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Morristown Students Lament Loss of Mentor

High School students share their feelings on the removal of Steve Woodruff from his position as audio/video technician.

Jake Goldberg addresses the Morris School District Board of Education.
Jake Goldberg addresses the Morris School District Board of Education.

Emotions ran high at the Morris School District board of education meeting as a group of parents and students stepped up to the microphone to plead their case for Steve Woodruff, the audio/visual technician whose job was eliminated by the board at the start of this year.

“I spend every day in the WJSV broadcasting room and it is so different without Mr. Woodruff,” said sophomore Abby Semple. “Mr. Woodruff really helped me learn a lot as a student and as a person.”

Jake Goldberg said that the dismissal of Woodruff was tantamount to the butterfly effect referenced in the Ray Bradbury story A Sound of Thunder. In the tale a time-travelling scientist strays from the path and crushes a butterfly under his shoes, altering the future.

“You guys are the scientist that stepped on the butterfly,” Goldberg said.

Michael Chase brought with him a petition signed by 250 students, Jeremy Herbert said that the faculty and students that being asked to pitch in and cover in Woodruff’s absence are being overtaxed. Dominic Cupo told the board he was pulled out of an AP test to plug in a microphone

Others spoke of the loss of friendship, consistency, and stability. Some expressed concerns that events like the school play and fashion show wouldn’t be able to continue and that the station itself could be impacted in the long term. Cupo said that he is training some underclassman, but that would not be enough going forward.

“Once I am gone and once they are gone there is only so much they can impart. Like the game of telephone it is lost in translation,” Cupo said. “Mr. Woodruff was that conduit to knowledge.”

Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra said that while he was sorry to disappoint the students, the decision that was made was the best one for district.

“I realize that I can’t replace a friend or someone you are close to but we can replace the services,” Ficarra said. “The play, project graduation, the fashion show will continue.”

Ficarra said in fact that the new system they have in place should improve operations at the radio station, which was off the air for several months with a damaged piece of equipment.

“It was mentioned several times the equipment was broken. That was part of some of the reason for looking into the reorganization. The transmitter was down for three months under the old administration,” Ficarra said. “We have a company now that can come in same day or within a few days and repair the equipment. A highly professional company with high sophisticated employees.”

Ficarra acknowledged the members of the public didn’t have all the information, because “some of it is just not appropriate to share in public.” Ficarra maintained that the school will continue with the broadcasting program without cuts in services. And the change made this month saves the district $81,000.

“Between salary, overtime and benefits Mr. Woodruff made $94,000 last year,” Ficarra said. “Giving Mr. Butler a stipend for the extra hours a day, which he has accepted happily, and with graduates assisting we have saved $81,000 from the budget. That is what we are here to do.”

Ficarra said when the district realized they did not have the capacity to fix the equipment when it broke down, it was the impetus for change.

“Now we have that capacity. They will be coming in at a moments notice,” Ficarra said “If we had them on board in the fall the three month down time wouldn’t have happened.”

Ficarra said that while there will be hiccups as the new system gets up and running, things like a student pulled out of an AP exam should not happen. Ficarra also said that newly installed Principal Mark Manning should be the first point of contact for concerns and went out of his way to allay concerns about the radio station closing.  

“We love our radio station and it will not be providing less services and children will not be deprived of time in that station,” Ficarra said.  

Students like Helen Burgess weren’t swayed.

“I was a little lost puppy when I was a freshman and I didn’t really have a group to call home and Mr. Woodfruff was part of that family and you guys took him away,” Burgess said. “It is unfair for people like me who never really had a home and you took away someone who was a key person in my home.”

Ficarra said that he appreciated the passionate and articulate thoughts posed by the students, but the decision was not going to be reversed.

“I understand people are emotional about friends, but we have a fiduciary responsibility,” Ficarra said.

