NJ School Leaders at Shore Conference Say They’re Drowning in Mandates

John Mooney | October 24, 2013 | Education
Board members and administrators say they’ve been inundated with more and more ever-changing state regulations

Paterson school board member Jonathan Hodges posing question to legislators.
The flux in New Jersey public education these days was all too evident this week as nearly 5,000 New Jersey school-board members and administrators traveled to Atlantic City for their associations’ annual conference.

The two-day New Jersey School Boards Association’s Workshop 2013 featured many of the usual programs for the annual event, including sessions on board relations, collective bargaining and the like.

But front and center was a new emphasis on the latest hot topics in New Jersey education: tenure reform, national testing and the new Common Core State Standards.

Technology vendors were especially evident in the cavernous exhibit hall of the Atlantic City Convention Center, looking for business connected to new online testing and other programs.

One pavilion – with a half-dozen corporate sponsors – focused specifically on building up school districts’ capacity to provide the new online tests known as PARCC that are slated to start in 2014-15.

And for the people who have to make it happen, the unrest and uncertainties inside districts was equally on display in a few of the workshops. Late yesterday, it came to a head as more than 100 school board members and administrators pleaded with state legislators to help them cope.

It wasn’t so much the Christie administration’s education agenda itself, but how they said it is being implemented without much regard for the impact on districts.

“If I could have anything, could we just have a year of stability?” asked Barbara Garrity, a Holmdel school board member, listing the host of initiatives and mandates coming down simultaneously.

Garrity said the state’s budget rules alone have changed in each of her eight years on the board. “We seem to be dealing with mystery and instability year and after year,” she said.

Added another board member: “Why isn’t the Legislature helping us with these mandates?”

Michael Scarneo, a Dover school board member, said data and guidance come out of the state Department of Education in “dribs and drabs,” leaving schools scrambling to make plans.

“It doesn’t appear that anyone has thought this through,” said Scarneo.

The targets of the pleas yesterday were hardly unsympathetic, at least those who showed up. Just three legislators attended the workshop, as well as one before held it that was hosted by the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an organization of mostly suburban districts.

But the legislators — two Democrats and a Republican — each concurred with the frustrations they are hearing from constituents over the wave of education changes.

Maybe most notable was the Republican in the group, state Assemblyman Dave Wolfe (R-Ocean), who said even Republicans like himself are hearing little from the administration or the State Board of Education about their plans.

“We don’t have any contact with any of those people,” Wolfe said. “We don’t know about initiatives until they happen, and then we are reacting to them.”

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said the frustrations haven’t been so much over the goals of the administration, but over the way they have been rolled out.

Jasey had sought a resolution calling for a delay in the implementation of new teacher evaluation requirements, but even as a nonbinding vote, the Democratic leadership never posted it for action by the Legislature.

Still, Jasey said yesterday said that she will seek in coming months to address whether the Christie administration’s implementation and regulations are in keeping with the new tenure law.

“What I’m hearing from districts and administrators is the department does not grasp the impact of the changes,” she said.

A dominant topic was what has been a political third rail for legislators: the Christie administration’s unilateral imposition in 2010 of salary caps on school superintendents. The salary cap of no more than $175,000 for superintendents in a vast majority of districts has been criticized for driving dozens of veteran leaders out of the state, or at least into retirement.

The school boards association said it is currently surveying districts for hard data on the impact of the cap, and would present its findings in the next month.

The legislators on hand didn’t add much yesterday, saying that they would be open to at least some differentiating between parts of the state where the cost of living is higher. But the caps were imposed by regulation, and the Legislature has so far had little say – and has preferred to keep it that way.

Commenting on issues on which they have more influence, state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), an educator, said he and his colleagues are “collectively rolling our eyes” at all the changes being required of teachers through the state’s teacher tenure law, known as TEACHNJ.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that people are willing to bail on this,” said Whelan, an elementary school teacher who also is former mayor of Atlantic City. “It is just overwhelming.”

Still, he also added a word of caution, if not a little resignation, having seen similar waves of reform before.

“This one size fits all approach doesn’t work, it won’t work, and I guarantee in three or four years, we’ll see a change to something else,” Whelan said.