The separation of church and school is still a topic of healthy debate at Phillipsburg School District.
During Monday night's school board meeting, the topic of removing Walter Tutka, of Belvidere, NJ, from the substitute list for the year due to his handing a Bible to a student in school brought out a full crowd of supporters from the area.
Tutka stated a quote from the Bible, "The first will be last and the last will be first," to a student who was last in line exiting his classroom at Phillipsburg Middle School. The student became inquisitive about the quote, later asking Tutka where it was from. Tutka stated "the Bible" and after further questioning answered "I believe it's from the Book of Matthew" but he would look it up and get back to him.
Tutka told the Phillipsburg Board of Education that he didn't have a chance to look it up, and the student came to him, "not five, six, but seven times" asking about the biblical statement.
On October 12, Tutka responded to the student and pulled out a Bible during lunchtime to show the student the passage. This action led Superintendent George M. Chando to recommend to remove Tutka from the district's approved substitute list for the year due to violating school policy.
Tutka, who is a retiree of an electric company, has been substituting since January in seven different schools. Out of 80 days substituting last year, Tutka stated 49 days were in the Phillipsburg district and this year, out of 30 days, 28 had been in Phillipsburg so far this year.
A motion was originally made and seconded to remove Tutka from the substitute list but after further discussion the topic was officially tabled until next month's board meeting. Over 40 minutes of discussion was held by community members who came out to voice their support for Tutka, reiterating the importance of the Bible. Many stated Tutka was merely answering a question from a student, doing his job as a teacher.
"I ask that the board would consider a personnel policy review of what's going on before it comes to this type of vote," said board member William Spencer, asking that they "review it to see if the punishment that's being levied actually fits the crime." The Board of Education sided with Spencer and voted to table the final decision until the next meeting with a vote of 9 - 2.
"We know as a teacher that you are never to cross that line about talking about the Bible in school," said school board member Rosemarie Person, who is a teacher herself. Person stated she was required to attend a workshop on how to not make statements that would get her into trouble as an unbiased educator.
"You can tell them where to go reference that quote that you gave without handing them the tool itself," suggested board president Kevin J. DeGerolamo, who disapproved of Tutka's approach.
"I'd like to continue to substitute teach, but again, that's your decision, not mine," Tutka said.
Tutka told 69 News that he believes it was "a wise move of the Board of Education" to not rush into a decision and table the action. After the board speaks with personnel, the item is expected to be untabled at the next school board meeting for discussion and vote.
The next Phillipsburg School Board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. December 10 at Phillipsburg Middle School, 525 Warren St., Phillipsburg.
Tutka wouldn't go on camera Tuesday but he says it's a "wise decision" not to rush anything.
The district won't comment. Officials say it's a personnel matter.