N.J. school district hires communications officer as high school newspaper adviser

NEW JERSEY — The Hunterdon Central Regional Board of Education voted 8-1 on Monday to approve the school district’s communications officer as the student newspaper’s adviser. Last month the district tabled the vote following objections from students, who said the hire could create administrative censorship.

Alexis Morillo, The Lamp’s co-editor-in-chief, said the students did not address the board Monday, unlike at last month’s board meeting, because they already asked the board to reconsider the appointment. They also met with the superintendent and other administrators involved in the decision to appoint Nancy Tucker as the student newspaper’s adviser.

“At this point we just didn’t know what else to do, and we knew that their mind was made up,” Morillo said.

John Tagliareni, a member of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and a past president of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, said appointing the district’s communications officer is “an effort to control what goes on in the student press.”

Tagliareni compared the district’s appointment to the White House press secretary leading The Washington Post.

“Putting a PR person in charge just sends a signal” that the district is interested in PR and maintaining control of the publication, he said.

Superintendent Christina Steffner met with the editors last week and told them the decision to appoint Tucker, the district communications officer, wouldn’t change, Morillo said.

At a Sept. 15 board meeting, The Lamp co-editors-in-chief Morillo, Sonay Barazesh, former editor-in-chief Annie Nazzaro and Barazesh’s father said the proposed change in adviser could cause censorship of students’ stories if Tucker rejected story ideas based on potential controversy, and the board postponed its vote to approve Tucker as adviser.

In September the superintendent recommended the board approve Tucker as The Lamp’s adviser instead of Bob Behre, the prior year’s adviser. Tucker is the executive producer of the district-owned public access television channel and webmaster for the district in addition to the communications officer.

Steffner said she posted the adviser position on March 30 and noticed mid-July that no one had applied. Behre said he didn’t know he had to apply to be the adviser each school year but wanted to continue advising. Steffner reposted the job and Tucker and Behre applied and were interviewed.

Behre, a high school sports reporter for The Star-Ledger, who has also been employed at the school for five years, became the adviser last year after the adviser of 10 years resigned after the district created a prior review policy.

Morillo said the main concern with Tucker as adviser is that editors may “second-guess” themselves and limit their creativity in stories because they don’t want the stories to be considered inappropriate.

Steffner and Tucker did not respond to phone and email requests for interviews. Claire Curry, the school board’s president, and Paul Ransavage, the board member who voted against the appointment, did not respond to email requests for comment.

Morillo said the change in advisers means she and the co-editor-in-chief will have to adjust their “vision for what we want the paper to be” this year. Morillo said the staff plans to meet with Tucker in the next week to talk about the first issue, which will be published in November.

“There’s a lot of disappointment on a lot of fronts about the whole situation,” Behre said. “I feel bad for the kids. The kids wanted me to be their adviser.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.