Sunday, May 31, 2009

Changing the Calculus for Filing Grievances

As usual, I need to remind my readers that I am speaking as a private citizen, these views are solely my own, and I have no authority outside a school board in session.

Our teachers union’s philosophy can be summed in three lines. 1) A happy teacher is a productive teacher. 2) There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. 3) We stand together.

This philosophy, mandatory union contributions, and a pliant school district, has led to a bewildering array of grievances. Yet, over the past ten years, only two decisions regarding the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional Teachers Association have been issued by the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission. Only two because the rest were settled.

There are always good reasons to settle – the chance of losing, the cost of fighting, and the damaging effects of poor employee relations. Unfortunately, the constant reflex to settle has essentially invited the union to file grievances in place of negotiating with the administration in good faith.

For example, here are the two cases that weren’t settled:
Docket No. SN-2008-035
The grievance contests the Board’s decision to use the math and science faculty room as a classroom and to have the math and science faculty share the world language and business faculty room.

Docket No. SN-2004-20
The grievance contests the withholding of a computer science teacher's salary increment for the 2003-2004 school year. The Commission concludes that this withholding was triggered by the conclusion that hacking by students into school computers and other student misconduct occurred during the teacher's class.

Are these issues truly worthy of the of the superintendent’s time, not to mention the legal fees? Is the teachers’ legal fund truly being used for these frivolous cases? Yes, because the thinking is that so long as the district knows it’ll be sued for every little thing, it’s less likely to do anything against any teacher.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As soon as the teachers union realizes these petty grievances are not in its best interest, they will stop. I suggest the district consider the following guidelines:

  1. The threat of a grievance filing should not be considered in any administrative or board decision
  2. If the district has a strong case and settling does not offer great benefits, don’t settle
  3. Inform the public of all PERC decisions through the school website
Another option, and this hasn’t been fully considered and is sure to arouse controversy, is to set a separate line-item in the school budget for all grievance related legal fees and establish a policy that would dedicate all unused funds to specific student activities. That would force both the school district and the teachers union to weigh the political repercussions of every grievance filing and would go a long ways towards eliminating frivolous filings.

Lastly, the administration must begin speaking to the teachers directly and not just through the union. The vast majority of teachers put their students first and it’s a grave mistake to believe the union’s position reflects the majority viewpoint among teachers. All the teachers have email. It’s free so let’s use it.

The frivolous grievance filings must end and, as soon as we make the teachers union bare the brunt of the cost, they will. >>> Read more!

Monday, May 25, 2009

This Memorial Day

In Flanders Fields
By: John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. >>> Read more!

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Second Bite at the School Mission Statement

A year ago, I wrote the following – “[T]here is one issue regarding our school district which I consider to be the most important, the most urgent, and the least mentioned. . . What is our school district’s mission?”

To formulate a mission statement, I relied upon Peter Drucker’s Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Practices and Principles (1990):

A mission statement has to be operational, otherwise it's just good intentions. A mission statement has to focus on what the institution really tries to do and then do it so that everybody in the organization can say: This is my contribution to the goal. . .

One of our most common mistakes is to make the mission statement into a kind of hero sandwich of good intentions. It has to be simple and clear. As you add new tasks, you de-emphasize and get rid of old ones. You can only do so many things. Look at what we are trying to do in our colleges. The mission statement is confused - we are trying to do fifty different things. It won't work, and that's why the fundamentalist colleges attract so many young people. Their mission is very narrow. You and I may quarrel with it and say it's too narrow, but it's clear.
The school board has appointed its vice president, Dr. Gambino, to lead the effort of rewriting the district’s mission and vision statements. A proper mission statement can profoundly impact our schools.

Dr. Gambino has proposed implementing the “world cafĂ©”, a methodology that prompts ideas and feedback from a large representative sample of stakeholders.

Sample provocative questions could be – What should the school district not be doing? If you were in charge, what’s the first change you’d make? If money weren’t an issue, where would you send your child to school and why?

