Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Job Nobody Wants

Last year, Aberdeen had twelve candidates competing for four positions on the town council. This year, Aberdeen has three candidates competing for two positions on the school board. The candidate from Matawan is, once again, running unopposed. Our school district represents the norm. Across New Jersey, it’s difficult to find any district where the proportion of candidates to seats is at least two to one. Why are political activists drawn to town government but not school governance?

By any objective standard, the board of education should be the greater magnet for political activism. Our district has over 3,500 students and over 450 employees. The school budget is nearly three times as large as the combined Matawan-Aberdeen municipal budgets and consumes over four times as much tax revenue. Yet, school districts lack the one element that attracts all political activists – power.

Imagine the power of the town council. Don’t like the town manager? Fire him. The town attorney, town engineer, and all the professional vendors have one-year contracts. The town council can regulate residential and business development. They can pick winners and losers among competing proposals. The mayor and company can envision a future and build it. The council can reward friends and punish enemies. And they can demand respect. No one dares risk the wrath of the town council.

Then consider the sad predicament of a member on the board of education. Don’t like the superintendent? You can’t fire him so you harass him until he decides to get a job elsewhere. Unhappy with a teacher? Learn to live with it. Want to make some changes? Which part of the bureaucracy doesn’t have a special constituency? Which part of the school system isn’t regulated by state/federal laws? Want to focus on the big picture? First you’ll have to deal with all the minutiae that require board approval.

Then there’s the teachers union. Recently, they’ve begun picketing in front of schools and board members’ homes.

Hope you enjoy the long hours. Board members work about twenty hours a week without pay.

And for what? To be attacked by the community for not doing enough? No wonder more people don’t pursue such an exalted position.

Still, girded with determination and vision, the board of education wields enormous power. As a community, we need to attract the best among us to lead the school district. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Travel Allowances – Board members have a tough time explaining the long hours to their families. Plus, it costs about $1,000 to run an effective campaign for election. Financial compensation may encourage more people to run. Rather than give a salary, though, which could entail taxes and pension contributions, I would suggest travel allowances up to $5,000. The board members would have complete discretion how to use the travel allowance so long as it’s somehow related to education to avoid triggering legal or tax implications.
  2. Resources for Pet Projects – Provide each board member $20,000 to pursue a pet project. The projects will require board approval and must be fully available for public review.
  3. Stringent Meeting Rules – Give each board member 5 minutes to speak and you’ve blown through 45 minutes. Allow time for administration officials and you’ve passed an hour. Meeting agendas should be provided at least three business days in advance and each member should be required to submit written opinions prior to the meeting. The board president will also need to exercise greater control of the floor. By speeding along the meetings, the board can remain effective while lightening the burden on family life.
The costs involved with these proposals amount to one-tenth the annual budget increase. By compensating board members, giving them greater opportunities to be effective, and restricting the length and number of meetings, we can make the positions far more attractive. The more people want to participate in the school district, the better off we’ll be. >>> Read more!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Marketing Matawan-Aberdeen

Three factors determine a business’s location – access to resources, access to clients, and cost. Businesses are a boon to any community because they provide jobs, services, tax revenues and require comparatively little in return. Matawan and Aberdeen appear ideally suited to attract the business community. We have an attractive neighborhood with easy highway access and public transportation, close proximity to Metropolitan New York, the Philadelphia area, and the Jersey Shore, and an educated workforce. So, why aren’t businesses moving here?

The first issue is marketing. Look at Monmouth County’s website - www.VisitMonmouth.com. Notice the name - Visit Monmouth. Then, right on the home page is a “Welcome to Monmouth County” followed by a banner ad – “Monmouth County is Great for Business”. Other interesting links – Tourism, Info Center, and Doing Business with the County.

Then, look at the websites for Aberdeen Township and Matawan Borough. No welcome, no business liaison, no information on why anyone should hang a shingle in our town or consider moving here. No mention of local attractions, amenities, or the high-tech companies in our area - iVoice, PacificHealth Laboratories, SpeechSwitch, Deep Field Technologies, and Vonage in nearby Holmdel. Nor any reference to Matawan being ranked by BusinessWeek as the 12th best place in the nation to raise children.

