Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blog Like an Aberdeener

I’m opening my blog to anyone in the community who wishes to write an article. Any local elected official can submit an article and it will be published as is. For everybody else, I prefer opinion pieces that are substantiated with sources and are written coherently. Special preference will always be given to opposing viewpoints. If I believe edits are warranted, the author will be able to review those edits prior to posting.

In all instances, I will require some form of contact information so that I can confirm the author’s identity. All articles can be emailed to Aberdeener@gmail.com.

There’s no secret where I get my information. Although it’s fashionable to think I have a “source” at the township, the reality is far more mundane. Sometimes I hear stories from old timers, often I read the comments on my blog for ideas, but, most of all, I read old news stories and then check if there’s a story behind the story.

Below are the request forms and sites I use the most for my research. If anyone wishes to suggest additional resources, I welcome the input.

OPRA Requests –
Township Versionsubmit to Karen Ventura
School District Versionsubmit to Sue Irons
County Version – follow county instructions
(Please note my version of the township OPRA form is slightly different from the version on the township website. My version is less confusing.)

State / County Records -
State Property Tax
County Property Tax
County Tax History
County Property Records
County Municipal Overview

Meeting Minutes –
Aberdeen Township
Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District

Google -
Scholarly Articles
Google Advanced Search

New Jersey State –
Department of Education
Election Law Enforcement Commission
Business Gateway Service (lists businesses and their officers)

Local News -
Asbury Park Press
The Courier

National News (editorial) -
Wall Street Journal
NY Sun
Washington Post
Washington Times

Local Blogs -
Matawan Advocate
Matawan Aberdeen Observer
Read All About It
>>> Read more!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Aberdeen Democrats’ Latest Election Filing

I always look forward to the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee’s quarterly filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. The filings often contain interesting tidbits and the latest filing doesn’t disappoint.

According to their 2nd quarterly report, the democrats have not received any political contributions this year (the amount on hand was left over from last year). This isn’t an election year so that would make sense except that, in 2006, the Executive Committee had raised $4,200 by this same point in time (see contributions in 1st quarter and 2nd quarter filings).

Then there’s the new party chairman, Bill Shenton. He succeeds longtime chairman Robert Axelrad who moved to Monroe. Shenton had replaced Councilwoman Gumbs as chairperson of the township’s planning board after she was elected to the town council. He earned a bit of “acclaim” for introducing the “McMansion Bill”, an ordinance that restricts the building height for homes. Unfortunately, he did this after being the swing vote that approved Ciaglia’s request to again subdivide a property, this time on Atlantic Avenue. (Notice the restriction is only on height. Shenton may have felt awkward asking for a size restriction since he lives in a 3200 square foot house.)

Once again, Councilman Vinci is still on the payroll, this time for “Expenses and Promotion” (page 7). He’s collecting over $2,000 a year in quarterly payments. Each payment takes place shortly after the previous quarter’s filing date and has been this way for years. I can’t tell if he’s simply taking money at the earliest opportunity or if he needs it to pay his property taxes.

Former Township Attorney Norman Kauff is still running the show through his wife’s name. Judith Kauff is still the person who signs the checks. Her name had disappeared from last quarter’s filing but it was likely just an oversight.

However, the one item that truly caught my attention was a $250 payment to Charles Uliano (page 7). Looks like they bought an hour of time from the former Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor. Why would the local Democratic Party need a consultation with the former prosecutor? Makes you wonder.

So, a new party chairman, zero contributions, and a one-hour consultation with a former assistant county prosecutor. Meanwhile, Kauff and Vinci are still up to their old games. Yup, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
>>> Read more!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Aberdeen’s Financial Wizardry

In 1999, Congress budgeted $4.5 billion in “emergency funding” for the 2000 census. The national census is constitutionally mandated to be done every 10 years yet Congress chose to budget it as an “emergency” to avoid spending caps. 7 years later, Aberdeen Township followed suit and declared the upcoming property revaluations a “Special Emergency” but with two caveats. Aberdeen Township budgeted for nearly twenty months into the future and borrowed $450,000 over a year before a penny of it was needed.
The property revaluation raises several fiscal questions. First, why did we not issue a joint bid with Matawan? Both municipalities used the same vendor, Realty Appraisal Company, at approximately the same time. (Aberdeen delayed the property revaluations to take place after the elections for town council.)