Moira January 28, 2014 at 09:42 AM
Superintendent Ficarra is patronizing his students by repeatedly referring to Mr. Woodruff as their "friend." It's dismissive and condescending. It seems obvious Mr. Woodruff was more than a friend to these students, and I'm dismayed that he didn't acknowledge that, whether or not he is going to change his mind about the elimination of that position.
Phil Pine January 28, 2014 at 01:34 PM
I don't know what Mr. Woodruff's qualifications are but simply put $94K/annum with basically three months off during the year is a helluva' lot of $$ and (I suppose sadly) and an obvious cut that needed to be made. I'm sorry to say that. Me and my Wife each do not make that salary with our MBA's and with all the corporate 'crap' you have to put up with daily (right?). Heck, I know some Lawyers who probably don't make that. I do think its great however that the kids are there to support him. It's a great school and community like that.
Sally Beck January 28, 2014 at 11:23 PM
That's great that a company can come in on short notice and fix the equipment but who is going to 'fix' the students the way Mr.Woodruf did? Is this new, efficient company going to mentor the students? Will they help a lost freshman find their way? How about giving confidence and understanding to a student trying to find their voice on the radio for the first time? It sounds like this decision was made by only thinking of the hardware and not considering how much Mr.Woodruff contibuted to motivating students to be involved and feel a part of the program and the school.
Sarah Price January 29, 2014 at 09:52 AM
Awful, just awful. Another poor decision by the Superintendent. Where I once support Ficcara (regrettably many years ago over the Woodland School Art on a Cart project), I see that bad decisions continue. Such a shame that the school district doesn't get the big picture...again. It's the students who suffer...
max tax January 29, 2014 at 10:26 AM
Unfortunately Dr Ficarra's so-called fiduciary responsibility doesn't extend to his making up a fake job for a past MHS principal at $160k+.
Connie January 29, 2014 at 11:24 AM
Woodruff did a lot more than just run WJSV, the fact that the transmitter was down for 3 months was not his fault and it doesn't mean he was sitting around doing nothing. Anything and everything that involved running audio/visual equipment in the school was in his realm of responsibility and if not, he did it anyway. He helped coordinate the filming and recording of any sports activities and games that were covered, he made sure that equipment was set up and working for assemblies, the many presentations in the auditorium and library, concerts, plays, musicals, coffee houses, presentations during Art & Design week, and he ran the audio for the middle school plays, musicals and talent show. This is all above what he did to help bring the broadcasting department up to current day standards. The staff and students knew who to go to when there was a problem--do they know who to go to now? Graduates filling in to cover his duties? Who's going to be the mentor to teach future students how it's done? There's no consistency. Beyond all this, how patronizing to call him merely a friend? He is a mentor to dozens of students each year. Would you call your mentor just a friend who is expendable because of fiduciary responsibilities? And since the Board went there, I can personally think of several teachers in that school who barely teach, let alone even dream of mentoring any body and I'm sure they're paid as much, if not more, than Mr. Woodruff. Why don't we look into how to replace them with effective teachers who care and do teach and do mentor? Apparently I was under the misconception that a School Board's responsibility is to make sure students are taught, not to cut capable personnel because it doesn't fit in the budget. Yes, a budget does need to be adhered to, but I believe that there must have been a more prudent way to do it without sacrificing such a valuable staff member.
Rich Herbert January 29, 2014 at 01:00 PM
My Understanding about the "Radio Transmitter being down for 3 months" was that it had NOTHING to do with Mr. Woodruff. The station had a quote to repair the transmitter, and was awaiting SCHOOL BOARD APPROVAL for the funds. Can someone with knowledge of this please confirm?
Morris98 January 29, 2014 at 01:10 PM
Did we pay a search firm for the new principal at MHS. If so what friend of the district got paid? There was no need to pay a search firm, Manning had the job all along.
Harriet Knevals January 29, 2014 at 01:43 PM
@Phil Pine. First of all, the school year ends late June and begins early Sept.--that is not three months. Secondly, teachers nor their representatives set the school calendar-- that is done by the boards of education. Thirdly, it's time to stop demeaning teachers with the comparison to corporate jobs. Apples and oranges. It's a put down equal to "she's just a housewife."
Phil Pine January 29, 2014 at 02:13 PM
