Sunday, November 23, 2008

O’Malley Leads, BOE Follows

“Goals – 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.”
- - - Matawan-Aberdeen BOE Special Board Meeting to discuss goals and objectives, June 12, 2008

Last Monday’s school board meeting marked many firsts for our district. The board, in the face of strong opposition from the school unions, supported the superintendent’s recommendation to remove from office a high-ranking, 30-year veteran. Then there was the district’s first frank assessment of student test scores with sufficient detail and background information to allow the community to evaluate the data. Lastly, we got our first acknowledgment that many of the online degree programs, so popular with our staff, are not the equivalent of traditional degrees from well-regarded universities. What do I call this? A great start!

To understand the power of the teachers union, consider this little factoid – from 1996-2005, exactly 47 tenured teachers (from over 100,000) were fired from their public schools. A tenured New Jersey teacher is more likely to die this year than be fired. Our local union, the Matawan Regional Teachers Association, is reputed to recruit the board member’s child’s teachers for picketing in front of the board member’s house. That the BOE voted 8-1 to terminate Ms. Rappaport’s position of Supervisor of Special Services is simply remarkable. (That her sterling performance reviews make no mention of a long history of parental complaints sadly is not.)

As for the student assessment scores, the faculty presentation marked the first time in history that our school district has publicized the fact that proficiency only means a score of 50% and that advanced proficiency only requires 75% (Slides 7, 66). Put simply, advanced proficiency is not “outstanding”.

The next sacred cow to be skewered was the school board’s vaunted goal of getting more students across the 50-yard line (proficiency) but not pushing beyond that (see above). The administration, however, took their cues from Dr. O’Malley and stressed the district’s need to improve performance at all levels – more students achieving advanced proficiency, higher SAT and AP (Advanced Placement) scores, and more AP enrollment. In fact, in sharp contrast to the board’s goal, the administration regarded any advanced proficiency rate below our District Factor Group (DFG) as an “area of concern”. Either the school board was too oblivious to notice or too ashamed to comment but nobody mentioned the discrepancy.

Our final break with the past was marked by Deputy Superintendent Glastein who acknowledged that degrees from online schools such as Walden and Marygrove were not equal to degrees from schools such as Rutgers and Seton Hall. Rather, the granting of equal pay raises to those degree recipients was “purely contractual”. At a prior board meeting, BOE President Demarest stated that the board did not distinguish between institutes of higher learning so long as they had regional accreditation. Once again, the administration has chosen to ignore such nonsense.

Although this signals a brighter future, we mustn’t forget the troubles we have today. SAT scores are below the state average (Slides 77-80). A third of our seniors failed a HSPA exam last year (Slides 71, 75). We have 6 AP courses that have fewer than five students taking the AP exams. Not a single student took AP Chemistry or AP Computer Science(Slide 63).

Even though 18% more students took 30% more AP exams in 2008 than 2007, the total number of 4 and 5 scores actually dropped to 89(Slide 64). (Though 3 is technically passing, many universities do not grant full credit to AP scores below 4.) The number of 4 and 5 AP scores was so low that, had my senior AP scores been added to the total, I would have personally accounted for over 4% of the total 4 and 5 AP scores for the entire district.

In short, we’ve got lots of work ahead of us but we’re definitely moving in the right direction. As for the three board members who took public stances against Dr. O’Malley’s appointment, I’m still waiting to hear an admission of error.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For Dr. O’Malley, It’s Nothing Personal, Just Business

A crowded audience at a BOE meeting is often a sign of trouble and last night was no exception. Following an excellent presentation about our students’ scores on standardized exams, President Demarest opened the floor to public comment. On the agenda (page 16) was the creation of Director of Special Services and the subsequent elimination of Helen Rappaport’s position, Supervisor of Special Services, and her resulting demotion. Over half the audience consisted of her colleagues, supporters, and advocates and they were bucking for a fight.

First at the podium was a school psychologist who had served Matawan-Aberdeen for 30 years, 23 of them under Ms. Rappaport. She spoke angrily of how a woman who had served the district with such dedication and competence shouldn’t be treated this way.

Next was Ms. Rappaport’s attorney. (Yes, she intends to litigate and possibly sue the district. So much for putting children first.) The attorney brought with him Ms. Rappaport’s 23 years of sterling performance reviews and insisted there was no basis whatsoever for demoting her.