The next question is why did we borrow $450,000 over a year before we needed the money? A bond was sold to Columbia bank in December, 2006. The revaluations weren’t scheduled until 2008 and we still haven’t made any vendor payments. At 3.87% interest over a 13-month period, that’s over $20,000 in unnecessary interest payments on a five-year note.

Perhaps the township borrowed the money early to lock in a low interest rate. If so, why didn’t they purchase an interest rate swap instead? An interest rate swap is similar to a futures contract – If interest rates go up, your profit offsets the higher cost of borrowing. Furthermore, 40% of the principal is being paid back before making the first vendor payment. We borrowed $450,000 to pay Realty Appraisal Company but will only have $270,000 on hand when the first bill comes due.

The next question is why did we borrow any money at all? The township has over $3 million in the bank for reserves - that's 40% of the township's annual tax revenue (budget - sheet 39). We could have just “borrowed” the money from ourselves and paid it back into our own accounts with interest. Why give money to the bank?

(As an aside, this was a nice win for the bank. Columbia lent the money to the township, which then deposited the money in Columbia. The bank not only profited from the interest spread but was able to add to its reserves and increase its ability to make other investments. To its credit, the bank is a significant contributor to the Educational Foundation.)

That leads to the larger question of what we’re doing with our money. I share everyone’s concern that we don’t trust our elected officials to make investment decisions on our behalf. Still, why wouldn’t we purchase short term (2-5 yrs) AA corporate bonds that offer higher interest rates? How secure is the bank? If the bank fails, the FDIC insurance would only cover $100,000. Who do you trust more? Columbia Bank or bonds issued by AIG?

Maybe the township could reserve one day a month to brainstorm how to save us money. They’d still have the rest of the month to continue their free spending ways.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where Our Teachers Go To School

This past year, half of the teachers in the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District, who acquired masters degrees, attended Marygrove College. According to Wikipedia, Marygrove is a Catholic liberal arts college “sponsored by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” and “committed to fostering Christian values”.

Have our teachers found God or a way to game the system? Marygrove is located in Detroit Michigan. It awards masters degrees through a distance learning program. These teachers, like so many others in our school district, got their masters degrees through the internet.

During the 2007-2008 school year, eight teachers received masters degrees. Among these eight teachers, 75% of them got their degrees from attending classes online. Four teachers attended MaryGrove College and two attended Walden University. (I blacked out their names.)

As previously discussed, there is no evidence that advanced degrees improve learning. On the contrary, participants in Teach for America (primarily recruited from top universities), despite lacking experience or advanced degrees, perform far better than the average teacher.

That three-quarters of our teachers are now getting their masters from online universities is one reason we’re not getting any bang for our buck.

Using Marygrove as an example, the masters program is 30 credits and takes two years to complete. The total cost is $11,700 minus the $3,000 reimbursement from the school district. Talk about return on investment. After $8,700 in school expenses, the degree recipient receives $7,500 (adjusted upwards annually) for the rest of his teaching career.

As for the teacher’s newfound degree, it’s a Masters in the Art of Education. No, I don’t know what that means, either, but, to obtain a Masters in the Art of Education for Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment, K–12, a teacher must take courses in

  • Teacher as Leader
  • Understanding Teaching and Learning
  • Instructional Design
  • Effective Assessment
  • Teacher as Researcher
Perhaps I’m just old fashioned but, in my day, teachers were expected to know the material they taught. Not all experts are great teachers but every great teacher is an expert in his field. These fuzzy courses have zero relationship to the material being taught.

I’m not the only person who doesn’t recognize these masters degrees. Marygrove lost its accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) over two years ago. Walden never even received professional accreditation for their masters program.

That’s right. We’re giving teachers a $7,500 raise for degrees that not even teachers recognize. It’s no surprise these teachers are all attending the same online schools. They likely found the cheapest/easiest track to a higher pay grade. The University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest online school, requires forty credits to Marygrove’s thirty and charges nearly $200 more per credit.

Kudos to Ms. Jennifer Barsi and Ms. Zebunisa Saeed. They went to real schools and got real degrees in real disciplines. Ms. Barsi received a masters degree from Kean University in Teacher of Handicapped. Ms. Saeed got her masters from Rutgers University in Mathematics Education. Too bad they represent a small minority.

