Monday, June 22, 2009

Why I Still Support Raises for the MARSD Executive Team

(Note: The article was originally removed because, despite public notice of the hearings of the contractual changes, the actual changes were not yet posted on the school website. They have since been posted. However, once you remove an article on Blogger, you lose the comments. My apologies. I have edited the article slightly to hopefully address some of those comments.)

The Matawan-Aberdeen School Board has proposed giving the following raises to the district’s three top administrators –
Dr. Richard O’Malley, Superintendent - $173,000 -> $185,000 (6.9%)
Mr. Joel Glastein, Deputy Superintendent - $151,000 -> $156,489 (3.6%)
Ms. Sue Irons, Business Administrator - $119,000 -> $130,000 (9.2%)

Excluding salaries, no other changes will be made to their contracts.

The net cost of the board’s action is $ 28,489, minus $3,000 we’re contractually required to give Dr. O’Malley, plus such niceties as pension contributions, social security, and the like. For the sake of argument, let’s round the total cost to $30,000.

I intend to vote for the salary increases at the upcoming school board meeting, this Thursday.

I’d now like to address questions and comments from the public.

1st Question/Comment – What the #$%@? In this economy? Have you lost your mind?

Thank you for asking and no I have not.

Dr. O’Malley and his team cut school spending by $600,000. This isn’t one of those fictitious numbers that politicians like to throw around by first raising spending by millions of dollars and then cutting from the inflated number. Our district is spending $600,000 less than we did last year.

Look at what happened last year when the administration proposed we raise the school tax by the legal limit and the school board praised the administration for showing fiscal restraint. Look at the surrounding neighborhoods – Holmdel proposed raising the tax levy over a million dollars. So did Hazlet. Old Bridge held the line at just a $560,000 increase. Only Keyport, a district less than a third our size, was able to cut taxes.

Dr. O’Malley could have simply frozen spending at 2008-09 levels and the board would have sung hallelujahs. He could have hedged his bets by cutting less and leaving room for more cuts in case the district rejected the school budget for the 8th consecutive year. O’Malley could have but didn’t.

We’re spending $30,000 more on a team that saved us at least $600,000, including the cost of their raises. We didn’t use any gimmicks such as delaying pension payments, cutting services, or increasing class sizes. Plus, our accounting procedures are finally in compliance so the money that is spent is definitely going where it should.

Will that extra $30,000 be spent every year? Yes, just like that $600,000 annual savings will continue forever.

As for the economy, are you referring to the private economy where unemployment/underemployment is over 15%, where the housing market has crashed, the stock market has crashed, gasoline is creeping back to $3 a gallon, and property taxes keep going up? Or are you referring to the public sector where school administrators continue to get pay raises despite dismal records?

Dr. O’Malley and Ms. Irons will still be making less than their peers in comparable districts after the raises. We got them on the cheap because, at the time of their appointments, they only had K-8 experience. That’s no longer the case. Just like teachers get monster increments upon reaching a certain level of experience, so do administrators.

By comparison, let’s look at Middletown’s superintendent. She’ll be making $189,000 plus $3,600 to cover her gas and tolls driving to work, and get full health insurance for $100 per month. (Dr. O’Malley, like all administrators, pays 1% of his base salary.) Not to mention, Middletown recommended raising taxes 2.6%, “the lowest increase in a decade”.

Again, look at what O’Malley and Irons accomplished during their short tenure. Do we really want to run the risk of having them shop their resumes to other districts? If we lose them, not only do we lose two highly capable professionals, their replacements will likely cost at least 10% more than we’re currently paying.

2nd Question/Comment – The budget had been inflated for years. We’re thrilled they cut spending but that’s their job. They would’ve done the same thing without the raises.

I recognize the teachers union would like to convince us that financial incentives don’t improve job performance but we all know that’s bunk.

This past year, Dr. O’Malley had to struggle with a powerful teachers union, a board leadership that voted against his appointment, and a school district in disarray. Despite those challenges, we’ve seen numerous improvements from finances, to educational initiatives, to staff changes, to improved communications. For the first time in many years, education has become our top priority.

Examples include the new academies, revised curriculums, new testing programs, multiple staff changes, and the palpable drive to achieve measurable results.

Would Dr. O’Malley have worked just as hard, fought just as hard, knowing he would get the same $3,000 raise no matter what he did? Probably but I’m not prepared to test that theory.