(Note: Reduction in Force means the elimination of Ms. Rappaport’s position but, because she has tenure, she is entitled to assume another school psychologist’s position following his scheduled resignation. Ms. Rappaport lacks the credentials to be a director. As Supervisor of Special Services, she was the third-highest paid person in the district. The demotion will likely cost her $15,000-$20,000 a year. She’ll also need another 3-4 years to lift her pension benefits back to current levels unless she walks away now.)

Next came a man, possibly deranged, claiming to be an education lawyer who was representing two teachers, neither present, who were considering suing the district. He claimed that Dr. O’Malley was a power hungry megalomaniac and a “misogynist” hell-bent on persecuting the wholesome, yet vulnerable, ladies that work in our schools. After ranting and raving for about 10 minutes, BOE President Demarest finally said his three minutes were up and asked if any other audience members wished to speak. Susan Quinn, the former superintendent’s wife, stepped forward and, after being recognized, asked to yield her time to the crazy guy. She wanted more.

The next speaker was a teacher who lives in our district and asked “as a taxpayer,” whether this move was worth the cost of impending litigation. The threat was hardly veiled – “Mess with us and we’ll sue the pants off you.”

But then the tide began to turn. First was the special education instructor who spoke of a “broken” system where staff members advised special-needs families under cloak of secrecy for fear of retribution. Then came the parents who shared their heart wrenching stories of battling the bureaucracy at great personal expense and suffering to get their children the help they needed and to which they were legally entitled. How they were doubly cursed for not only bearing their own legal fees but also supporting the opposing attorney through their taxes.

And yes, I spoke as well. I first thanked the Directors of Accountability for their presentation on the student scores and then launched into a vigorous defense of Dr. O’Malley. I didn’t understand the differences between supervisor and director, nor did I know Ms. Rappaport’s qualifications or lack thereof, but I, too, had heard the unending stories of families with special needs children battling the school system to get the help they so desperately needed and surely deserved. If Dr. O’Malley said this was the change we needed then I would defer to his judgment. And shame on anyone who suggests that Dr. O’Malley does not have the best interests of our community at heart.

Finally, the board spoke. Ms. Rappaport had waived her right to confidentiality so they were going to discuss her position in public. Board Member Zavorskas accused Dr. O’Malley of eliminating the position on personal grounds but she stood alone.

All the other board members, one after another, said Ms. Rappaport was not the issue. Rather, Dr. O’Malley had argued that he needed to change the structure of the special education department in order to implement needed changes. Unfortunately, Ms. Rappaport’s lack of credentials barred her from the director’s position. Dr. Gambino even cited the New Jersey Licensing Code that restricts supervisors to oversight of “instructional personnel”. Since child study teams and school psychologists aren’t “instructional personnel”, supervisors are precluded from managing them, hence the need for changing the position to a “director”.

In the end, to my happy surprise, the board voted 8-1 in favor of Dr. O’Malley. In that vote, the board had signaled its intent to support our superintendent as long as he continues to move our school district in the right direction.

There were other tidbits at the meeting which I’ll discuss at a later time. Suffice to say that I believe we are witnessing a turning point for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District. Everywhere I look, I see change. Perhaps too small, too modest, or too slow, but change all the same. Change for the better. We have the first glimmers of hope on the horizon.
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

Councilwoman Gallo has officially submitted her resignation letter. Sametta Thompson, of the Asbury Park Press, said it best. “Gallo is [the] second township official this year to resign from office.”

Although Councilwoman Gallo technically resigned from the Aberdeen Township council on November 8th, she had disappeared from the political scene after her heated opposition to the town’s budget at the September 2nd meeting. According to the minutes, Mayor Sobel pointedly asked her, “Do you want to be a member of this council or not?” Councilwoman Gallo responded “I do but I am not.” At issue – the township’s massive level of pay-to-play.

Former Township Manager, Stuart Brown, was reputed to have been ousted earlier this year on the same grounds. During his tenure, at least two CME projects were denied funding and, soon after his departure, Aberdeen awarded CME $237,071.25 in new business. Sure enough, at the September 2nd meeting, Councilwoman Gallo objected to money being allocated for the road program, a.k.a. CME Associates. (For those new to the scene, CME Associates is the township engineer, receiving over a million dollars a year; they’re also the town council’s largest political contributor.)