No wonder fewer than half of our seniors pursue a four year college or university. They don’t value education any more than their teachers do. >>> Read more!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Agenda in Plain Sight

“The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple”
- Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter

I have recently been accused by several people of having an agenda. The allegations are true. I do have an agenda, but not the one they suspect. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter, my agenda has been hiding in plain sight all along. From the township, I want honest service. From the school district, I want parents to be empowered to determine the best education for their children. Once both goals are met, I’d like to retire from blogging.

During the recent school board elections, there was a “scandal” when one of the board members solicited campaign contributions from school employees. The only reason it was considered a scandal was because it violated a BOE bylaw. In contrast, Aberdeen Township doesn’t haven any constraints against seeking campaign contributions from township employees.

In the 2003 municipal elections, the democratic candidates had Township Attorney Norman Kauff’s wife help manage the campaign (she was one of two people authorized to sign checks). How could anyone expect the Township Attorney to promote and defend the township’s interests when his wife takes a leadership role in the local Democratic Party? Worse, it was common knowledge that Kauff’s wife was operating on his behalf.

Then came the stories of pay-to-play, a developer’s tax deal, and a councilman being paid “consulting” fees for his own re-election campaign. Not one response from the township to defend or explain why. If silence is consent, these misdeeds must have had the township’s blessings.

In the school district, it’s been a battle against the bureaucracy. Spending is out of control. Student performance is in the bottom 25% for the county. And the district’s big idea is Response to Intervention (RTI).

After being presented evidence that RTI was more likely to hurt students than help them, the district chose to forge ahead. Following the political saw that good news doesn’t wait, the results from RTI must be quite troubling.

The district had initially agreed to provide preliminary results last March. That has since been postponed to September. Meanwhile, without any firm evidentiary basis the program works, RTI has been fully funded for another year.

What’s my agenda? I want parents to decide what’s in their children’s best interest. I want to know that my elected representatives are acting in our best interests. I want to spend more time writing novels and screenplays that nobody wants to read.

My sole political allegiance is to our community. In last year’s municipal elections, I voted for both Democrats and Republicans. I’ve been a fierce critic of all school board members.

Last month, I reluctantly adopted a temporary policy to tone down the articles, not target any council member, and restrict comments to those with aliases. Since then, readership participation has dwindled to a trickle.

At the end of this week, I will gradually remove those restrictions. Some of the articles will be taking a sharper tone. No public person will be immune from criticism. Readers will once again be able to post anonymous comments.

That does not mean there will be zero standards. Comments attacking "private" individuals or using outrageously offensive language remain forbidden. Nor will I allow commenters to intimidate others from posting comments. In the coming weeks, I hope to develop a comments policy similar to the one at RedBankGreen.com.

I will also begin opening the blog to other voices. Aberdeener.com has always encouraged opposing viewpoints but now I wish to invite others to publish articles, both news and opinion, as well.

All people are now welcome to submit articles of relevance, particularly our public servants. Any person wishing to submit an article only needs to email me at aberdeener@gmail.com, include his name, a one-line bio (i.e. “Plumber, 20-year Resident of Aberdeen”), and a phone number to authenticate he is who he claims to be. No anonymous articles will be accepted.

For those people who feel they’ve been unfairly attacked and unable to defend themselves, this should remove any perceived barriers. Particularly, elected officials will be able to have their voices heard, unedited and unfiltered, through this website.

Opposing viewpoints will always be given special consideration. While I am grateful for and encouraged by those who share my views, I prefer open debate.

To that end, I will also be creating a resources page. Many people have been wondering where I get my information. There's no secret. I will post the resources I use including websites and sample OPRA requests.

Lastly, our elected representatives have been able to ignore this blog because relatively few people read it. Many have also engaged in a whispering campaign, hoping to neutralize the blog before it grows large enough to have a real impact.

I intend to begin marketing the blog later this year. I think this blog reaches 150 homes in Aberdeen, 2% of households. My goal is to reach 10%. If I’m going to be judged, let it be by my own words and actions.

Aberdeen has such awesome potential. I look forward to the day I can relax and witness its triumphs.
>>> Read more!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Alternative Revenue Sources for Our Schools

Following the recent resignation of his administrative assistant, Superintendent O’Malley opted to not fill the position. Rather, he asked his administrative officers where the greatest need was. The answer was finance. Given the drumming from last year’s financial audit, out-of control spending in the day-to-day operations, new reporting requirements under New Jersey’s QSAC regulations, and budgetary cap restrictions, Business Administrator Sue Irons has her hands full. A new assistant would enable her to do what she was hired to do – budgetary planning and oversight.

