By MADDY VITALE
Four new Ocean City Board of Education members who defeated the incumbents in the November election were sworn in Wednesday night in a seismic shakeup caused by community backlash against the state’s controversial sex education standards.
Catherine Panico, Liz Nicoletti and Robin Shaffer, who ran on a slate, and Kevin Barnes were sworn in by School Business Administrator Tim Kelley during the reorganization.
There was also a change in leadership. In a 9-3 vote, Chris Halliday, who is in his first year on the board, was appointed president. Dr. Patrick Kane, who lost in the November election, had been the board president.
But while Halliday became the leader of the board, there was no vice president chosen. School Board member Joe Clark was the vice president.
In an unusual situation, the board deadlocked on who would hold the vice president’s post.
Both Cecilia Gallelli-Keyes, a 12-year veteran of the board, and Upper Township representative Fran Newman each received six votes from board members to succeed Clark.
Board Solicitor Michael Stanton said that the board would have to take three votes on the position.
After three votes, with still the same result, Kelley said the matter would be referred to Cape May County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Judith DeStefano-Anen for a determination on who would be vice president.
Separately at the meeting, school board representatives from Upper Township, including incumbents Newman and Bill Holmes and new member Kristie Chisholm, were sworn in.
Panico, Nicoletti and Shaffer won election in November following their opposition to the Board of Education’s approval last year of state sex education standards that they assert are too graphic for schoolchildren. They were part of broader community opposition toward the sex education curriculum.
Three of four incumbents who lost the election had voted in support of the sex education curriculum, which includes standards on how New Jersey schools should teach sex and gender identity.
“We Belong Cape May County” is a recently formed nonprofit organization made up of parents, students, educators and others who want to make it clear that the LGBTQ community should be supported in the school district, the town and throughout the county.
Over the past four months, “We Belong” members have spoken out in response to what they say can be a “toxic climate” in the district. They have held peaceful protests and attended Board of Education meetings.
In November, the Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution establishing the PRISM Club for students from the LGBTQ community as an official club at the high school.
During Wednesday’s meeting, several members of the group and other concerned residents urged the school board to be inclusive and took note of the new board members, asking that they be open-minded and accepting of all people.
“Please remember you represent everyone of Ocean City, not just those you agree with,” said Ocean City High School senior Keely Calloway, who has been vocal about the need for others to support the LGBTQ community.
Jakob Pender, a 2022 Ocean City High School graduate, has been instrumental in the We Belong organization, acting as a group leader for the students.
He also addressed his concerns to the board.
“I want to remind the new board members that the guidelines apply to all students, and all students should be made to feel welcome,” Pender said, adding that their sexual identity should not matter.
Carolyn Rush, of Sea Isle City, said she is not a parent, nor is she a part of the We Belong group. She is simply a concerned resident.
“It came to my attention that students who come to your school harbor feelings toward the LGBTQ community that are very hurtful, and I want you to stop the hurt,” she implored of the board.
Gina Abarno-Johnson, a concerned parent and teacher, said there are “many people who have concerns about the newly elected board members.”
“I can say with certainty — as a parent — it is my hope that the priorities of all board members are acceptance and understanding,” Abarno-Johnson said.
Other members of the audience, including Ocean City residents Dave and Marie Hayes, spoke on behalf of the new board members, saying they are good people and that the issue at hand should be education.
“I want to congratulate the newly elected school board members. I think one of the immediate challenges is the state of the educational system,” Dave Hayes said. “We really need to be laser-focused to assist our educators and get back on track.”
Marie Hayes said the new board members faced scrutiny but, “Ultimately, they won by a landslide.”
The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. in the library of the Ocean City High School. For more information, visit www.oceancityschools.org.