If there’s even a 5% chance that Dr. O’Malley or Ms. Irons wouldn’t have pushed so hard knowing there was no financial incentive for them to do so, then it would have cost the district more to not give the raises.

3rd Question/Comment - This is just an excuse. The board gives raises every year regardless of performance.

That may have been true but it isn’t any longer. Before agreeing to any raises, Marty Ruprecht and I argued for and won a consensus from the board to define measurable goals for the superintendent and make future raises dependent upon him achieving those goals. We expect to have those benchmarks in place before the end of the summer.

If we do not have those benchmarks in place before the start of the school year, I will be issuing my own criteria by which I will measure Dr. O’Malley and Ms. Irons’ performance.

This year, Dr. O’Malley will be judged upon his initiatives, cost cutting, and perceived ability to advance the district. Moving forward, however, the superintendent will be rewarded based upon the district’s performance.

4th Question/Comment - Cost cutting, new programs, that’s all nice but O’Malley’s main job is education and there’s been no improvement there whatsoever.

There’s a good bit of truth to that comment but it needs to be put into perspective.

We have received preliminary state results from the high school state exams and it’s a bag of mixed results with incomplete information. A higher percentage of students achieved advanced proficiency on the HSPA exams but the failure rate is unchanged. Freshman and sophomore years show no statistical change. Another problem is we don’t have the state averages so we can’t factor any possible changes in the exams themselves. Also, this is only the high school, not the lower grades.

More students applied and were accepted to 4-year colleges but fewer students are attending, likely because of the economy. Still, far too few of our seniors are enrolling in 4-year colleges and that needs to be addressed.

Another problem is that the changes are incremental. Do they represent the start of a trend or are they just random blips?

Toss in the facts that Dr. O’Malley has only been with us for little more than a year, he’s had to battle with the unions and a culture of complacency to get his programs in place, and the state exams are administered in March. How do we grade Dr. O’Malley’s leadership in the academic arena? We can’t. All we can do is look at his initiatives and ask ourselves if we believe he’s on the right track.

In the past year, we’ve introduced Realtime (parental online access to student academic reports), Naviance (online college guides), the high school academies, introducing algebra in 7th grade, NWEA adaptive testing in the lower grades, and an enhanced music program. The district has not had a single special education related lawsuit since it eliminated the supervisor of special education position. There have been significant reductions in criminal activity across the district. Administrators have raised the bar for contract renewals of untenured staff. There’s been a marked increase in the number of in-class observations. Staff are being assigned to where their skills are most needed.

This is a lot for one year and I believe we will see the payoffs in the near future.

So, to respond to your comment, I believe it is too early to hold Dr. O’Malley accountable for academic improvements. However, I can make preliminary judgments on his first year accomplishments. As for next year, the board will definitely demand to see more evidence that the district is improving academically.

5th Question/Comment – O’Malley is the chief administrative officer, Irons is the business administrator, but what did Glastein do to deserve his raise?

Our district is managed by a three-person team at the top. That’s Dr. O’Malley, Ms. Irons, and Mr. Glastein. We, the board, are pleased with that team’s performance. Dr. O’Malley recommended the salary adjustments to reward and retain his team.

I cannot discuss confidential personnel issues but I assure you that Mr. Glastein, our deputy superintendent, is an active member of that three-person team. Though his role is less defined than the other two, Mr. Glastein’s contributions can be attributable to our district’s progress as well.

(The notion that I had publicly criticized Mr. Glastein’s past performance is untrue. I reserve my criticisms for head honchos and elected representatives.)

6th Question/Comment - How can you negotiate with the unions if you’re giving fat cat bonuses to the top dogs?

Easy. These raises are performance based. The board would be eager to negotiate significant salary raises with the unions as well in exchange for cost-cutting measures and improvements in performance.

Additionally, teachers would have the opportunity to earn more money if the union allowed them to receive performance-based pay. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

(How to measure a teacher’s performance could be a subject of negotiation but the unions won’t even entertain the possibility.)

7th Question/Comment - This is all bull. You’re just another politician and you don’t care how high our taxes go.

Don’t treat me like some Cadillac politician who doesn’t feel the pain of the common man. I’m a small business operator. Three of my top four clients have unpaid bills over 75 days past the invoice date. I have another two completed projects that can’t be billed because I’m still waiting for authorization.

Meanwhile, I pay over $10,000 a year in property taxes, I watch my 1-year old at home and pick up my 5-year old from school at 3:45. I drive a ten-year old Ford.