Good websites cost no more than bad websites. Our websites should have information describing why our neighborhood is attractive to businesses and family friendly. From local attractions, to a major train line, to large undeveloped areas, to a local government eager to assist the business community, we should be marketing all of it.

But would it be enough? There’s a popular story about a dog food executive who can’t understand why his product is flopping. After all, he uses the best ingredients, the best packaging, and the best marketing. Finally, one of his subordinates responds meekly “Dogs don’t like it.”

It doesn’t matter how attractive we are to corporate America if the rank and file don’t care for our area. On that score, the municipalities should work with the school district and the local Chamber of Commerce to promote everything we have to offer families, from student achievements, to fine dining, to local attractions and parks. Within a couple miles, we have Funtime America, Keansburg Amusement Park, Holmdel Park, and Sandy Hook. We also have excellent shopping, affordable housing, and very low crime.

Lastly, we have to recognize that we’re competing with every other town for new business. It’s not enough to be as good, we have to be better. Aberdeen and Matawan should establish a joint business liaison office that assists businesses with zoning, building permits, financing, taxes (i.e. PILOT programs), and bidding for government business. The business liaison’s office would also be responsible for working with local business leaders and the local Chamber of Commerce to develop plans for improving and marketing our neighborhood.

An old rule of business is that money goes where it’s most welcome. We have a great community. Let’s promote it.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Aberdeen’s Councilmen Vote Themselves a Raise

“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
- United States Constitution, 27th Amendment

This week, Aberdeen’s elected representatives on the town council voted unanimously to give themselves a 7.7% raise. In sharp contrast to the district’s board of education, these folk don’t work for free. Why did they give themselves a raise? Because they could. Do they deserve a raise? Depends on who you ask. Does the unanimous vote reflect the will of the people? Absolutely not.

Measuring an elected official’s performance is an inherently subjective endeavor. Mayor Sobel and crew obviously believe they’re doing a terrific job and eminently worthy of a pay hike. But are there any objective standards to suggest they’re doing a great job?

One objective standard is the recent election where Democrats swept all four council seats at stake. But each winning candidate only won by a plurality; a majority of voters opposed their candidacies. By extension, we could assume that most residents would oppose giving salary increases to these same people.

Another standard is the one set by Ronald Reagan in 1980 – Are we better off? The best way to measure that is by home values. Considering the housing stock in our area is fairly flat, home prices are a reflection of people’s desire to live here. The more desirable the neighborhood, the more prices rise. Obviously, there are economic and regional factors as well, so we need to compare the change in local market prices with the overall area.

Over the past ten years, home values in our neighborhood rose lockstep with Monmouth County in percentage terms. At best, the town council can claim to have done no harm.

Perhaps we can use the Janet Jackson standard - What have you done for me lately? The town council could demonstrate how they’ve held the line on municipal taxes. Unfortunately, that claim rings hollow when Aberdeen has the third highest tax rate in Monmouth County.

Of course, the town could point to all the improvements made to infrastructure, public parks, and the like. But if these were so exceptional, wouldn’t they be reflected in home prices?

Meanwhile, all the major projects remain on standby – the transit village, Anchor Glass, Aberdeen Forge, shore development, etc.

The town council may be right to think the voters will forget by the next election cycle. Mayor Sobel may be right to think most voters won’t care. But none of that makes it right for them to pad their pockets with our money. Who’s to say the council members have a greater entitlement to taxpayer money than the taxpayers themselves.

On a side note, I’d like to offer my best wishes to former town manager, Stuart Brown. Mr. Brown is a public servant who believes, in word and deed, that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around. I pray that all public servants should pursue that same ideal.
>>> Read more!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cheers - Overall Test Scores Are Up

Click Here for the New Jersey Report Card

First, the good news. On the statewide HSPA English exams, Matawan-Aberdeen student scores have gone up across the board and surpassed the state average. A quarter of our pupils scored “Advanced Proficient” in math. Plus, our students’ scores went up while the rest of the state witnessed a decline in scores. The lower grades show even more dramatic improvement.

Now, the bad news. The proportion of students who failed the HSPA Math exam leapt 61%. Our students scored below average in HSPA science. SAT scores in math, verbal, and essay, are below the state average and dropping.