Harriet, I think everyone who read that knows what I meant when I said "three months," Ok, I meant to say 2.25 months off IN A ROW (NOT including the Holidays). I apologize for not being versed in exactly what a school board does. As far as as the corporate comparison goes and your demeaning perspective. Sorry to break this to you but EVERYTHING is a number now so although I highly respect the Teaching profession it is not above that comparison, so, get over it. BTW, I wonder if a 'paycut' was offered to Mr. Woodruff? IMO it may have solved a lot of these issues.
Harriet Knevals January 29, 2014 at 02:49 PM
Really? Paycut. Given the freezes, increased pension payments (that Christie doesn't want to pay his lawful amount), and increased health insurance, the teacher has already taken a pay cut. I do agree that some of those changes had to be made; however, when's the last time those who claim to represent the people of NJ have taken a pay cut, etc. I'm not about to get over it and you're not breaking anything to me that I haven't heard before. Undercutting one group of people will not solve NJ's problems. Respecting teachers means valuing them and giving them their due value. I'm sure you feel the same way about your job.
Rich Herbert January 29, 2014 at 03:20 PM
@ Phil Pine: Dear Phil, Mr Woodruff was willing to take a pay cut, but none was offered. Regarding his salary: I believe his base pay was approx 74K a year. The value of his medical benefits was about 10K. And he was asked to work a lot of overtime, that may have accounted for another 10K. That is where the 94K figure comes from. It was not his base salary. Also, as radio station engineer, he did work during the summer. Respectfully, Rich Herbert
Phil Pine January 29, 2014 at 03:52 PM
Harriet, I'm only (gasp) 50 y/o and have been laid off twice. From a simple persepctive really I'm just trying to point out that, to use your expression, absolutely no one is valued regardless of what they feel they should be valued on etc.. I can write all night long on what I've experienced in the last ten years. Honestly, it almost mirrors details that you've posted. So, what the Teacher has experienced in NJ I have basically as well and sometimes worse. As a friend of mine used to say in his thick Irish brogue: "Ayy, I shoulda' binna Plumma..." Again, I want to be cautious by not appearing to attack Mr. Woodruff as I'm sure he's a fine Teacher.
Harriet Knevals January 29, 2014 at 04:01 PM
Rich's post answers the paycut comment. The real losers here are the students whose lives he has touched. Sad all the way around. Our society will pay dearly for the lack of support for teachers and their ability to freely deliver quality education to their students.
Phil Pine January 29, 2014 at 04:19 PM
@Rich. I wasn't sure what the exact breakdown was on his salary or that a paycut was offered; I was just reflecting on the article. No doubt I'm sure he earned every penny! At this point in my career when I read that someone is at 94K a year it makes me take notice to see what they do and if it's justified, that's all.
Rich Herbert January 29, 2014 at 07:11 PM
believe me Phil, I understand. Thank you for listening. Rich
PeterB January 30, 2014 at 09:44 AM
@Harriet - The students will be just fine. We have created a society in which students get whatever they want. For them to be disappointed is a good thing because the last 20 years has created a society where youths get whatever they want and don't understand "NO" for an answer. Second education should be run more like a corporation because once they get tenure many teachers (not all) will just cruise. We should have a right to fire teachers for performance. That is when we will see education at its finest.
Harriet Knevals January 30, 2014 at 10:15 AM
@Peter. Wow! I am trying really hard not to rant. I'll bet that none of the responders in this thread received their education in a system run like a corporation. There has always been a system in place to remove "bad" teachers. Their supervisors needed to follow proper procedure and provide documentation. But, alas, many of the supervisors were/are deficient themselves. In most cases, the (bad) teachers showed signs of deficiency before receiving tenure. There's a new system in place that hopefully will streamline the process. Keep in mine that that these are children in school, not products. Running the schools like a corporation is a terrible idea. That will stifle creativity both with the teachers and students. And, as far as the comment on children today, I don't see that either with those I taught (urban) or those I know in my life. Sorry you feel that way about today's children. The students who fought for their teacher were standing up for their right to protest what they thought was an injustice. So many of our rights and changes in society came from people who wouldn't take "no" for an answer. Oh, no! I ranted.
Brenda Carter January 30, 2014 at 12:25 PM
Why am I not surprised of the MSD "eliminating" yet every another position to "technology". They ought to be ashamed of themselves - again. Granted, Steve had a hefty salary, but does anyone know what some of his job actually entailed....among some of his duties, he was present for just about every event that took place before, during AND after school. He was a highly respected instructor, mentor, AND a friend. Again, MSD - shame shame shame on you - AGAIN - oh....Steve is an African American (ummmmmm) - a Black man with a good salary - hmmmmmmmmm - go figure :)

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