Remarkably, school board member Zavorskas opposed creating the new position on the grounds that the assistant was being hired to do part of the Business Administrator’s job. (The seeming inference was that, if Ms. Irons was unable to perform her job, rather than give her an assistant, we should find someone to replace her.) In her own defense, Ms. Irons cited a number of new responsibilities that she was assuming, including the search for alternative revenue sources.

Former board member, Ken Aiken, had repeatedly argued for a grants writer. How wonderfully reassuring to finally have a business administrator who doesn’t believe we should just shakedown the taxpayer for every budgetary shortfall.

With all due respect to Ms. Irons, may I suggest the following areas where the district could raise additional funds.

Grants –
Many of our extracurricular and special education programs would qualify for private and public grants. The school can provide grant writing workshops and then encourage faculty, students, and parents to apply for grants to support their programs.

At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any state grants available. On the federal level, how about writing a grant proposal for the National Center to Improve the Recruitment and Retention of Qualified Personnel for Children with Disabilities? The grant is $500,000. Best hurry. Deadline is July 24th.

As for the private sector, here’s a list of the largest foundations and a list of the most generous philanthropists. To my knowledge, every Fortune 500 company supports charitable causes as well.

In all likelihood, many of the programs we now offer would qualify for grants if we simply altered the focus to align with the grants' goals. For example, if the district had a club or class that focused on natural science, they could qualify for a $2,000 grant from Lowe’s. If the music program focused on engaging as many people as possible, there’s a $5,000 grant from the Guitar Center Music Foundation. How about $10,000 for a literacy program from Verizon? Best Buy is giving $5,000 grants for innovative technology programs. And the list goes on.

In all likelihood, the biggest private grants will come from the major foundations. If our teacher’s union was willing to allow performance bonuses for teachers, we could possibly get over $100,000 from the likes of the Gates Foundation to fund the bonuses.

Sponsorships –
The list of sponsorship opportunities is quite long. From the athletic fields to the athletic programs to the vending machines to Huskievision to extracurricular programs to the outsides of school buses.

Alternative Energy –
New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program appears to be in flux but that’s probably a temporary situation. Given the state’s commitment to fighting pollution and promoting conservation, grants and financing will likely become available again to help districts transition to alternative energy sources. With financing, we could reap significant savings from wind and solar power solutions.

Program Fees –
The facilities are only being used for half a day. We could have adult education programs, tutorial classes, fee-based extracurricular programs (i.e. karate, yoga, and dance), and entertainment.

If we had a successful grants workshop program alongside sponsorships and fee-based programs, would it reduce the tax burden? Hardly. Even $400,000 in additional revenue would offset less than 1% of the school property tax. Yet, that money could go towards programs initiated by the teachers, students, and parents. Enabling the community to develop programs funded by grants would be a significant first step in shifting control from those who run the schools to those who use the schools.

The school budget is nearly $63 million. A couple thousand dollars to manage a grants workshop would be a welcome expense.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More Evidence of Grade Inflation

I previously described how our students’ classroom grades appeared to greatly exceed the state’s assessments (see Grade Inflation). I also explained that New Jersey State considers anything above 50% to be proficient. What I failed to mention, however, was that even the state assessments are exaggerated. To get a true picture of how our students are doing, we need to look nationally and internationally. It’s not a pretty picture.

When the No Child Left Behind Act was first developed, there was sharp disagreement among Republicans whether the federal government had any proper role in education, a fundamentally state issue. The compromise was the federal government would set the standards for reporting and funding but that each state could devise its own testing methods. The concession inadvertently gave states the perverse incentive to reap federal funds by lowering testing standards.

Among students taking the New Jersey GEPA (8th grade) exams, 74% were graded proficient in language arts, 68% in math, and 79% in science. On the federal NAEP tests, however, New Jerseyans were only 56% proficient in writing, 39% in reading, 40% in math, and 33% in science. By extrapolation, under federal standards, less than half of our students are proficient in any of the major disciplines. Less than half.

Another means to measure our students nationally is via SAT scores. If our students were comparable to the general population, our average SAT score should be around the 50th percentile. Instead, our district’s average SAT score of 1414 is only in the 38th percentile.

