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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16 comments:

John said...

I will preface this by saying I do not yet have a child in the school system, and having only stumbled across this blog in the last few months, I am not fully familiar with all of the players and the full history involved.

That being said, I clearly see a conflict of interest in having the child of a sitting board member being selected for a work/study position within the school. I despise the convoluted legalese that Mr. Gross is perpetuating to rationalize why no "appearance of impropriety" exists.

No "evidence" does not change the fact that many people will suspect that Miss Zavorskas received this position because those making the decision to hire her were influenced by her mother's position on the school board. That seems to me to be the very definition of the "appearance of impropriety".

This blog has opened my eyes to issues within the township that I was completely unaware of in the first two years of my residence in Aberdeen. I only hope that others are finding this blog as well.

mrsb said...

It seems to me that there was a "No Nepotism" policy to avoid any appearance of impropriety. To change the policy for children of the board seems to obviously invite questions regarding whether it is proper or not.

Quite honestly, I don't know how anyone with the ability to hire a board member's child could help but have their decision influenced (positively or negatively, depending on their personal views) by the fact that the teen's parent is on the board.

Whether the child is qualified or not isn't even in question. He/she could be the very best person for the job, but the interviewer would almost have to be influenced by the knowledge of the parent's job will influence their decision.

That alone, to me, does give the appearance of impropriety.

Besides, who would want to stand up and say that the person who decides whether you have a job or not's child is not qualified for a position in the same "company"?

Woey Jarren said...
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jv said...

As an employee in a private school it is understood that a child of a Board Member receives preferential treatment. However, that is a private school - where money counts, where you pay your way to sit on the Board. There is no room for that in the public school system.
If it looks like a Duck...
No employee would ever refuse a Job to a Board Member's child. It is up to the Board Member to avoid such situations.

MrFF said...

I guess that if the person got a job for someone who was a contractor for the District, that would also be an appearance of impropriety. I'm not naive but give me a break. Everytime a Board member's family member looks to get a job, they better make sure that it is not affiliated in any way, shape or form with the District. In this case, it appears you would rather have someone work in a meaningless minumum wage job rather than work in a job where they can actually gain some experience for the future. Appearances are only what you are perceiving with your blinders on. Did you ever give anyone the benefit of the doubt but if you did, we would have nothing to talk about.

WriteTheWrong said...
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Aberdeener said...

Wow, talk about profiles in courage. Two people who were present at the board meeting and wrote opposing viewpoints then quickly deleted their own comments (a Blogger feature that is beyond my control).

What does that say of our intrepid board and their supporters that they won't even leave a comment under an alias?

Too bad. The discussion is vastly richer when exposed to opposing viewpoints.

shewasanamericangirl said...

I heard some board member's son used too much toilet paper over at the middle school, better get on that.Too bad your children can't get a job working with you, which is apparently doing nothing all day but solving problems that you create yourself. Why don't you spend some time, solving the housing crisis so you can move out of this "unfair" town. I heard the pork and beans projects in Miami have a great BOE. Good luck

Aberdeener said...

That last comment was quite funny. Kudos!

Brad said...

I was at the board meeting the other night, and I was not too amused by your charades. Is it your intent to act on behalf of the best interests of the public? Or do you merely have an ax to grind with Cathy Zavorskas? If you're so concerned about the appearance of impropriety, why don't you worry about the spouse of a board member who has been working in the district for years now? That doesn't trouble you as much as Zavorskas's teenage daughter? O'Connell, Barbato, and Donaghue all had children in the same work study program. It was my understanding that work study was part of the learning experience, which is why it is exempt from the nepotism policy.

The appearance of impropriety, as you define it, means that board members use their influence either directly or indirectly to get special treatment for their children, themselves, or their friends and because people know they are board members, they feel either pressure or an obligation to give up their own integrity and values just to appease a board member - in this case, giving Cathy Zavorskas's daughter a job. I guess because she did get the job you must assume that no one in this district, whether a secretary, administrator, or teacher, has the strength or conviction or integrity to do their job and just look at the merits of the child rather than the merits of being a board member's child. That is an ugly assumption.