The objective is to determine the school’s role and goals.

For a mission statement to be effective, it should be simple, clear, and operational so that every member of the district can say “This is my contribution to the goal.”

Last year, I had argued the revised mission statement should be “To empower parents to determine the best education for their children.”

That mission statement was ultimately “rejected” for the very reason I proposed it – namely, who should have the primary responsibility for educating our children. I believe primary responsibility belongs to the parents. However, the sense I’ve gotten is that most people don’t trust the parents with our students’ education and prefer the “professionals” in our school district to decide what’s best for our children.

Rather than fight a losing battle, I’ve since proposed “To Build Scholars and Leaders”.

The proposal won’t even be considered until Dr. Gambino has first received community feedback and then devised a process for writing, considering, and presenting a new mission statement. Ultimately, the school board will deliberate and vote.

However, by proposing “To Build Scholars and Leaders”, I hope to shape future discussion – keep it simple, clear, and operational.

Still, there’s no reason to wait for Dr. Gambino. Let’s begin the conversation now. What do you want the school district to do for your child? How do you judge whether the school district is succeeding or not? What do you believe our school mission should be?

The school board wants to know.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

NJDOE Whitewashes MARSD

Over the past half year, I have detailed numerous infractions in the school district. The allegations reached such a crescendo that three board members, all past presidents, resigned their seats. The state launched an investigation.

On April 23rd, the investigator mailed his findings to the board president. The report, posted here in full, begins as follows:

The Department of Education, Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) has completed an investigation of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District based on allegations that former and current administrative staff lacked proper certification. Additional concerns were also indicated in the complaint.

The investigation did not disclose any material issues of noncompliance with respect to the district. As such, the file on this matter will be closed.
Does that mean there was no finding of malfeasance? Hardly.

Regarding former superintendent, Bruce Quinn, the report found:
  • The board approved Mr. Quinn to be the district's superintendent in May, 2002
  • Quinn assumed the position in August 27,2002
  • The State Board of Examiners issued Mr. Quinn a provisional certificate in December 2003
  • Mr. Quinn subsequently received a standard certificate issued in April 2006
As the report notes, N.J.A.C. 6A:9-6:4 states "The CE or CEAS authorizes the holder to seek employment. A holder of a CE or CEAS shall not assume responsibility for a job assignment until the holder has been issued a provisional certificate."

So, Quinn had three months to obtain a provisional certificate but failed to do so. Instead, he didn’t get his provisional certificate until 16 months after he started working, and 6 months after the county notified the district Quinn was uncertified.

Then, the two year certificate lapsed in December, 2005, 4 months before Quinn received his standard certificate.

Conclusion: “There was no evidence that the district was attempting to circumvent the certification requirements established by state statute.”

How? An August, 2002, NJDOE letter from a training coordinator “indicated that Mr.Quinn ‘will be practicing under a provisional license’ until the one-year mentor-directed residency was completed.” The letter meant Quinn would not receive his standard certificate until his mentoring was completed but the district somehow interpreted the letter to mean he already had his provisional certificate, even though there was no record of him receiving his provisional certificate and the letter was not from an office that issues certificates.

As for the provisional certificate expiring after two years, “typically, discipline is not imposed.”

Regarding former director of special services, Helen Rappaport, the report found:
  • Ms. Rappaport has standard certifications for both school psychologist and supervisor
  • Since September 7, 1990, "Director" became a recognized title requiring a principal or school administrator endorsement
  • The board voted on December 15, 2003, that Ms. Rappaport's title would be changed from Director to Supervisor
  • Subsequent to this title change, the district listed Ms. Rappaport's title as a supervisor on the certificated staff report
Conclusion: “The district took action to change her designation from director to supervisor upon notification from the county office in 2003.”

As a resident, I’m pleased the school district was not penalized. As a citizen, I’m enraged by the great white wash.