What of the argument that our district is “socio-economically” diverse? If we look at just the top 25% of our district, the best of our students, the outlook is even more depressing. Again, if our top students were comparable to the rest of the nation, the top quarter of students should be scoring at or above the 75th percentile. Instead, with a cutoff score of 1590, they only crack the 60th percentile. For math (56th percentile) and English (55th percentile), our best students were barely above the national average.

Meanwhile, it’s widely recognized that among developed and developing countries, the United States lags the rest of the world in pre-college education. On the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 29th in science and 35th in math out of 57 countries/regions. Just to be middling globally, our students would need to be above average nationally.

So, the United States is well below average among PISA participating countries and our district is well below average in the United States. Yet, our school board’s only plan to prepare our students for a global economy is to get another 10% of our students across the halfway mark on a state assessment exam.

Prior to the recent school board elections, the board’s goal, as stated in the superintendent’s contract, was to “raise student performance in order to place in the top 25% in state testing within the District Factor Group.” Following the election, the board revised its goal to “By the end of the 08-09 school year, 10% of the partial proficient students will achieve proficiency on the state assessments while maintaining our advanced proficient student percentages.” Yes, elections do matter.

Our students are underperforming at all levels, not just the “socio-economically diverse” kids. We have a board whose goal is to meet the barest legal minimum requirements to prevent loss of funding. What’s a parent to do? Focus on the nationally recognized exams. Until Matawan-Aberdeen changes course, the nationally recognized exams are the only ones we can trust.
>>> Read more!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

Today, this 4th of July, we celebrate our independence. Below are a series of quotes from those who gave us, or gave voice to, our freedom.

The time is near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be free men or slaves.
George Washington

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.
Thomas Jefferson

In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.
John Adams

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
Alexander Hamilton

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
James Madison

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.
Benjamin Franklin

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
Patrick Henry

Our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.
Samuel Adams

There, I guess King George will be able to read that.
John Hancock

I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.
Nathan Hale

I have not yet begun to fight!
John Paul Jones

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Thomas Paine

Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!
Colonel William Prescott (Battle of Bunker Hill)

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Paul Revere's Ride

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address

Give me your tired, your poor.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
Send these, your homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Emma Lazarus – The New Colossus (On the Statue of Liberty)

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Republicans believe every day is the Fourth of July,
but the democrats believe every day is April 15.
Ronald Reagan
>>> Read more!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District Aims Low

Tevye: And Reb Nahum, the beggar . . .
Nahum: Alms for the poor, alms for the poor.
Lazar: Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek.
Nahum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.
Lazar: I had a bad week.
Nahum: So if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?

--- Fiddler on the Roof

Why indeed? Amid a faltering economy and housing crisis, skyrocketing oil prices, and rising taxes, our teachers will be receiving annual pay increases ranging from 4.25% to 13.75% over the next two years. Not only are the teachers not giving any work concessions, the Board of Education made their job easier by setting performance goals that meet the absolute minimum legal requirements. Pay more, expect less is MARSD’s secret formula for success.

The one bright spot in the district is, once again, Dr. O’Malley. Last December, I advised the administration to implement adaptive tests provided by the Northwest Evaluation Association. These computerized exams adapt the questions according to the user’s ability to answer prior questions, thereby providing a more accurate measurement of where his strengths and weaknesses lie. I promoted the exams on this blog in February and April but it wasn’t until Dr. O’Malley recommended the exams in June that the board finally considered and approved them. Additionally, he will be introducing Everyday Math to all grade levels and begin teaching algebra in the seventh grade.

(Dr. O’Malley recently made one unfortunate mistake and for reasons unknown. When Pamela Main was reassigned last year to Coordinator of Student Personnel Services, a vacancy was created in the guidance counselor department. This created an opportunity to reduce the number of guidance counselors and bring the counselor-student ratio in line with the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 1:250. Instead, Dr. O’Malley returned Main to the guidance counselor department where our counselor-student ratio is nearly 50% higher than the state average of 1:321.)

Still, it’s highly questionable how much Dr. O’Malley can accomplish given the financial shackles and low standards set by the board.

