School Board Members: “Frogs at the Bottom of a Deep Well”

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Late Sunday night yet another Trenton Board of Education  member resigned, leaving only four members of the nine-member, mayor-appointed group, one less than a quorum and, thus, unable to approve any district appointments, allocations, contracts, or programming initiatives. According to the Trenton Times, Roslyn Council sent in her formal letter of resignation to Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, following the lead of Sasa Olessi-Montano and Mary Taylor Hayes, who both resigned earlier this summer. Another member resigned earlier in the year.

But not to worry: While the Times notes that “[i]n the meantime the school board will be unable to take action on any school district items with the start of the school year two weeks away,” the district attorney, Kathleen Smallwood Johnson said “there is nothing that is essential to the start of the school year that would require board approval.” Mayor Jackson will, accordingly, take his time and appoint new members  in “another week or so.”

Actually, at the meeting on Monday that was cancelled due to lack of a quorum, the published Agenda has 91 pages of recommendations,  including  approval of annual contracts with preschool providers,  a “Proposal for Bilingual/English as a Second Language Department for the 2014-2015 school year at a cost not to exceed $272,812.00,”  updated math curricula, and new supervision and intervention programs at various city schools intended to “provide students…with a safe environment before and after the regular school day.”

Reality check for Mayor Jackson and Ms. Johnson: school boards typically approve lots of agenda items during  the summer that “are essential to the start of the school year.” In fact, many boards schedule special meetings towards the end of the summer in order to assure smooth school openings.

Many of these items tend to be related to last-minute changes in personnel as unanticipated needs crop up.  Students with disabilities may suddenly need one-on-one assistants  (and there are 15 such appointments on Trenton’s Monday agenda that were never approved). Or there’s an enrollment surge or unexpected retirements  or building maintenance issues or new programming  that requires additional staff members and allocations. In all fairness, Trenton has a Fiscal Monitor and the long list of personnel changes listed on the Agenda are annotated with the phrase “administratively approved.” So maybe the school board in Trenton is otiose, which would reasonably  dissuade long-term board membership. Who wants to be a rubber stamp?

There’s a wonderful facebook page run by Jim Carlucci, otherwise known as “Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger” (his own term of endearment).  Yesterday Carlucci posted the Trenton Times article and a former Trenton Board member, Bernard McMullen, commented,

Individuals join the board hoping to improve schools for all children. Instead, they get swept up in an unrelenting tidal wave of bureaucratic trivia until they can’t take any more and resign.

Seven board members are charged with being the community’s voice on the use of more than $300M annually by meeting twice monthly. That’s almost times the size of the municipal budget. The actual physical organization of the budget has little to do with education but everything to do with state reporting. It is virtually impossible to trace out whether or not a board policy has been implemented as expected.

If you look at the ‘organization hierarchy’ chart, the school board is always at the top — supposedly setting policy, assessing quality of implementation and benefits to students. However, the reality is that you feel like a frog at the bottom of a deep well trying to guess what is going on above based on leaves and birds flying by.

Many board members will read that final phrase – “a frog at the bottom of a deep well trying to guess what is going on above based on leaves and birds flying by” – and almost weep in commiseration. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. In well-functioning districts, or at least those without powerful fiscal monitors, board members can learn over time to evolve from feckless amphibians to warm-blooded overseers.  Clearly, Trenton has a long way to go.

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