Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Last week, following Governor Murphy’s announcement that day care facilities and day camps would be permitted in New Jersey this summer, the Teaneck Board of Education held its monthly meeting on Zoom. Agenda items did not include a heavily requested, expected item: that of Camp Shalom opening in the location it moved to last year, Teaneck’s Benjamin J. Franklin Middle School. The summer of 2020 is year two of a two-year lease.

Advocates for Camp Shalom explained that day camp is a significant need for parents who have had children home for many months, and with the economy reopening, camp is a necessity. Camp Shalom board member Yosef Levine said the camp had been in touch with the school district and was told that the camp’s ability to open would be included as a board agenda item despite the fact that it maintains an ongoing lease with the district. Levine said the camp had mobilized its parents to participate in the Zoom meeting, to share their views and advocate for Camp Shalom. The camp also assured the district and parents that the program would adhere to all state guidelines and safety procedures.

On the Zoom call, instead of a formal agenda item for Camp Shalom based on what had been communicated to the camp as a request by the board, Superintendent Dr. Christopher Irving announced there would be a brief opportunity for residents to ask questions on agenda items but questions would be limited to three minutes. He also stated that later in the meeting there would be a second opportunity for residents to discuss non-agenda items. This never took place over the course of the eight-hour meeting, which included an executive session. Although non-camp parents commented about the camp during this “agenda-only” time, which was outside of protocol, camp parents wished to respect the meeting rules and waited for an opportunity they were never given.

Many Camp Shalom parents had logged off by the time the agenda items were concluded over four hours later; questions were requested by Board President Dr. Ardie Walser. One questioner asked whether summer camps were on the agenda. Walser’s response was brusque; he deferred to a general response he would give after the question session was closed. Responding to a later question about camps, Walser stated simply, “There will be no summer camps.” To the outside observer, it appeared that the bid for Camp Shalom to open for the summer in a BOE facility was not under consideration and that a decision to break the camp lease was made outside of public purview.

BOE member Gerald Reiner sought to help clarify the position of the board. He acknowledged that the BOE received abundantly positive responses from numerous sources to having Camp Shalom as a summer camp contractor last year. Additional sources also confirmed that the superintendent and the board were very happy with the program, and had the full intention to repeat it for the following summer.

Asked if there was sufficient time to add Camp Shalom to the planned BOE Zoom meeting agenda last Tuesday, Reiner said it had been “feasibly possible.” When asked whether there had been an expectation on the part of Camp Shalom to use BOE facilities, and that it would be addressed/discussed during the Zoom meeting, he said, “I believe the camp had a reasonable expectation that it was going to come back, since it went extremely well last year.”

Reiner said the BOE had no other plans to use the facility. According to a BOE spokeswoman, the only programs offered by the BOE will be a distance-learning summer program, using Google Meets, and that for the second year in a row, Teaneck High School students can earn college credit at Fairleigh Dickinson University, with courses taught by high school teachers, also online.

According to sources, since the administration and board had already decided not to run their own programs in person, they felt there was no premise to allow other camps, regardless of the fact that the board was breaking a formal lease.

Levine said that the camp had a full expectation to run the camp again this year since the governor approved summer programs, and that the BOE and Camp Shalom were in a two-year renewable contract, of which 2020 was the second year. There was every reason to assume that the 2020 camp would be held, pending the state and governor’s executive orders about progressing to second- and third-stage public operations. Once the governor’s approval came, the board decided to take another path despite being bound by an existing lease.

“The town canceled their camps early on because they didn’t think they would have time to properly prepare as the camp rules were very fluid and late coming, and thus it is very difficult for a government municipality with all its bureaucracy to operate and get things up and running. But a private organization like Camp Shalom can respond with agility and doesn’t have the same operational constraints and can make changes to comply with guidelines,” said Levine. “We are one of a few private camps in Teaneck that is not run by the Teaneck Board of Education or the township, and we expected to be able to comply with the guidelines to their fullest.”

“We want to maintain a long-term relationship with the Teaneck BOE, and when we were formally informed about the lease breach, the superintendent stated the BOE is hoping for our return next summer. There is a loss involved and an extreme inconvenience for township residents. We want to maintain a formidable working relationship with the BOE and achieve an amicable resolution going forward. We hope and expect we’re going to come back next year,” said Levine.

“It was our understanding from the superintendent that this would be discussed publicly at the board meeting based on a request from the board, and we also communicated that the camp would fully comply by state requirements, guidelines and shared guidance should there be any questions needing discussion. He communicated that he was supportive but the board had mixed feelings about it and that they would ultimately make the decision,” said Levine.

“I would expect that if you were going to materially breach a contract, you would discuss that publicly, but that did not happen.”

Deputy Mayor and Councilman Mark Schwartz, who is also The Jewish Link’s co-publisher, commented, “If the state said it was legal, there is no reason why Camp Shalom could not open, especially given that the Board of Education benefits from the Camp Shalom revenue as much-needed income. Saying that town camps didn’t open is just an excuse. Hundreds of kids will not be able to have a summer camp in Teaneck, and the Board of Education and the taxpayers lose out on income.” As the camp’s six-figure rent is included in the BOE’s budget as revenue, funding will likely need to be taken from somewhere else, Schwartz explained.

Also, “Since the camp has fewer students than the school, the COVID precautions put in place and practiced by the camp inside the building might have served to better prepare the school for the return of students in the fall,” possibly benefitting some of the labor-intensive preparations required by the school, Schwartz added.

As a rescue, Camp Shalom has announced that Yeshivat Noam in Paramus contracted with Camp Shalom to use the yeshiva’s facility for this year’s camp program.

The Jewish Link attempted to obtain comments from Teaneck BOE President Walser, but was unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for Superintendent Irving, Terry Corallo, did not respond to specific requests regarding Camp Shalom, but shared that the superintendent planned to publicly address the use of facilities/rentals over the summer on Wednesday evening, after The Jewish Link was scheduled to go to press. However, “Any time there are contract negotiations or discussions, they are first reviewed with the board in executive session,” Corallo said.

By Ellie Wolf