NJSBA Power Play

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In yet another sign of New Jersey’s struggle over home rule, the Asbury Park Press editorialized yesterday that, in wake of the diploma mill scandal in Freehold (James Wasser, the superintendent, received tuition reimbursement and a raise by buying a degree from a bogus school), the DOE should

develop a standard contract for school administrators — one that prevents school boards and superintendents from loading them up with outrageous perks and benefits and gives boards the tools they need to dismiss administrators who have acted unethically or brought discredit to their districts.

Local school boards have always independently negotiated contracts with superintendents. Some do better jobs than others; it goes with the territory when you cull your board members from a volunteer pool of do-gooders, no experience necessary.

Playing defense, the New Jersey School Boards Association hit back with an attempted end-run around another potential usurpation of power by proposing that it would issue a standardized contract. In an op-ed in the Trenton Times, Marie Bilik, Executive Director of NJSBA announced that, in light of public alarm,

The New Jersey School Boards Association …recommends that local school boards establish a process for checking the validity of degrees and that they designate a staff member to perform the function. In addition, NJSBA’s new model superintendent contract will call for submis sion of all academic credentials to the school board — whether the degree is required for state administrator’s certification, or not.

In other words, Bilik said, we’ll take care of it. Leave the State out of it, please, and let the NJSBA provide standardized contracts. Bilik also formally endorsed S2127, a bill sponsored by Senate President Richard J. Codey, Sens. Shirley K. Turner, and Jennifer Beck. The legislation would require the obvious: that administrative degrees come from accredited institutions, that limits be placed on reimbursement, that employees commit to serving a certain number of years to receive reimbursement.

It’s a bit desperate. As the State takes more and more control away from local school districts, NJSBA is trying to wheedle away a tiny piece of the pie. Anything contrary to solid local control is anathema to the culture of home rule, so it’s a major concession to pass off contract language to anyone at all. How far is NJSBA willing to go to hold on to a bit of their dignity? This far: they’ll take on NJEA. Says Bilik,

Opposition has come from the state teachers union, however. It backs efforts to ensure the validity of academic degrees, but believes that S2127’s provisions addressing tuition reimbursement go too far and infringe on the local collective bargaining process.

The New Jersey School Boards Association does not share the union’s concern about S2127’s impact on negotiations. The legislation reflects prevailing practice statewide, as well as the association’s advice to local school boards. It would give boards of education the flexibility needed to negotiate even firmer controls over tuition reimbursement practices. At the same time, it would ensure the academic integrity of the degrees received by local school district employees.

Oh, snap! Take that, NJEA. We’ll have it both ways: admit that past practice – letting school boards manage complex contract negotiations — is, well, not working very well, at least in Freehold. (Let’s let pass the fact that the other 500+ districts seem to do just fine. We seem to be in the business of letting bad cases make case law.) We’ll keep contract standardization away from the State and in the hands of the school board reps, yet position ourselves with the State, united against NJEA.

It’s a nifty bit of political dodgeball from the normally staid school board association. We’ll stay tuned for NJEA’s response.

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