First, the entire investigation consisted of a chat with Dr. O’Malley, who knows nothing because he wasn’t here, an interview with Mr. Glastein, who had every incentive to not be entirely forthcoming, and a phone call to Mr. Quinn, the accused.

Imagine every article on this blog beginning with the question “Did you do anything wrong?” and ending with “No? Okay.” Yet, this was the entire scope of the state’s investigation; they only saw what the district chose to show them.

Consider everything the state chose to ignore:To the untrained eye, it looks like the district falsified the certificated staff report but none of these other items is mentioned. Though the investigator is not identified, I suspect his last name must have been “Magoo”.

After all, wouldn’t the simple fact that a director worked in the district without proper certification for 18 years have raised some alarms? I’m told the state first notified the district about Rappaport in 1999 but the investigator doesn’t know that because the letter isn’t on my blog.

As for Quinn, you’d have to be a blithering idiot to think that a letter from a training coordinator describing standard operating procedure for new superintendents is proof that you are certified. Heck, all anyone had to do was call and ask. My guess is that Glastein saw the letter, Quinn told him everything was in the works, and it was business as usual.

For those hoping for justice, you might be able to take some small solace in this – “The issue of Ms. Rappaport's salary is involved in pending litigation in the district.” I don’t know what litigation the report is referencing but, speaking as a private citizen who has no power outside a school board in session, I would not mind seeing Rappaport get a taste of the litigation hell she has visited upon so many of our most vulnerable families over the years.

And for those wishing to take the report at face value that “the investigation did not disclose any material issues of noncompliance,” well, good luck with that.
>>> Read more!

Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale

Our second Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale is in three weeks on Sunday, June 7th. Last year we had nearly 100 participants. The more people who participate, the more everyone will benefit, and the more we can promote our community. So, let's get out the word and please tell your friends that the Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale is happening on Sunday, June 7th.

I have set up a website at Registration is free. Anyone residing in the Greater Aberdeen area is welcome to participate.

Here’s how it works:

  • The community-wide garage sale will take place annually, rain or shine, on the first Sunday in June.
  • Anyone residing in Aberdeen, Hazlet, Holmdel, Keyport, Marlboro, Matawan, Morganville, Old Bridge, Pt Pleasant Beach, or Union Beach is welcome to participate
  • Participation is absolutely free
  • Registration is voluntary. Those who register will have their addresses included in the online directory. E-mail addresses will only be used for garage sale communications
  • The garage sales should run from 9AM to 4PM
  • You don’t need a garage to have a sale
I’ve not checked with other municipalities but Aberdeen Township does not regulate garage sales. If other areas are regulated, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to promote the community-wide garage sale.

Of course, I’m doing this on a shoe-string budget so I’ll need all the help I can get. Please be forgiving if the site has some bugs. Suggestions for improvement are most welcome.

Last year, our biggest problem was signage - people couldn't find where the garage sales were taking place. This year, we'll be sorting the directory according to area and provide PDF pages that you can print and post in your area. The pages will have arrows (green tip, red end) and a place to insert your street address.

If you are a local resident, business owner, or organization, and would like your website promoted on, please let me know by emailing me at or posting a comment on this blog.

Spread the word! Sunday, June 7th, is our second annual community-wide garage sale. >>> Read more!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Remembering Jawann Brown

Jawann Brown, MRHS Class of 2005, passed away on Saturday, May 9th. Jawann had been attending Pace University until recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Our hearts go out to Jawann and his family. He will be missed and remembered.

God Bless Jawann and his family.

Jawann graduated from our High School in 2005. His mother is Lisa Brown, an instructional assistant at Cambridge Park Preschool. His sister is Shardea Brown who worked in the Business Office before graduating from MARSD.

Jawann is a third generation graduate from MARSD.

