Sgt. Pilla Middle School? Public Hearing Set for Oct 17 in Vineland

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On October 17, the Vineland Public School Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the renaming of the Lincoln Avenue Middle School.

VINELAND, NJ  — Jennifer Pilla admitted she just couldn’t let it go. After the Vineland Board of Education declined to name Lincoln Avenue Middle School after anyone, including her late brother, Vineland High School graduate and Army Ranger Sgt. Dominick Pilla, last spring, she felt determined not to give up.

At an October 17 school board public hearing, Pilla will get her chance to make an official case for the school to be named for her brother, who died in the legendary Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, which was dramatized in the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down.

Since being initially turned down, Pilla’s determined effort to change the school board’s mind won a groundswell of community support that reached all the way to the New Jersey statehouse.

“I think he would be pleased certainly by the support,” Jennifer Pilla said of her brother, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device and the Purple Heart for his heroism. “Dominick was a product of Vineland Public Schools. He was an outstanding soldier.

“When he decided that he was going to join the military, it wasn’t because he didn’t have any other options. He was determined to be an Army Ranger. …. This was something I did not realize until I read accounts spoken to other guys that he served with, he was a motivating person in their lives.”

Pilla died while he was part of Operation Restore Hope, an Army Ranger raid to capture the warlord Mohammed Addid in Mogadishu and the following efforts to recover and extract fellow Army Rangers from a downed Black Hawk helicopter when the convoy was ambushed.

The board had decided back in March not to take community input in naming the school, keeping it as Lincoln Avenue, where the school is located, upsetting Jennifer Pilla, a third-grade teacher at Pauline J. Petway Elementary School in Vineland.

Helen Haley, Vineland Public Schools business administrator and board secretary, said she wanted to be clear that the board at the time declined to take public input on naming the school after anyone, and did not specially turn down Pilla’s request about naming the school after her brother.

“Shortly afterwards, my parents got a letter in the mail from someone who served with Dominick,” Jennifer Pilla said. “It was a letter that was like 25 years in the making. It was a really nice letter and a great testament to my brother’s character.

“I said that this happened for a reason. They got this letter for a reason and I felt like I couldn’t let this go. I went back to every board meeting hoping that they would change their decision.”

According to Vineland school officials, district policy requires that a person must be dead for at least five years and contributed their time, funds, efforts or resources to a program, facility or volunteer organization within the school district or city for a school to be named after that person.

Pilla said she started online and paper petitions, gathering nearly 3,000 signatures. Community members started to speak out about the idea and by the school board’s July 11 meeting, the body voted 8-1 to reverse course and take community input about the name change.

“That was a victory,” Pilla said.

Haley said that, according to school district rules, they had to open up the nomination process to the public, which drew 11 more name requests, including two to keep the current school name. Other names to be considered are Salvatore Ciarlante, Lee Fiocchi, Frank Giordano, Edgar Hill Jr., Roland Kandle, Miles Lerman, Harry P. Mazzochi, Mark Melamed, Michele Morgen, Carlo A. Ricci and Bernice Seibert.

Each person making the nomination will get up to three minutes to speak at the October 17 hearing. After that, the board members will privately pick up to three names to consider as finalists. That total will be tallied and the top three names receiving votes will be presented to the school board in alphabetical order as finalists.

From there, the board will accept a motion from the finalist list. If that motion receives the majority of the votes, Lincoln Avenue Middle School will be renamed after the nomination. If no motion occurs or if the motion does not have a majority of school board votes, the name of the school will remain the same.

Momentum appears to be in Pilla’s favor. Just this month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a resolution naming October 3 as Sgt. Dominick Pilla and Cpl. Jamie Smith Day in honor of the two New Jersey-born residents who died during the Battle of Mogadishu.

State Assemblyman Ryan Peters, of Burlington, who served overseas as a Navy SEAL, led the charge to get Pilla and Smith honored statewide.

“Many of our heroes fighting for us in foreign lands are often nameless to the general public,” Peters said of Pilla and Smith in May, according to SenateNJ.com. “When people make the ultimate sacrifice these two men made, they deserve to be known.

“Every October 3rd, I propose the State of New Jersey celebrates the courageous lives of Sergeant Dominick Pilla and Corporal Jamie Smith. I can’t think of two people more deserving of this honor,” Peters continued.

Jennifer Pilla said Peters’ effort came out of the blue after the assemblyman read about her efforts to rename the Vineland school.

“He said if Vineland is not going to recognize your brother, I want to do it at a state level and that’s how that got started,” she said. “I can’t thank people enough who supported this.”

While there may be other nominations to be considered, Pilla said she feels her brother’s life story would be ideal for the students who would be attending the school.

“People who served with him spoke so highly of him and how he motivated them,” Pilla wrote. “He was just a born leader. He was a mentor to all of these guys who were struggling with the physical aspects of it and the mental aspects.

“I just think he’s such a good candidate, not only because he died. Unfortunately, that is one of the criteria, you have to be dead five years. It’s more than that. I think it’s more about his character and the person that he was. He could be a role model for students going to that school presently,” she added.

There is some opposition to the Pilla renaming. Board member Chris Jennings, who cast the lone no vote at July’s meeting, has said he wants all veterans to be acknowledged and believed the process could limit that ability.

“[Dominick Pilla] was a regular kid from average means. We didn’t grow up with much. A lot of the kids in Vineland can relate to that,” Jennifer Pilla said of why she thinks her brother’s nomination will stand out.

“The military is a way to get an education and I think he would be an example of something they could aspire to be,” she added.

In the end, Pilla said that she hopes the board decides to give the school a name from those recommended.

“The support from the community has been overwhelming,” Pilla said. “The board could decide not to name it at all. I think Lincoln Avenue is a cop out. I hope they do name it after someone.”

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