The discrepancy is puzzling. Why would math scores on the high end jump higher while those on the low end plummet? Why would our pupils score above average in all ranges on the HSPA English exam but then score below average on the SAT English portion?

My theory, and this is only a theory, is that we are witnessing the scourge of “teaching to the test”. In talks with school officials, the focus is frequently on test scores. Tests are only supposed to be used as a measure of overall education but they’ve become an end in themselves, as if the ability to answer multiple choice questions had any special value. In turn, teachers have been pressured to “raise test scores”. This explains why HSPA scores would go up while SAT scores go down. Students are becoming more proficient in taking HSPA exams but not necessarily becoming more proficient in math, English, and science.

In high school, my teacher for Calculus BC lost control of the class and we were woefully unprepared for the AP exam. Still, the assistant principal strongly encouraged us to take the exam and we did. Looking over prior exams, I discovered a system in the multiple choice portion. The multiple choices were designed to hide the correct answer by being as similar as possible. This meant the most common elements were in the correct answer. For example, regardless of the question, if given the following choices: (a) 2 (b) X (c) 2X (d) 4X (e) 2X^2, I can tell the answer is (c) 2X. Why? Both 2 and X appear in three of the five choices.

Despite being unable to do the short answer portion of the exam, I still passed, scoring a 3; I must have gotten a near perfect score on the multiple choice questions.

I believe teachers spend a fair amount of class time training their students to excel in the HSPA exam. The result is that test scores go up even though students learn less, as is evident in the SAT exams.

This is a natural and disastrous consequence of putting so much emphasis on the state standardized exams.

Yet, I remain a strong proponent of standardized exams. The trick is to devise a testing method where the easiest way to train for it is by actually mastering the material. One example is the adaptive testing method used by Northwest Evaluation Association. Adaptive tests change the difficulty level of successive questions based upon the student’s ability to answer them. These adaptive tests are far more accurate in measuring a student’s proficiency level than the state exams and it’s less likely a student could excel without mastering the coursework.

This still doesn’t answer why there was a dramatic increase in high scorers on the HSPA Math exam but an even more dramatic increase in failures on the same exam.

My guess, and this is only a guess, is that students at the lower end of the spectrum are being targeted for “special instruction”. Considering our high school has three times the number of special education teachers per student as does the state average, I’m assuming we expend a significant amount of resources on underperforming students. If so, we’re doing something very wrong and I’m certain the administration will be quick to examine what happened.

One year doesn’t make a trend but it may mark a turning point for our school district. The faculty, administration, and student body should be commended for a job well done. There’s more to do but it appears we’re heading in the right direction.
>>> Read more!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Divided Board Welcomes Dr. O'Malley

Finally, a fight.

After spending months trying to stay above the fray at public forums, School Board President Larry O’Connell thumped the opposition at Monday’s Special Action Meeting. The special session, convened to appoint Dr. Richard O'Malley as the superintendent of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, gave light to the raging debate within the school board over how to improve education.

Dr. O’Malley received a four-year contract with an annual salary of $173,000 plus benefits. Because his current employer, the Mountainside School District, won’t release him early, the board also offered Dr. O’Malley a four-month phase-in period, to begin immediately. During the four months, Dr. O’Malley has agreed to work when available and will be compensated $750 per month.

The board voted 6-3 to approve the contract. In opposition were board members Demarest, Barbato, and Zavorskas. Mr. Barbato argued against the contract because Dr. O’Malley had not guaranteed a minimum level of service for the $750 monthly fee. President O’Connell called the argument “ludicrous”; Dr. O’Malley had already agreed to work four full days in February and the fee is less than half a percent of the total contract. When Mrs. Zavorskas later complained of not being included in a preliminary review of the budget, President O’Connell accused her of “grandstanding”. Mrs. Demarest did not comment on the appointment. (To her great credit, Mrs. Demarest only speaks when she has something to say.)

Contrary to the opposition’s insistence that they were only against the contract, their true focus was Dr. O’Malley.

The school board is divided into two wings – the “Diversity” (progressive) wing, led by Mrs. Demarest, and the “Standards” (traditional) wing, led by President O’Connell. The first dispute between them is how to improve education.