In her letter, Councilwoman Gallo stated “recent developments have cause [sic] me to realize that my attempts to promote what I believe are the best interests of Aberdeen, are often at odds with my fellow council members. As a result of my strong commitment, my personal life and health have begun to suffer. I therefore, no longer feel that I can fulfill my duties and responsibilities as a council member.”

One can only wonder at the level of pressure to force from office a councilwoman only eight months into her first term. Councilwoman Gallo was no stranger to the hard knocks of local politics. She was a founding member of the Matawan-Aberdeen Educational Foundation and then served six years on our school district’s board of education. After resigning her seat to Pat Demarest (currently the BOE President), Gallo later served on the Aberdeen Township Planning Board. When Councilman Minutolo was dumped from last year’s Democratic ticket (and subsequently became chairman of the Aberdeen Republicans), Gallo was recruited to run for council and garnered the second highest vote tally after Councilman Vinci.

Yet, the moment she objected to the township’s pay-to-play, she was gone. Following the meeting, Mayor Sobel told the Independent “People get at pay-to-play with some of our hiring practices but we were one of the first municipalities to pass a pay-to-play ordinance.” Mayor Sobel’s statement was remarkable on two counts – First, the ordinance was passed just last year and only applies to developers, in particular Matawan’s chosen developer for the proposed transit village. Second, Mayor Sobel made the statement fully aware that virtually each of the township’s providers of professional services is also a financial contributor to the local Democratic party.

The question now is what will happen next. Will the all-Democratic council appoint someone completely oblivious to local politics or will they find a “team player” wholly subservient to the party’s interests?

Given the council’s record so far this year – the forced resignation of a popular town manager, a freshman councilwoman’s resignation while under fire, and the municipality’s largest ever tax increase – plus the upcoming shock from the property revaluations, the Democrats prospects for maintaining a monopoly in next year’s elections are looking dim indeed.

On a final note, I'd like to thank Councilwoman Gallo for her service to our community and wish her all the best.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guesswork on Next Year's Property Taxes

Aberdeen’s taxpayers are naturally concerned about next year’s property tax rates. This year, the township had its largest ever tax increase. Next year, about a third of homeowners will see their property taxes readjusted upwards from the revaluations. And the township will need to, once again, raise its annual contribution to the state’s pension funds (sheet 20). Excluding those people who will be devastated by their property revaluations, we should be relatively okay. Property taxes will be going up again next year but probably not more than 5%.

There are several elements that contribute to tax hikes but the two items that differentiate this year from prior years are 1) the biggest stock market collapse since the great depression and 2) a parallel drop in commodities (i.e. oil). For local government, that means an increase in pension contributions (to offset the dramatic losses in pension funds), a drop in utility costs, and reduced state aid (because of lower tax revenue).

To do the math, we need to engage in a bit of fudging since we won’t begin seeing the numbers until February or March but I don’t believe we’ll be off by that much.

Two-thirds of property taxes are taken by the school district. In contrast to the township, the school district strives to remain within the 4% CAPs set by the state because they otherwise risk review by the county superintendent. The school district also has a tendency to work backwards – raise spending by the legal limit and then determine how to spend the money. Still, the proposed budget will grow 4% but given the township’s history of rejecting the school budget, which is then cut by the township council, the final budget should be slightly less than a 4% increase.

Since daily operations are growing faster than the 4% limit and the capital budget has nearly disappeared, expect reduced maintenance and growing class sizes but not much higher taxes. One wildcard – New York Governor Patterson today announced a plan to reduce spending growth in education. If Governor Corzine does the same, the school may be forced to break CAPs or borrow more money.

Monmouth County, about 11 percent of the property tax, will probably raise taxes due to pension liabilities and reduced state aid. The county had no tax increase this year and modest tax increases during the prior two years. Monmouth County will likely restrain any tax increase and look to service cuts to meet budget constraints.

Given the drop in utility and fuel costs, tax hikes for smaller budget items such as sanitation, sewer, and library, should also be modest.

Last on the list is Aberdeen Township. Before looking at 2009, let’s review 2008. Municipal taxes, this year, jumped 12%. Some of the big ticket items included an additional $279,000 in pension contributions, another $275,000 for health care, and a $210,000 cut in municipal aid from the state.