I have friends in this town who lost their jobs.

I am acutely aware of the enormity of our property taxes and how many of us, particularly now, are having a very difficult time making ends meet.

Knowing that and sharing the pain, I say these raises will help our district lower costs and improve education.

I recognize these raises are controversial and that people will hope to change my vote prior to Thursday’s board meeting. I can think of three arguments that could sway my vote - evidence that we’ll be paying them more than their peers, evidence they’re undeserving, or evidence that financial incentives won’t improve performance.

Any other questions and comments? Feel free to fire away. I’ve never retreated from a tough question or comment and I never will.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Let’s Talk About Cliffwood

(Note: The following is from the superintendent's contract. It simply clarifies that the board can only approve or deny staffing changes, not initiate, and that the superintendent is contractually bound to act in the best interests of the district.

"The Superintendent shall be the chief executive and administrative officer of the Board and shall have general supervision over all aspects, including the fiscal operations and instructional programs of the district, and shall arrange the administrative and supervisory staff, including instruction and business affairs in a manner which, in his judgment, best services the district. The selection, placement, transfer, renewal and dismissal of personnel, both instructional and noninstructional, shall occur only upon the recommendation of the Superintendent, subject to Board approval, and the nonrenewal of personnel shall occur upon the Superintendent’s notification to the employee and the Board.")

I love a good argument and the situation at Cliffwood presents an opportunity to highlight opposing philosophical viewpoints that impact major decisions in the school district.

Ken Smith has recently retired as principal at Strathmore Elementary. To save money, Dr. O’Malley decided to use current staff to fill the vacancy. The superintendent recommended Mrs. Berra move from Cliffwood to Strathmore, Mr. Farrell become the new principal of Cliffwood, and expand Ms. De Luca’s role to being director of accountability for both the middle school and the high school. It is my understanding that a small number of highly regarded teachers in Cliffwood will be transferred as well.

After a full hearing, the board voted 7-2 to approve Dr. O’Malley’s appointments.

The question before us is how do you define the board’s role as it pertains to the above matter?

Before continuing, I need to mention two things. First, there have been a number of scurrilous rumors that Mr. Farrell was offered the position because of a personal relationship with Dr. O’Malley. The rumors are lies being spread by certain individuals trying to undermine the superintendent. Dr. O’Malley does not have any personal relationship, neither familial nor friendship-wise, with Mr. Farrell beyond their working relationship. Nor did the two know each other prior to Mr. Farrell’s employment.

Secondly, party affiliations among the board members have vanished and been forgotten. Dr. Gambino and Ms. Rubino were the two board members to oppose the appointments. During arguments, I often find myself most closely aligned with Mr. Ruprecht. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.

Regarding the board’s role in this matter, my sharpest disagreements are with Dr. Gambino. By no means are the arguments personal. Dr. Gambino is a dear friend. He was the first person to invite me to a school board meeting and the first board member to introduce himself. He was the person who encouraged me to pursue a board seat and he was co-chair of my campaign.

This vote was likely the first of many that we will disagree upon.

The New Jersey Code of Ethics for school board members has the following clauses:

  • I will confine my board action to policy making
  • I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run
  • I will vote to appoint the best qualified personnel
Let’s assume that Dr. Gambino and I are in complete agreement on the following:
  • Mrs Berra, Mr. Farrell, and Ms. De Luca are all well qualified
  • Mrs. Berra is the best qualified person to manage Cliffwood
  • Strathmore would be equally served by either Mrs. Berra or Mr. Farrell making Mr. Farrell the better candidate
  • Asking Ms. De Luca to be the director of accountability for two schools would ill-serve both schools
In this instance, the three relevant clauses in the code of ethics are in conflict. As a board member, I cannot confine myself to policy making and vote to appoint the best person for the job. Nor can I ensure the school is well run without administering the schools to a limited degree through personnel assignments. So, do I approve or deny the superintendent’s recommendation?

My view is that the board is primarily a policy making body with a very limited role in staff assignments. All the people are well qualified for the newly assigned positions and are current employees of the district. They have all accepted their new roles without protest. There is no policy issue before the board. Therefore, we have no basis to deny the superintendent’s recommendation.

Dr. Gambino agrees there’s no policy issue before the board. However, he argues that in every item presented to the board for approval, we are required to see the schools are well run and to appoint the best qualified personnel for their respective positions. Therefore, since these appointments do not meet either of those standards, we should deny.