Under the Memorandum Agreement between the Matwan-Aberdeen Regional School District and the Matawan Regional Teachers Association, teacher salary guides will be increased by 4.25% this year and next year. Those increases are on top of the raises a teacher gets with each year of experience. To witness the enormity of the pay increases, let’s look at the average teacher who has 9 years of experience and his masters plus 30 credits (this is the average profile according to the New Jersey Report Card). In the 2006-2007 school year, he earned $54,440 not including stipends, reimbursements, benefits, and other miscellaneous items. Three years later, that same teacher will be earning $74,750 for the same job. That’s a 37.3% salary increase in three years.

Meanwhile, budget growth is capped by the state at 4% but salaries and benefits are virtually guaranteed to grow faster than 4% which means more money will need to be drained from the already depleted capital and maintenance funds. But wait, there’s more! The proposed budget is capped at 4%. Given our district’s history of rejecting school budgets, the budget cuts imposed by the municipalities will be coming out of building maintenance, the only place there’s still funding that’s not covered by labor contracts or special interest groups.

Without maintenance funds and capital improvement, the schools’ infrastructure will literally start to fall apart. Ah, but the board has a plan. Pour money into operations, neglect maintenance, and, when the situation gets really bad, float a second question on the school budget. That way the board can please the unions and blame the townsfolk at the same time.

Next, the board has lowered the bar of expectations so far, students will be tripping over it. On June 12th, Diane Morris of the New Jersey School Boards Association hosted a discussion about setting goals for the school district. The results would be laughable if they didn’t involve our children.

First, the board was asked to discuss accomplishments during the prior year. The board rattled off a number of items but not one referenced education unless that’s what the board meant by “etc.” Then the board discussed general goals such as “create a professional learning community.” I have no idea what a “professional learning community” is and I doubt anybody else does either. Here’s a hint: If a goal can’t be measured, it isn’t a goal.

However, it was the board’s measurable goal that really set the stage for the upcoming year – “By the end of the 08-09 school year, 10% of the partial proficient students will achieve proficiency on the state assessments while maintaining our advanced proficient student percentages.”

First, let’s clarify that statement. I assume they mean that 10% of the students will advance from partial proficient to proficient. Otherwise, they’d simply be trying to reduce the percentage of partially proficient HSPA math scores from 29% to 26%.

The travesty is that proficiency on New Jersey State assessment exams is a score of 50%. Our district’s goal, what we as a community are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to achieve, is to see our children score 50% on a state assessment exam? Fifty percent? That’s not even enough to get a drivers permit but the solons on our school board believe it’s enough for our children.

Not only that, if your child is “fortunate” enough to score fifty percent, the school won’t even provide any extra help to that child because the school’s not interested in seeing more children reach “advanced proficiency” (that’s 75%).

Fifty percent on a state exam. Our Board of Education, our elected representatives, the people we’ve entrusted with our children’s future, have decided that fifty percent on a state test is good enough for our kids.

What good is it to give teachers huge salary increases, adopt new testing methods, or implement a more rigorous math curriculum, when you then announce that our students only need to score 50% on a state test?

How can anybody claim they care about our kids, that they value a strong educational foundation, that they want our children to succeed in life, when then say 50% is good enough?

What kind of message is that to our teachers? What kind of message is that to our students?

When I went to school, anything below 70 was a failing grade. On the New York State Regents, students in the “dummy” class were expected to get 80s and the rest of us were expected to get 90s.

I’ll never forget my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Samuels. He was borderline crazy and the best teacher I ever had. Mr. Samuels demanded that his students not only score 100% on the exams but that they answer the bonus question as well. That year, I scored a 96 on my math regents and it was below the class average of 97.

If a foreign power ever tried to impose the educational standards that our Board of Education has established for our district, it would be regarded as an act of war. And we would fight back.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rumble at the BOE

Last night’s meeting at the BOE was quite a brawl. There were no surprises as I had broadcast my intent earlier in the day and each side was prepared to come out swinging. I stood on one end demanding that board members need to adhere to a code of conduct that avoided even the “appearance of impropriety”. At the other end were BOE Member Zavorskas and Board Attorney Gross who argued that no such “appearance” existed since there was no evidence of wrongdoing. At issue – upon the administration’s recommendation, the board appointed Zavorskas’s daughter to a work-study program (Agenda - Page 7).

Our courts are based upon the adversarial system – each side argues his position and an impartial third party (judge, jury) makes the final determinations. However, since neither of the other parties is willing to defend himself on these pages, I’ll need to refer to the ancient inquisitorial system whereby the officers of the court seek the truth. Welcome to the Court of Public Opinion.