The viewing is from
7:00 to 9:00 pm on Thursday, May 14, 2009 at the
Community Bible Fellowship Church
268 Cliffwood Avenue

The funeral will be held at 11:00 AM on
Friday May 15th 2009 at the
Community Bible Fellowship Church

In lieu of flowers Mr. & Mrs. Brown have requested that contributions be made in Jawann’s name to:

The Northern New Jersey Chapter
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
14 Commerce Drive
Suite 301
Cranford, NJ 07016

Personal Note:
In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, he describes the ultimate torture device - A person is strapped into a machine and forced to witness the inconceivable magnitude of the universe. Then, the machine zooms from the infinite expanse of the universe to an infinitesimal speck and says this is you.

The instant self-realization of utter insignificance would render a person insane.

Tonight, I saw Dr. O’Malley, arguably the most consequential person in Aberdeen, wait quietly among a procession of several hundred to pay his last respects to Jawann Brown. Dr. O’Malley is the chief administrative officer of our town’s largest employer, largest landholder, and possibly the largest organization by revenue, and entrusted with the education of three-quarters of our children. Yet, I doubt many people recognized him or even know his name.

That Jawann Brown touched so many lives in his short twenty-one years is both astounding and terribly humbling.

His memory will be a blessing to us all.

>>> Read more!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just the COAH Facts

Some habits are hard to break. Though I no longer do investigative reporting due to my position on the school board, I sometimes check into old stories to see how they developed. The following is a list of facts related to COAH (affordable housing).

I’ll trust my readers to develop the narrative.

Town Council Minutes (November 3, 2008)
Mr. Warren stated in the report we submitted, COAH said because of our projections we were above and beyond what their projections would have been they are going to use our projections.

Mayor Sobel stated no that is wrong.

Town Council Minutes (November 17, 2008)
Mr. Garaguso stated two weeks we talked about COAH. How many affordable housing units we need to build. I have a copy of the 3rd round premediation report dated 9/15/06. Which states Aberdeen will built 410 new homes and create 310 new jobs by 2014. However, Aberdeen projects 1089 new units and 457 new jobs in accordance with NJAC 5:94-23. Aberdeen's projections double COAH projections because they assume Anchor Glass and Aberdeen Forge will be developed by 2014. Is that a correct assumption that they will be developed by then.

Mayor Sobel stated what happens at those sites are up to the economy and developers. Nothing is happening right now. I think your question is how many units COAH is requiring of the Township.

Mr. Garaguso stated how many units do we need.

Mayor Sobel stated no it is how many units are required. They require us to build 440 affordable housing units.

Aberdeen has projected its residential growth to be 1,089 units and its non-residential growth to be 457 jobs. In accordance with N.J.A.C. 5:94-2.3, Aberdeen’s household and employment projections are above the NJTPA projections and therefore have a presumption of validity . . .” (3rd Round page 10, projected for 2004-2014)

2004-2018 COAH Projections and Resulting Projected Growth Share
Household Growth – 245
Employment Growth – 1935
(Current Petition, page 8)

Aberdeen Township Fall 2005 Newsletter
Councilwoman Wilhelmina Gumbs noted that PRC will go before the Township Planning Board this fall for site plan approval. Concurrently, environmental clearances are being sought from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "If all goes according to plan, the development could be completed within the next 18 months," she said.

The Independent, March 5, 2009
"Remediation study ongoing at So. River Metals site
$402K state grant funds environmental investigation"

In Aberdeen’s March 2002 Fair Share Plan, the township proposed a 63-unit age restricted municipally sponsored construction project. Aberdeen’s third round plan now proposes 92 affordable age-restricted rental units on the site . . .” (3rd Round, page 28)

The Indenpendent, October 3, 2007
“Plans for the Renaissance at Aberdeen call for 120 units”

Aberdeen’s Plan to Fulfill COAH Obligations 3rd Round (page 39)
Aberdeen Summit – 68
Aberdeen Summit (bonuses) – 57
South River – 92
Regional Contribution Agreements – 36
Anchor Glass – 44
Other – 20
(note: RCA’s are no longer permitted)

Aberdeen’s Plan to Fulfill COAH Obligations Current Petition (page 13)
Aberdeen Summit – 68
South River – 110
Anchor Glass – 75
County Road – 132
Other - 17
(note: RCA’s are no longer permitted)
>>> Read more!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Building a Winning Team

This week, the school district has marked a positive break from the past and augurs well for the future. We have an exceptional board focused upon academic excellence and fully supportive of Superintendent O’Malley. We have a community willing to support a fair budget. And we have an administration cognizant the times have changed.