The Standards wing believes we need to raise standards and expectations at all levels and then offer sticks and carrots to ensure those standards are met. Just as they believe we need to raise the bar to improve education, so do they believe that lowering the bar will impair education. The Standards wing rejects the notion that we should lower expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Diversity wing believes it is inherently unfair and potentially damaging to hold every child to the same expectation levels regardless of background. Rather, they believe the school district, to the best of its ability, should cater to the individual needs of the student. They support reducing class sizes and providing individualized programs.

The second point of divergence is how to measure education. The Standards wing believes that standardized exams, however imperfect, are the best objective means we have to measure how much our students are learning. The Diversity wing believes that feedback from teachers, parents, and students – those people most involved, most affected, and most knowledgeable – is the best indicator of academic performance.

The appointment of Dr. Richard O’Malley is a clear victory for the Standards wing. According to the school board, Dr. O’Malley has an established history of raising test scores while controlling costs as Chief School Administrator of the Mountainside School District. He also has a reputation as a tough administrator who runs a tight ship. (During the special session, MRTA President Carl Kosmyna raised allegations that Dr. O’Malley had once yelled at a teacher.)

The Diversity wing opposed the appointment on grounds that Dr. O’Malley worked in a school district that resembles Holmdel far more than Matawan-Aberdeen. Mountainside is a white bread school district that has very few poor folk or racial minorities. His lack of a “diverse” background is compounded by the fact he never managed a high school.

In the end, we all wish Dr. O’Malley the very best and pray that he leads our school district to new heights. But his appointment won’t end the ideological quarrel between the two wings. Nor should it. This is an argument worth debating.
>>> Read more!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Mayor Buccellato's Challenge

Matawan has the highest tax rate in Monmouth County but the borough controls less than one-fifth of property taxes. Can Mayor Buccellato provide tax relief?

Upon taking office, Mayor Buccellato announced the municipality would no longer make pension contributions to professionals and part-time employees unless mandated by statute. Though the move will save thousands of dollars, it won’t put a dent in next year’s forecasted $22 million of appropriations. Even if the Republican mayor could achieve draconian spending cuts in a Democrat-controlled borough council, any tax reductions would be minimal.

That leaves revenue as the only possible means to reduce the tax burden. The two obvious sources for substantial revenue increases are the Transit Village Project and Main St. Revitalization.

The Transit Village Project (TVP) is unlikely to start any time in the near future. In addition to economic conditions, community opposition, and disputes between Matawan and Aberdeen, COAH now requires one affordable housing unit for each five new residences, making these large development projects even less appealing.

Meanwhile, Main Street’s largest commercial tenant, C-Town, has decided to close their doors after only a year; the supermarket continually lost money while being picketed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s Local 464A.

What to do? For any meaningful tax relief, Mayor Buccellato would need to find $2 million between cost savings and increased revenues in a small borough with a $9 million budget. Absent the Transit Village Project and Main St. Revitalization, which would take many years, I don’t see how it’s possible. Still, here are some measures the Mayor could consider:

  • Establish a shared services committee consisting of Matawan’s borough administrator, Aberdeen’s township manager, and the school district’s business administrator. While the municipalities share some services, they should be far more aggressive. For example, Matawan and Aberdeen both hired Realty Appraisal to implement the municipal revaluations. They probably would have saved money by requesting a joint bid. Other departments and services that could be shared: police, park maintenance, road maintenance, capital improvements, and professional services.

    (Though I still believe Matawan and Aberdeen should merge, I now agree with blogger, Truth In Matawan, that we should first merge services until the political landscape becomes more receptive to a municipal merger.)

  • Establish a joint task force between Matawan, Aberdeen, and the school district to actively pursue grants at the county, state, and federal level.

  • Initiate a corporate sponsorship program of public parks and facilities similar to the Adopt-A-Highway program.
I believe these proposals could save the average Matawan household about $150 per year. Not much but better than nothing. >>> Read more!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Not Your Daddy's American History

Special thanks to Kimberly Honnick, Assistant Superintendent of C & I, for providing me a copy of Glencoe's "The American Vision".

  • George Washington – Commonly hailed as the “Father of our Country”
  • John Adams – Author of our nation’s oldest constitution (Massachusetts) and defense attorney for the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre
  • Benjamin Franklin - the Renaissance man of his day, he was a writer, philosopher, inventor, businessman, statesman, and diplomat
  • James Madison – Credited as being the “Father of the Constitution”
  • Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – Both men died within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence
These are just a sampling of facts you’ll never learn from reading our high school’s American history textbook.