I believe Dr. Gambino views the board as having a wider role than I think is appropriate. The only time the board reviews candidates is for the highest positions when the district has nobody of that level to fill the positions. In the current scenario, these are primarily staff re-assignments between employees of comparable experience. Additionally, I believe we need to give Dr. O’Malley great deference because we cannot hold him fully accountable for results if we don’t also grant him leeway in staffing and he has done nothing to diminish our confidence in his abilities.

Dr. Gambino agrees that we need to give Dr. O’Malley deference and leeway but we, as board members, are entrusted to use discretion and act as representatives of the school district. These staffing assignments are very big deals that many parents oppose and we need to give the parents deference as well. After all, it’s their children we’re educating.

I think Dr. O’Malley should consider their concerns but focus upon the tasks at hand. Also, the voices we hear are not necessarily representative of the community

Dr. Gambino feels these voices can’t be ignored just because we haven’t polled the community.

I’m afraid we’ll become too involved in management. He’s afraid we’ll neglect our responsibilities to provide oversight.

I believe the board needs to focus on student outcomes. He’s afraid tests don’t measure everything and, even if they did, we’d only learn after the damage was done.

The arguments can go on and on. The issue is one of balance when there’s a conflict between sticking to policy and providing oversight. Dr. Gambino holds that if the board believes the superintendent is making a mistake, we need to intervene when we have the opportunity to do so, even if there’s no policy issue. I believe that, absent any policy issue, we should not supplant the superintendent’s judgment with our own unless we have strong and convincing evidence that pushes us to do so.

These are the kinds of disputes a school board should have. >>> Read more!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Modest Property Tax Increases

Correction: The township has informed me the ESTIMATED tax rates are 2.283 for Fire district #1 and $2.279 for fire district #2 (the difference being garbage pickup).

In an earlier article, I had assumed property taxes would rise around 4% this year, given reduced state aid, heavy pension contributions, and our leadership’s free spending ways. Fortunately, Dr. O’Malley proved me wrong by presenting a school budget that actually reduced (albeit minutely) Aberdeen’s tax burden. The county was “on target” with a 3.8% increase and our town budget, after a mix of faux savings and unconscionable spending increases, appears to be rising 7%. (I still need to review the final budget.) So, the good news is property taxes, excluding any individual impact from the revaluations, is only rising 1%. The bad news is how we got there.

First, the math. This year’s total municipal tax collection is $48,156,817.12. The assessment roll is $2,090,000,000. Divide collections by assessments and you have a tax rate of 2.304 per hundred dollars of value. That’s a 1% increase over last year’s adjusted tax rate of 2.274.

Bear in mind, although the property revaluations are revenue neutral, individual homeowners could see tax swings of ten percent or more.

Sadly, the township used a combination of financial gimmickry and bare-knuckle tactics to restrain property taxes in an election year, hoping the townsfolk wouldn’t notice.

Most egregious was the brazen mugging of our Matawan-Aberdeen Public Library. Matawan and Aberdeen sacked the place for $250,000, of which Aberdeen got $184,402. That’s the library’s reward for being fiscally responsible and saving money towards capital projects.

Coincidentally, I’m sure, that sum almost covers the $195,000 budget increase for the road improvement program (read CME) and the township attorney.

Then, let’s not forget the town’s $458,000 pension deferral that we’ll need to pay, with interest.

If we were to add the money from the library and the pension deferral to tax collections, our municipal tax rate would have been rising 10% this year or 23% in the two years since the “no tax increase” during the last election year.

This year, we’ll be electing a majority of the town council. Do either of the parties have a plan to halt runaway spending? I’d sure like to see it.
>>> Read more!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Reminder - Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale on Sunday, June 7th

The Greater Aberdeen Garage Sale is this weekend on Sunday, June 7th. So far, we have over 50 registered garage sales.

Last year, our biggest problem was people couldn't find the garage sales. So, to help with that, I've added two changes (albeit a bit late). First, I'll be emailing all registrants an editable PDF that you can print and post to help drivers find your garage sale. (If the font is too big for your address, try writing the address in a different font size in your email or a separate document and then do a copy and paste.) Secondly, I'll be editing the data on the website so that all homes will be grouped together according to area and street.

Another problem we had last year was the page had difficulty loading all the garage sales on a single page. We now list all the garage sales on two pages (be sure to check the second page).

The forecasts predict a perfect day. Best of luck to everyone and thank you for participating. >>> Read more!