On Monday, Liz Loud-Hayward and I were seated and the board promptly voted along party lines for Charles Kenny (Matawan) as president and Dr. Thomas Gambino (Aberdeen) as vice president. The board’s long-standing tradition of selecting one officer from each municipality was on hiatus under last year’s leadership but has now been restored.

My first public act was to abstain from voting on a friend’s appointment to substitute teacher. The days of patronage are gone as well.

The board’s first un-official act was to postpone passage of the new bylaws. Our current bylaws have not been overhauled for several years and last year’s board retained a firm to update our bylaws and ensure they complied with the law. Each board member received an 800-page document to review. We decided to actually read the document and are glad we did. Buried in it were little tidbits such as “Routine daily homework assignments may count, but shall not be graded” or “The purpose of grading is to assist pupils in the process of learning.”

On Tuesday, we appointed Dr. Jeff Delaney to the school board. It was not an easy decision.

Six people interviewed for the board seat vacated by Cathy Zavorskas. The group had two masters degrees, a law degree, two doctorates, and a candidate for a PhD. They were articulate, passionate, and highly qualified. The board members kept looking at each other, thankful that none of us ever had to campaign against these candidates.

The board needed to make a determination that night since, depending on when the seat was technically vacated, we may have only had two days left before the power to appoint went to the county.

Each interview was allowed twenty minutes and candidates were sequestered, though the interviews were public. The candidate was allowed to make a brief presentation and then was asked one question by each board member. To maintain consistency, the board members asked the same questions to each candidate, regardless of his background.

The candidates were:
Sheila Caldwell – A highly articulate school nurse active in the PTO, Caldwell spoke of using a holistic approach for student development, encompassing mind, body, and spirit. She also said she would be an effective liaison to the African American community, that we needed to reach out more to the Hispanic community, and that she could help us obtain more health funding.

Reverend Sheila Gattis – The Reverend was a passionate advocate for education who believed her work with children and understanding of their needs and issues would be an asset to the board. She had attended the NJSBA seminar for school board candidates and understood a board member’s role, responsibilities, and limitations. She, too, would be an effective liaison to the African-American community.

Jackie Farrell – A lawyer who had previously served on Aberdeen’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, her sole interest was serving her community. She promised to serve with an open-mind, unbiased by any agenda, and weigh all the facts objectively.

Dr. Jeff Delaney – Dr. Delaney is well-known to the board as an officer of the Parents of Special People, as a regular attendee of all public school board meetings, and as an education program specialist in Monmouth County’s Department of Education. He advocated reviewing the district’s reading programs and building in-district programs for autistic students.

Bob Heller – A 20-year army veteran and project leader for multi-million dollar defense works, Heller answered all the board’s questions with laser precision and believed that same focus and precision would help the board determine objectives and achieve them. As a recent resident and single father, he also believed he could bring a fresh and needed perspective to the school board.

Dr. Frederik Oberkehr – An Assistant Superintendent in South Plainfield, he gave the most textbook perfect answers to all our questions. Dr. Oberkehr believed his wealth of knowledge and experience would be a great asset to the board. He was so impressive that a number of board members considered him a worthwhile candidate for superintendent should Dr. O’Malley ever leave our district.

The questions we asked were roughly as follows:
Warren – What’s your opinion of Walden University? I was hoping the candidates knew of the controversy in our district and had formed an opinion. All the candidates had balanced opinions of online schooling but only Dr. Delaney was specifically familiar with Walden University.