You neglected to mention in your post (and seemed to ignore at the meeting) Glastein's response that the six children who weren't hired were seniors. Seniors have a history of abandoning the job for higher paying jobs outside of the schools. Here Ms. Zavorskas, being a rising sophomore, has a clear cut reason for being hired.

It is beyond me how the hiring of Cathy Zavorskas's daughter even showed up on your radar. I didn't realize you were so interested in the affairs of sixteen year old girls. Maybe it is time you used your energies toward something beneficial and pertinent and actually do some good.

Perhaps your comments would be more valid to others if you actually had children in the school system, as many board members already do. If and when that time should come that you have children in the school system, then the good people of Aberdeen may have more interest in hearing your comments regarding the school board.

Please bear in mind, my good friend, that board members are elected and unpaid, and it is my understanding that Cathy Zavorskas has been elected numerous times. That speaks for itself.

mrsb said...

I think anyone who pays taxes in Matawan or Aberdeen has the right to an opinion on school issues. It isn't just parents of students that pay to run the district.

I'm not trying to make a comment on anyone's opinion by stating that. Just making the point that we all financially support the district.

Not all the BOE members currently have children in the district. Does that make their opinions less important or valid than those members who do?

Brad said...

You are right; I understand that paying high taxes and not having children in the school district is a dicey issue. That being said, as I read through all the board related blogs, it seems that Cathy Zavorskas and the "Barza" wing are continually singled out. And now he is beginning to single out Zavorskas's children.

Aberdeener said...

Isn't it enough that I care deeply about the children in our town? I agree that over the years there have been a number of seeming improprieties by board members and that's why I'm trying to stop it. Since I've become involved, this is the first time a job has been offered to a board member's immediate family member. If anyone else does it, I'll react the same way.

As for me targeting Zavorskas, I don't think you've read all my articles on the school district. I've been highly critical of all the board members. In fact, I was far more critical of O'Connell than I have been of Demarest. The only time I've ever focused on the "Barza" wing was during the election. Not before and not since.

As for who applied for the position, I intend to submit an OPRA request to learn just that as well as how many other students lost their jobs when their positions were eliminated. You may have noticed that the children who lost their jobs weren't included in Mr. Glastein's "report".

Aberdeener said...

P.S. I reviewed the video. 11 students competed for 5 positions. Many of those rejected were seniors. Although there's no law against it, I have to question whether it's proper to have an explicit policy of age discrimination regarding employment among high school students.

FallBride said...

I second the notion that those with no children in the school system have just as much a right to comment on and participate in the political system that costs each of us so much in taxes each year.

As long as such a large portion of my tax bill goes to the BOE, I'll expect to follow what happens in the district.

What is incredibly sad is how few parents show up at these meetings. I cannot believe how apathetic those who DO have children in the school system seem to be.

Also, why was it so difficult to get actual numbers in the report about how many people were interviewed, screened out and actually hired for each open position?

aberdeen2009 said...

Aberdeener,

I saw the board meeting on the school website. I cannot tell you with words about how disgusted I am.

Zavorskas, Barbato and their puppets (Rubino, Dermarest and now Rupwrick) have ruled this board for years at the expense of children and the taxpayers of this town.

They claim they care and they do care ONLY about themselves. They have run the system like a patronage club, providing jobs and favors for votes so they can continue their sick quest to stay in power.

New superintendent O'Malley is trying to clean up the mess left by former superintendent Quinn who started out with good intentions. He was completely corrupted by, and then actively advanced their pernicious agenda.

Barbato has been on the board for nearly two decades, I do not know of a better argument for term limits. They have continuously sabotaged the efforts of public minded board members over the years to get concessions from the teaches union and instead rewarded them with fat contracts in their insane quest to remain in control.

I voted against their puppets this year and cast my only one vote with the guy you recommended in the election. I was sorry that he lost.

Giving jobs out to your kids and friends, is outrageous! Why aren't the newspapers reporting it?

I do sincerely hope that we can get some honest people in this town to run against them next year.The arguments the board lawyer made against your position were putrid and weak. Thank you for standing up for all of us working stiffs who don't get these deals.

I hope you choose to run next year, you have my vote and the votes of the friends & family members that I still have in town. We need someone like you who will really care.

I recommend your blog to everyone I know, so they can read the truth and become informed.