The Illusion of Local Control

It started out as a typical Monday night–South Brunswick Board of Education had their regularly scheduled meeting in progress, discussing updates on district goals that were outlined at the beginning of the school year. There was only one problem: this presentation was nowhere to be found on the agenda. Therefore, no one in the public knew this presentation, looking at issues like mental/physical safety, community engagement (which is laughable after what happens), and new information on reading programs and teacher training was even happening.

I have been attending board meetings every other week for almost two years, so I am not new to the board members, nor are they new to me. One of the main issues that has persisted for this span of two year is communication (or lack thereof, really). It is extremely difficult to communicate with the board. It took a year of asking to get them to just put a list of committees and who sits on those committees on the district website. And the agenda situation is still unresolved. It took a year to get the district to upload minutes to the website. The bylaws for the board are still not available online.

The “agenda” in our district is a page. Yes–a page–the whole entire thing (double sided, two pages if we’re being nice). This single page is posted in advance of the meeting in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act. I will include right below this a picture of the one-page agenda. All it gives is the title of the topic that will be covered. “Board comments/communications.” Well, what board committees are there, who met, what have they been discussing? “Report of the Superintendent.” Well, what is he going to talk about? Is he giving a presentation? Update on testing? Update on curriculum and professional development? There is no way to know.

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When we get to the meeting, there is a consent agenda that is more detailed–it includes bids for different projects happening in the district and usually includes personnel information. There is still nothing about what committees have been working on, presentation information, etc. Nada. Nothing. The issue of transparency is evident, without question. But this also raises another issue along the lines of transparency: parents/community members/taxpayers don’t know what the district will be discussing or presenting (and even the consent agenda doesn’t include this) until the consent agenda is given out at the actual meeting (if there is a special presentation like a student honor, that is written on the agenda. But, granted, parents know when their kids are going to be honored).

So, last night I decided to comment on the agenda issue during public comment. After giving public comment (which can be seen in the video below), the board VP didn’t answer me. I asked why. He refused and spoke over me. I yelled out “why aren’t you going to answer me?!” He said “Can she be removed? Thank you.” pointing at me. None of this was actually caught on the video shot, but the police officer came over and tried to get me out of the meeting, telling me I had to leave. I refused. He stood over me until almost the end of the meeting to make sure I didn’t move, continually telling me to be quiet. He kept eye on me for the entire rest of the meeting, following me out of the meeting and halfway through the parking lot to my car. 

If I had continued to speak, I have a strong feeling that I would have been physically escorted out of the meeting, and I was genuinely scared of a potential arrest. I was not letting anyone put their hands on me, and who knows how far this could have escalated. All for asking for a more detailed and transparent agenda.

Here’s the best part of all: after the meeting, the board superintendent approached me and tried to shame me for “yelling” out during the meeting. I responded by saying that not only did they refuse to answer me, but they have consistently refused to answer me, spoken down to me, tried to publicly shame me, and refuse to do any sort of town hall for open communication between the board and the community. He didn’t seem like he was in the mood to argue, so he told me that because this issue has been raised so many times, the board has spoken and decided to look at how to remedy the situation at their board retreat. Do you need me to repeat that? That because this issue has been raised so many time, the board has spoken and decided to look at how to remedy the situation at their board retreat. Know what that is? An answer. One that could’ve been given to me when I asked the question. A simple one sentence answer. This was all new information to me–I’ve been told before that the board was “looking into it” (often used as a response to just brush public comment aside)–but this was a concrete answer: it is going to be addressed at the board retreat. By this response, it is clear that the board has been discussing this issue, so my question was of no surprise to them. But instead I was ignored, told my question would not be answered, and “thrown” out of the meeting and intimidated by a police officer. After telling him that they never have any communication with the public, the superintendent said “we don’t owe you or anyone a response.” And there you have it. They don’t “owe” us a response. Last time I checked, the board were elected officials who were supposed to represent us.

If a simple question could elicit a response/reaction like this, what about parents asking about much more serious, school-related issues? Shouldn’t a board be concerned about communication? The very board member that requested to have me removed from the meeting said the following in a 2010 interview when running for the board:

Q What needs to change?

Boyle: I believe there is room for improvement in the area of communication.

Q Why should people vote for you?

Boyle: I will not shy away from issues and will be very direct. In addition, I will seek input from the community on decisions before I cast a vote. I will explain my reasoning with people who disagree with me on issues.

The hypocrisy of these comments speak for themselves.

Even the board minutes are extremely sparse. The minutes from the meetings (see below) are only a few pages, as the rest of the document is the consent agenda. Below are the minutes from July–the minutes for September are yet to be made available online. Archived minutes follow the same pattern of two to three pages, and then the rest is the consent agenda.

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This is a trend that is happening in suburban districts across the state: the illusion of democracy; the illusion of community input; the illusion of transparency; the illusion of local control. But even a simple question can now apparently be enough to have you removed from a meeting. People need to attend board of education meetings and demand proper agendas. Demand transparency and openness. Demand open and honest communication between the board and the public. Step one is showing up. And it seems, after two years, that the next logical step is getting some new people on boards of education across the state of New Jersey.

With credit to Ed Birch and Tap Into South Brunswick-Cranbury

With credit to Ed Birch and Tap Into South Brunswick-Cranbury

For more info: https://www.tapinto.net/towns/south-brunswick-cranbury/articles/south-brunswick-activist-almost-ejected-from-boa

For the public comment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VANc51QVgM

For the full meeting: http://www.sbschools.org/vtn/vtnlive.php

TO TAKE ACTION: PLEASE CONSIDER EMAILING THE BOARD AND THE SUPERINTENDENT

Superintendent: Jerry.Jellig@sbschools.org 

Board members: (President) Stephen.Parker@sbschools.org // (Vice President) Daniel.Boyle@sbschools.org // Azra.Baig@sbschools.org // Patrick.DelPiano@sbschools.org // Harry.Delgado@sbschools.org // Barry.Nathanson@sbschools.org // Deven.Patel@sbschools.org // Arthur.Robinson@sbschools.org // Peter.St.Vincent@sbschools.org

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4 thoughts on “The Illusion of Local Control

  1. Go Melissa! I was so impressed by the way you addressed the board. You were extremely professional and articulate. That board member came off as a thug in my opinion. What was so hard about answering that question?

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  2. I have great admiration for Melissa Katz. this is not a problem limited to her school district. the illusion of a participatory democracy has been a tool of school districts much closer to home. one example is the public meetings held by a district to “elicit” community input in a new Student Manual.
    it became clear to most that it was a done deal. ready for board approval. sadly, a number of parents/ community members bought the sell that they were actually contibuting to it, and continued to offer suggestions as to how the district might proceed. the moderator allowed them to continue in their misconception. even encouraged it.
    as both a teacher and resident, I was sickened.
    i think sometimes we get the transparency we demand. we let others do the work and this is where we find ourselves.
    teachers, unfortunately, are constrained.

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  3. Melissa, you are a rockstar! Seriously! You are the New Jersey version of me in Delaware! I have no problem going to a state board of education meeting and telling them their love of charters and common core is disgusting and appalling. In New Jersey, can you FOIA a public meeting like that? I’ve seen other local board members actually submit a FOIA in regards to agenda items and a lack of transparency around them. Then our Attorney General has to give a legal opinion about the matter. Nothing gets a board into gear like a published legal opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

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