As I’m a party to the case, my version of the event is just that, my version, and I encourage anyone interested to watch the actual board meeting when it is posted at www.marsd.org or broadcast on Huskievision.

To the best of my recollection, here’s the blow-by-blow:

On April 7th, amid allegations of misconduct during the school board elections, the high school posted positions for the work-study program. Zavorskas saw no problem with, and likely encouraged, her daughter to pursue a position at the high school; last year, the board had exempted children from the “No Nepotism” policy and, in the past, board members’ children have taken these positions.

A number of children were interviewed by the administration (primarily secretaries) and Zavorskas’s daughter was selected, presumably, based upon her office skills. Due to budget cuts, several work-study positions were eliminated but not her daughter’s job, which pays $4,290 annually.

There is no evidence that Zavorskas’s daughter received any preferential treatment.

At the board meeting, I strenuously objected to the appointment. I advocated that board members have an affirmative responsibility to avoid the “appearance of impropriety”. Board Attorney Gross responded that there was no impropriety here. By excluding children from the “No Nepotism” policy, he said, the board made clear that board members’ children should be allowed to pursue the same opportunities that other children have.

I argued that Gross was misconstruing the board’s intent. In no way does the exclusion for children nullify a board member’s obligation to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Rather, the exemption was meant to allow their children to receive paid positions when no reasonable person would assume favoritism was shown. For example, if objective criteria was used (i.e. the one with the highest test scores) or if the process wasn’t highly selective (i.e. one that could accommodate most applicants such as a cleaning crew).

In this instance, however, Zavorskas’s daughter was selected by people who knew her mother was an influential board member and who used purely subjective criteria in judging her the best candidate. A reasonable person can certainly be expected to suspect that favoritism was shown. Therefore, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the board should not be appointing their children to these positions.

Gross responded that there’s no evidence of impropriety. I answered this isn’t a court of law but the court of public opinion. His feeling was that I had the burden to show evidence of favoritism. I insisted it was the board’s responsibility to demonstrate no favoritism had been shown. Following Gross’s logic, there is no “appearance of impropriety” so long as there’s no “evidence of impropriety”. That may be true in a courtroom but not in a boardroom.

The board bylaws specifically prohibit any family member from using a board member’s position to secure financial gain (Conflict of Interest, No. 9270-E). The board can never say this girl didn’t receive preferential treatment. They can only claim there’s no evidence that she did. Of course, there could never be any evidence since “personnel” issues are confidential and beyond public scrutiny. Hence, in the board’s view, no evidence means no problem.

Though Zavorskas didn’t participate in the debate, she later voiced the opinion that she and her daughter were being victimized in a smear campaign. She insisted that neither she nor her daughter had done anything wrong and that her daughter got the job based upon her own merits.

My time was up but the argument continued after the meeting and off camera. Zavorskas insisted this blog regularly attacks her with baseless lies and is now going to use this opportunity to vitiate her daughter as well. I responded that this blog never attacked her prior to the school board elections and hasn’t attacked her since. Furthermore, the discussion isn’t about what her daughter did; it’s about what Zavorskas failed to do, namely avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Gross then raised four points. First, he suggested that my reasoning would preclude board members’ children from participating in any school events because it could always be suggested they were shown favoritism. I responded that I draw the line where there’s financial gain, the same place where the bylaws draw the line.

He then argued that forbidding board members’ children from pursuing these opportunities was not fair to the children themselves. I agreed. This is one of the sacrifices a board member’s family makes in order for that board member to serve. The families of public servants are often asked to make sacrifices to preserve the public trust.

Next, Gross believed that asking board members to make such a sacrifice was unreasonable considering how much they already do, how much they already sacrifice, and how few people are willing to assume the mantle of responsibility. I replied that preventing board members’ children from getting jobs in the school district seemed, to me, not only a very small sacrifice but a very obvious one that board members assume when they accept the position. Nor did I believe that such a rule would have prevented a single sitting board member from running for office.

Lastly, Gross asked why I would publish anything that could possibly cast Zavorskas’s daughter in a bad light when there’s nothing I could do to alter the board’s decision. I told him, the next time a board member considers allowing his child to take a district job, I hope this article gives him the impetus to reconsider.

Unlike the board members, I do not represent the public. These views are my own. I submit this case to the Court of Public Opinion and make one request – let your voices be heard. The school board works for us and they should never forget it.
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