring to see it. It's a great trip. I support this program.”
Lori Fitzsimmons isn’t so sure of of his support.
“He did say that the foundation was weak and they have not been able to raise funds," Fitzsimmons said by e-mail after the January school board meeting. "It sounded like he was blaming lack of effort on part of the foundation. Perhaps if he is so opposed to it he should not be a member of that foundation.”
Byrnes could be heard mentioning the concern about pedophiles to Fitzsimmons and Dozois at the school board meeting in January.
“He said the administration was concerned about pedophiles. I asked him who that was,” Fitzsimmons said, “the school staff or the board? He repeated again the administration and failed to clarify who he exactly meant.”
After the meeting, Byrnes confirmed there is a concern, but refused to say who had raised it.
“The world has changed a lot over the last 20 years,” Byrnes said.
Asked if it has changed that significantly since the trip shifted to the sixth graders two years ago, Byrnes said, “Yes, I think it has. Look at how much the economy has changed.”
“I wasn’t aware of that (conversation),” Vicari said, referring to Byrnes’ statement to Fitzsimmons and Dozois about the concern about pedophiles.
“Pedophiles are always a concern,” he said, “especially in the last six months.”
Randall FitzGerald, associate director of the New Jersey School of Conservation at Montclair State, said in the 25 years he’s been involved with the program – which has been in existence for nearly 50 years – there has never been a problem of that nature.
“Ninety-nine percent of the school groups who come stay overnight,” he said, noting there are currently 50 school districts that participate in the Stokes program.
Berkeley’s trips have always been designed so that no student is alone one-on-one with an adult, several sources said. Students have to choose partners early in the process – they often know in January who their Stokes partners will be – and during the trip they are required to stay with their partners, whether they’re heading to dinner, engaged in learning activity or even when they make trips to the bathroom.
“In today’s climate you can never be too careful,” Fitzgerald said, “but it’s never been brought up. Never has it been a concern.”
Crawford and Parks said insurance coverage for teachers who agree to chaperone has been a thorny issue as well.
“I had a conversation with Laura over the summer where she gave us the official approval on the insurance and use of the buses,” Parks said, though she couldn’t recall whether the conversation was by phone or in person.
But in early December, Venter sent an e-mail to the school district’s staff saying those who went as chaperones on the trip would not be covered by the district’s insurance.
“Please be aware this is NO LONGER a school sponsored event and is not in the school budget,” Venter said in the e-mail, a copy of which was given to the Berkeley Patch. “Therefore, if you choose to go, you must utilize personnel (sic) days or unpaid days. Also, if you are injured on this trip, it is NOT covered under the District’s Worker’s Compensation Policy,” Venter wrote.
“The teachers who want to be a part of better environmental education got slapped in the face by that email,” Parks said.
Venter said by phone that because the trip is no longer funded by the school district, the district cannot accept liability for staff members who participate.
She also denied having any conversation with Parks that gave approval for the insurance.
“My understanding is (insurance coverage) has to be for a school function,” Vicari said. “There’s a business issue here.”
Crawford and Parks said the bottom line they're hearing is that the administration no longer wants the Stokes trip in Berkeley, and that the writing has been on the wall for the Stokes trip since 2008, when the trip's cost was first separated into a separate referendum and put to the voters.
Parks said she wants to see the program survive, because she believes the students aren't getting nearly enough environmental education, especially at home.
"We've had kids (on the trip) who the first time they ever left their house was at Stokes," she said. "I went to Stokes. It was the most wonderful experience of my life."
If Berkeley manages to get the pieces in place, said the School of Conservation's Fitzgerald, they are holding the dates.
"We’re hoping they can come," Fitzgerald said. "We wouldn’t hold a date for any other school, but they have such a long history that we're willing to do that."
"We're keeping our fingers crossed for them," he said.