In 2007, the state pension fund lost 3%. So far, this fiscal year, the state pension fund has lost about 9%. We can expect at least another $250,000 increase in pension contributions.

In 2001, after the dot-com bust and 9/11, New Jersey income tax revenue dropped a billion dollars. If even a quarter of that is passed along to New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, we could be facing another cut of $400,000 in municipal aid.

Healthcare costs will jump again but should be partially offset by a $100,000 drop in utility expenses. (Sheet 15C)

I guesstimate that municipal taxes could increase by 10% next year except for one thing – elections. It’s highly unlikely, especially considering the blowback from the property revaluations, that the township will risk double digit tax increases during an election year. By simply scaling back some capital expenditures and postponing other purchases, they can roll back the tax increase to 6%.

This is obviously all guesswork but it’s nice to know that, unless you’re hit by the revaluations (mostly older homes and condos), you won’t have to worry about monster property tax hikes for next year. Anytime taxes rise faster than wages, we’re heading for big trouble but, in the meantime, it’ll just be the slow bleed that’s endemic to New Jersey.
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Friday, November 7, 2008

Setting the Goalposts for Graduation

Everyone agrees that school board members should not be micro-managing the daily operation of the school district but it is their obligation to set graduation requirements. Rather than arguing on how best to educate our children, we should be setting academic goals for seniors and then work backwards all the way to first grade to ensure that, by the time our students reach their senior year, they’re capable of reaching those goals.

The current graduation requirements are set to the statutory minimum – pass the HSPA (or the Student Review Assessment), complete 130 credits, and comply with all attendance and curriculum requirements.

The curriculum requirements are:

  • English (Language Arts Literacy)- 20 credits
  • United States History - 10 credits (Class of 2011 – 12.5 Credits)
  • World Cultures (World History) - 5 credits
  • Mathematics - 15 credits
  • Science - 15-18 credits
  • Visual Arts or Performing Arts - 5 credits
  • Practical Arts - 5 credits
  • Computer Education - 5 credits
  • World Languages - 10 credits
  • Physical Education/Health - 4-5 credits per year
For all grade levels, the minimum number of attempted credits per year is thirty-five (35). Credits are based upon the number of periods per week and per year that courses meet. Chorus/Lunch and Band/Lunch does not apply credits toward this minimum.

Special Education students may be exempt from the above by virtue of the Individual Educational Plan (IEP).

The standards are too low.

We should increase the credit requirements and then weight honors classes to create an incentive for students to enroll in challenging courses.

Of the 140 credits taken by graduation, 20 are for gym, 90 fulfill course requirements, and the remaining 30 are at the student’s discretion. Once again, considering the low percentage of students pursuing a competitive college, there’s too much incentive to reach for the easiest classes. We should require mastery in at least one subject area.

Two years of a foreign language is woefully insufficient. Instead of setting a credit requirement, we should require students pass a language proficiency exam just as they need to pass the HSPA exam. Also, in-depth foreign language instruction should begin at an earlier age when children are more susceptible.

However, all this is for naught so long as teachers are allowed to set the bar for what constitutes an education. It is the board’s job, not the teachers’, to determine minimum requirements.

I have written previously of grade inflation (how else to explain roughly a third of seniors failed a HSPA exam) but now I have seen firsthand evidence.

Recently, the school administration allowed me to review the final exam questions for 2007-08 twelfth grade English. The last time I had seen such exams was in the eighth grade.

Let’s take the English IV Honors Final Exam. It consists of 124 multiple choice questions, 11 match-this-to-that questions, 2 short answer questions, and ONE essay.

What the heck? One essay? When I was in high school, all we did was write essays. In my four years, I never saw a single multiple choice question in any English class. I wasn’t tested on whether I read the Cliff Notes. I was tested on my ability to write about great works of literature and other persuasive essays.

I had essay topics like “Religious Symbolism in Moby Dick” or “Macbeth’s Battle against Fate” and had to identify underlying themes, conflict, symbolism, character development, and the watershed moments. I remember writing a paper in the tenth grade opposing euthanasia. In high school English, we had to write and write and write.