Rubino – What’s a board member’s role? Dr. Oberkehr gave the best answer – To ensure a superintendent fulfills the school district’s mission statement. Of course, I hate the current mission statement but it was still the best answer. Most of the other candidate’s spoke to a board member’s position as a representative of and liaison to the community.

Hayward – What are the most pressing issues facing the school district? The point was to see whether the candidates could offer any specific examples. Several mentioned the budget, Oberkehr cited the district's AYP (Annual Yearly Progress), and Delaney referenced the poor reading scores.

Gambino – What do you look for in a superintendent? Most spoke to experience and goals but some mentioned the need to be able to work with staff and the community.

Donaghue– What are the most pressing issues facing children today? All the candidates recognized that children don’t have the same issues we did growing up but each one offered a personal perspective. For example, Reverend Gattis suggested teachers may be setting their expectations too low.

O’Connell – Considering a hypothetical situation of limited funds, how would you spend the money? The point of the question was to measure how a person thinks. Interestingly, the responses were across the board, though some had expert knowledge of how to accomplish certain initiatives for less.

Ruprecht – What do you do when someone tells you he has a problem and needs you to fix it? The point here was to determine whether the candidates knew that a board member has no power except when acting as a member of the board and that a board member is forbidden from interfering in the daily operation of the school district.

Kenny - As a board member, what policies would you like to see implemented? The point was to see if the candidate could make a specific recommendation. Heller offered the simplest idea, which the board could implement - install paper recycling bins in all appropriate rooms.

The appointment is obviously a political appointment and the board rightfully considered criteria that would not have been considered for a job applicant.

In executive session, there was no clear favorite, so we used a straw poll to determine the top three and then worked our way to just one.

In my case, I had an open preference for Dr. Delaney, though there was one other candidate that I liked very much (and was duly impressed by all the candidates). I was very troubled that none of the board members knew anything about any of the other candidates aside from what we learned in their resumes and their interviews.

Dr. Delaney has a doctorate in education. He works in the county department of education. He is extremely involved in the school district, has lived in Cliffwood Beach over 20 years, put his children through the district, including a son who’s still in high school, and has an incredible personal history, including the time he faced down the Ku Klux Klan, guns drawn, after pressing charges against a known Klansman for abusing a black patient.

I knew Dr. Delaney was highly qualified. I knew he shared my concern about past school district practices. And I knew he would be a strong advocate for academic excellence and work well with other board members. For me, I had to ask whether any of the other candidates were better qualified than Dr. Delaney and, for me, the answer was some were as qualified but no one was better qualified.

In the final vote, the board, once again, voted along party lines for Dr. Delaney’s one-year appointment.

With Dr. Delaney on the board, for the first time in memory, a majority of board members have advanced degrees. Including Dr. O’Malley, sitting at the table are three doctorates in education, two lawyers, and a masters in business and engineering.

Wednesday night, we reviewed all the recommendations for non-tenure employee renewals. For each employee, with particular focus on those who would obtain tenure, the administration needed to advocate that employee’s renewal. One pleasant surprise was that not a single candidate for renewal or tenure had a masters degree from an institution of questionable reputation.

This, too, was a sharp contrast from the Quinn years when the board was simply provided a staffing list, without explanation, and instructed to either approve or not. This time, we reviewed each employee, their evaluations, their credentials, their attendance history, and their personal stories. We approved all the recommendations but that may be partially due to the fact that no one would consider recommending someone the board would decline.

I was quite impressed with all the administrators, though I have to give special recognition to our Dynamic Duo at the high school, Principal Ruscavage and Director De Luca. Dr. O’Malley asked all the administrators to raise the bar when hiring or renewing employees and ask whether our district could do better. Ruscavage and De Luca definitely took that message to heart and I’m anxious to see some of the changes at the high school.

Our district’s future is looking a whole light brighter.
>>> Read more!