The Matawan Regional High School uses Glencoe’s “The American Vision”, probably the best of the four nationally recognized American high school textbooks. A victim of political correctness, the textbook is over 1100 pages long, weighs over 5 pounds, and has lost all sense of narrative.

America’s War for Independence, from 1776 – 1783, receives a scant 8 pages (5 if you discount the pictures and charts). A war of tremendous sacrifice and extraordinary heroism has been reduced to a simple timeline of events.

Consider the Battle of Trenton. Here’s my version:
After the British captured New York City (and accidentally burned it down), they headed for Philadelphia, home of the Continental Congress, but had to stop early for winter.

Washington’s army was inexperienced, untrained, poorly equipped, and of low morale from the recent defeats in New York. Plus, most of the soldiers’ enlistments were due to expire on Dec. 31st. Washington needed a victory or his army would disband.

He called for support from General Lee and General Gates but both men were scheming to take Washington’s position and withheld support (though Washington did ultimately receive reinforcements). Undeterred, Washington planned a dawn attack on a military outpost of Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. He chose the day after Christmas, hoping the enemy would still be recovering from a night of revelry.

The password for launching the offensive was “Victory or Death”. As immortalized in a painting by Emanuel Leutze, Washington crossed the Delaware River amid the raging waters, heavy ice floes, and pitch darkness. Washington then led his men for nine miles through a sleet storm that rendered many of their rifles inoperative; two of his men froze to death during the march.

When they arrived, Washington’s soldiers achieved complete surprise. In 45 minutes, the Continental Army had captured or killed over 900 men. A few days later, Washington was again victorious in some minor skirmishes outside Princeton.

Flush with victory, most of the Continental Army re-enlisted.
Here’s how “The American Vision” recounts the Battle of Trenton:
At this point, Washington tried something daring and unexpected – a winter attack. On December 25, 1776 [sic], he led approximately 2,400 men across the icy Delaware River. The army then attacked a group of Hessians at Trenton in the middle of a sleet storm. They killed or captured almost 1,000 men. Several days later, at Princeton, Washington’s forces scattered three British regiments. Having achieved two small victories, Washington headed into the hills of northern New Jersey for the winter.
The textbook version completely misses the significance of the Battle of Trenton and the challenges Washington faced (not to mention getting the date wrong).

Nowhere is Washington recognized for extraordinary bravery or leadership as when he rode his horse between British and American lines at Brandywine Creek. Nowhere is he credited with single-handedly holding together the Continental Army despite Congress’s inability to supply the army or pay the soldiers’ wages.

Following the war, Congress not only refused to pay back wages to the soldiers, but slandered the officers and denied them any recognition for victory. Washington alone prevented a military uprising. None of this is recounted among the textbook’s 1100 pages.

I’ve used George Washington as the prime example but all of our founding fathers receive short shrift. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (“A penny saved is a penny earned.”) never gets a mention. Nor do his scientific accomplishments (electricity, bifocals, Franklin stove, etc.) warrant a footnote. As an aside, he also founded the country’s first public library, first firehouse, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Federalist Papers, the arguments underpinning our nation’s constitution (”If men were angels, no government would be necessary”) are relegated to a few samples in the appendix.

Even the myths that have become part of American lore are never mentioned (i.e. Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Hancock signing large enough for King George to read without his glasses). Nor is there any recognition that the founding of our country marked the greatest advance in human civilization since the invention of the printing press.

The “missing history” goes far beyond the examples I’ve given and far beyond the American Revolution.

Do our students learn beyond what’s in the textbook? I don’t know. While each teacher is free to use supplemental materials, there is no standard curriculum beyond what appears in the textbook.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, our textbook is likely the best one available. What to do? Retain a panel of historians from local universities/colleges to formulate a list of the most significant persons and events in American History. Then, make that list available for public comment. Once finalized, adopt excerpts from popular books (with prior approval from the publishers), creating a simple reader as a supplement to the textbook.

“The American Vision” has serious shortcomings. We can do better and should.
>>> Read more!