English isn’t about memorizing Orwellian terms. It’s about the ability to appreciate great works of literature and the ability to express yourself through writing. If the senior honors class is only testing for reading comprehension, it’s no wonder so many of our students can’t pass the HSPA Language Arts Literacy exam.

I wasn’t allowed to review final exams for any of the other classes but I believe they’re on a similar level. Teachers are dumbing down the exams to fit their preconceived notions of what the students are capable of achieving. Our academic standards will never rise above our testing standards. Final exams need to reflect our community's high expectations.

Our varsity baseball team plays hardball, not softball. Our varsity football team plays tackle, not two-hand touch. Our students will never achieve academic excellence unless they’re challenged to do so and we, as a community, need to stop pretending otherwise. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Is Change Afoot?

Congratulations to President-Elect Barack Obama. Across the country, America voted for the candidates of change and our neighborhood was no exception. In neighboring Matawan, Republicans Fitzsimmons and Urbano defeated the incumbent Democrats Malley and Bunyon on a promise to work with Mayor Buccellato. As for Aberdeen, the rumors are rampant that 2009 will represent a change of governance for our town as well.

According to the grapevine, none of the township council members whose terms expire next year, Mayor Sobel and Councilmen Perry and Raymond, will be seeking re-election. These rumors have been ongoing for the past year but they appear to be gaining steam as the local Democratic Party readies a slate for next year.

As for the school board, John Barbato (who tells me he won’t decide till early next year), is considered unlikely to seek another term as his youngest son graduates from high school this year. Under the recently approved, and state mandated, nepotism policy (page 32) there also won’t be any new district positions offered to close relatives of board members.

Although Board President Pat Demarest is officially aligned with Barbato, in actual voting, she is more likely to support the superintendent’s recommendations than Barbato’s. (For the record, despite our differences, John Barbato is the only board member from that side of the fence with whom I still have friendly conversations.)

Meanwhile, the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee may be polishing its image under Bill Shenton’s leadership. According to the committee’s latest filings, there have been zero contributions and zero disbursements in the last quarter. That means no pay-to-play contributions and no payouts to council members.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Gallo appears likely to resign her seat. During the last township meeting, Mayor Sobel made it crystal clear that she had been absent for three consecutive council meetings, the last two without prior notification.

As for me, I will soon be announcing plans to publicize the blog and begin a grassroots campaign to organize like-minded folk. I will not be creating a new party but rather try to establish a large enough base to force the existing parties to seek our support.

Our best days lie ahead and I’m eager to move forward. May God bless our country and give our leaders the wisdom and strength to lead us into a brighter future.
>>> Read more!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Comment Guidelines is dedicated to promoting dialogue about improving our community. Comments that are contrary to that goal run the risk of being deleted. Though I retain absolute discretion to retain or remove any comment, I will generally follow the below guidelines. Sometimes, a comment may fall in a gray area and I will need to consider other factors such as context. However, any comment that doesn’t run afoul of the following guidelines should be permitted.

The following are examples of unwanted comments:

  • Offensive Language – I realize that many people use this blog as a venue to vent their anger, so I’ve been extremely lenient regarding vulgarity but I don’t like it. I won’t extend that same courtesy to other language that would be inappropriate in polite company.
  • Incendiary Language – Any language inciting violence will not be tolerated and may instigate police action.
  • Intimidation – My goal isn’t to be right but to find the right answer. I don’t attack people posting comments and I discourage others from doing so. We don’t convince people of our viewpoints through name calling or demonstrate our position’s superiority by scaring others from voicing their opinions. If we’re ever going to improve our community, we need to engage as many people as we can and work together towards our mutual benefit. I will therefore begin removing those comments that are intended to intimidate and silence others. (However, anonymous comments may not warrant the same protection since anonymity already shields the speaker to a certain extent.)
  • Attacks on Non-Public Individuals – All public persons are fair game. Personal attacks on private people are not.
  • Graffiti – Irrelevant comments intended to diminish this blog or interrupt the dialogue will be deleted.
  • Denigration - Denigrating someone's religion is unacceptable in any civil discussion and will not be tolerated.
One additional caveat – I am no longer the only person monitoring this blog. Therefore, inappropriate comments are more likely to disappear sooner rather than later.

Thanks to everyone who strives to make our community better for everyone else. >>> Read more!