School Board Members Air Their Concerns, But Is Anybody Listening?

John Mooney | October 21, 2010 | Education
Only one invited legislator puts in an appearance at significantly downsized annual conference

The location may have changed and the attendance was down with the economy, but New Jersey school board members at their annual conference yesterday had their usual gripes for invited legislators.

With microphone in hand and speaking from the audience, Tom Connors of the Piscataway school board said he’s sent letters to his state representatives over one urgent issue or another facing his district in this difficult fiscal year.

“We get back the same form letters that they are working on it,” he said. “Short of picketing their offices, we don’t know what to do.”

And no wonder, when just one legislator was actually on hand for the annual conference hosted by the New Jersey School Boards Association, the state’s largest for school board members and administrators. The two other invitees sent their regrets.

A Difficult Year

It’s been that kind of year for school boards and administrators, who are second only to the teachers unions in Gov. Chris Christie’s and the legislature’s offensive against public school spending.

Drastic cuts in state aid, new caps on expenditures, and tough limits on administrators’ pay are just a few of the issues concerning districts. The latest jab is a legislative bid that all school board members go through criminal background checks, and on their own dime, making them the only elected officials to face such scrutiny.

Just the location of this year’s conference was evidence of the changing times. For the first time since 1952, the conference was not being held in Atlantic City, as the school boards association sought to meet new rules enacted under former Gov. Jon Corzine that limited travel expenses for their members.

Instead, the annual conference was held in the Garden State Exposition Center in Franklin Township, split across separate buildings and connected by shuttle buses. Because of the limited space and tight local budgets, the association took in just 2,600 registrations, well down from the usual 4,500.

A Whirlwind of Activity

The legislative panel – for what it was – was held in an outdoor tent, attended by about 100 members. The sole legislator to attend was Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), herself a former board member from South Orange-Maplewood.

And as a member of the Assembly’s education committee, she conceded it has been a whirlwind of activity around school policy of late. In addition to all the new limits and cuts, New Jersey in the last six months has been home to the Race to the Top debacle and the excitement — and uncertainty — over the Facebook founder’s $100 million gift to Newark schools.

Jasey voiced her own frustration keeping up with it all. “We’re trying to deal with the issues before they become the crisis of the week,” she said.

Nevertheless, she gamely took questions from the audience and school board leaders, and provided some predictions on key issues yet to be decided. For instance, one of the next big topics for debate is tenure reform, with Christie pressing for changes in how teachers and principals are to be evaluated, paid and retained.

The school boards association has also made its own proposal, releasing a white paper earlier this month that called for longer time frames for tenure and an easier process for firing teachers.

Jasey predicted that in the end, there would be significant changes, saying that both Democrats and Republicans appear poised to act on an issue that has long been untouchable in New Jersey.

“This is not just a New Jersey issue, but tenure reform is also a national issue,” she said. “The time is right to take it on.”

The deliberation has yet to begin, but the assemblywoman predicted that tenure protections would likely take longer than the current three years of service, and then may come after that with a renewable five-year contract.

“That’s probably where it’s headed nationally, and it makes sense to me,” she said.

The predictions rang hollow with some, even on an issue that has been a favorite of school board members. Jasey cited the latest initiative by the Christie administration to devise a statewide evaluation system that would factor in student achievement, with a task force soon to be named.

But Lyndhurst board member William Barnaskas said as long as the system remains that makes it difficult to remove ineffective teachers, a new evaluation system will only do so much.

“Administrators have the ability to evaluate now,” he said. “It’s really about a system that has precluded them from using that to get rid of those not doing a good job.”