Board of Education Learns the Art of 'Boardsmanship'
What the BOE did during its summer vacation
The past school year gave rise to a good bit of acrimony within the Parsippany-Troy Hills Board of Education. From the continuing controversy over Superintendent LeRoy Seitz's contract and employment status to disagreements over spending to apparent rivalries sprouting up between groups of members, getting things done efficiently is made more difficult. That's something Board President Frank Calabria wants to change for the 2011-12 school year.
Since his election as president, Calabria says he's worked to build unity within the body. He put aside bylaws to appoint two vice presidents, veteran member Dr. Frank Neglia and newly elected Susy Golderer. He delayed forming committees until July to force members to work together—in full view of the public—in making decisions. Calabria, ever the educator, even resorted to rearranging seat assignments at meetings.
This isn't about good guys and bad guys, he says.
"I genuinely like each and every member of this board," Calabria told Patch. "Each of them cares deeply about the students and the schools. And I believe, in time, they'll come together."
This summer, Calabria set up a special event to help with the process of uniting the board members. He called on the New Jersey School Boards Association to give the Parsippany BOE a seminar on what the president called "boardsmanship."
"School boards are supposed to work together as a unit," Calabria explained, adding that the seminar is one presented to every Board of Education at some point.
On June 28, at a special public board meeting, the primary agenda item featured Joanne Barr of the NJSBA and her Board Operations workshop.
Barr told the board and the residents in the audience that every action taken by a board of education must be guided by a Code of Ethics the association accepted in 1975. That agreement became law by an act of the state legislature in 2001.
"The Code of Ethics describes what you can do and can't do as board members," Barr said.
Under the code, among other things, board members throughout the state must:
- uphold all laws
- make decisions based on the educational welfare of children
- help to frame policies
- take no personal or private actions that could compromise the board
- hold school matters confidential
- refuse to surrender independence to special interests or factionalization
"Your role is not to administer schools but, with all members together, to see that they are well run," Barr explained.
One area that falls under the ethics umbrella is nepotism in hiring and appointments, which is considered unethical. Another is conflicts of interest.
"If you have a personal involvement, you must recuse yourself. [During discussions], leave the room," said Barr. "In collective negotiations, you can't participate if you have an immediate family member such as siblings or parents involved."
She also reminded the nine school officials that they have no right to throw around their weight in schools.
"As board members, you have no power save for sitting in the meeting. As an individual, you have no other power," she said, underscoring that whatever power any board of education has exists only as a united group. "The person who has the last word in hiring is the superintendent. You cannot hire a person unless the superintendent recommends that person. You cannot fix a problem in a school—if there's a problem, call the superintendent."
But she added that the authority board members jointly share is meaningful, as is each individual member's vote on important issues for the district.
An example she offered dealt with a BOE member writing a letter to an editor. According to Barr, it is ethical for a member to do this as long as he or she states explicitly that the letter does not represent the views of the board. The only member by law who can speak for the body is its president, and he or she can do so only with board approval.
Barr urged the members to take their votes and the panel's duty to make policy seriously and to protect their own integrity.
"Refuse to surrender your independent vote to partisan political groups or to anyone," she said.
Again, Barr hit on the subject of unity. The NJSBA requires that boards of education publicly speak with one voice and project an image of togetherness.
"You want everyone together," she aid. "You get many more things done."
Barr guided the board through an exercise in which she presented ethical dilemmas and members shared their opinion of whether or not actions taken were in keeping with the ethics code.
In one, the question posed involved a BOE negotiations committee chairperson who accepts a political endorsement from a teachers' association. Under the code, it is acceptable behavior for the chairperson to accept the endorsement. The chair, however, cannot negotiate with that union.
Another question dealt with the part of the code that says board members must "support and protect school personnel." This means that if a member hears some complaint about a district employee, he or she must take the issue to the superintendent and must not speak of the matter publicly. If no administrative solution develops, then and only then may the member bring the issue before the public.
A corollary to this is that no board member must take any action or utter any statement that undermines their superintendent.
Barr said there is a good reason board members should keep their negative opinions and complaints to themselves and to the superintendent: People can be litigious.
"Say something negative and you could be sued," she warned. "If you adhere to the Code of Ethics, your legal bills will be paid through your insurance coverage."
Of course, if a board member sticks to the code, the only person who will hear his or her complaint is the superintendent.
The Code of Ethics also pertains to communications between members, who are not allowed to meet in small groups outside of the whole (save for approved committees dealing with particular subject areas).
"Board members' notes, emails and text messages during a meeting can be requested by citizens who make Open Rublic Records Act requests.
"Discussions outside of committee meetings and closed-door meetings involving confidential matters must take place as a full body within the public meeting," Barr said. "Every board member is entitled to a district email address. Be very careful about what you put in an email. And remember, board members can't 'reply all'; that would be considered an illegal meeting."
She noted that using 'reply all' in emails concerning board business is not an ethics violation, but is a violation of the sunshine law.
Penalties exist for board members who break the code. If someone is found guilty, the punishment goes from being reprimanded to being suspended or censured. Ultimately, the state ethics commission can opt to remove that member from the board permanently.
The element that makes a board successful, said Barr, is trust.
"That's a tough one," said Co-Vice President Susy Golderer. "There are some members of this board that I do not trust."
A few other members nodded their heads.
"You've got to be able to trust your fellow board members. Each of you is important, and it's important to develop unity, shared values," said Barr. "One board member can hurt the entire board for three years on QSAC in the area of governance."
QSAC is the monitoring system used to evaluate the performances of boards of education. There are five areas judged:
- Instruction and programs
- Fiscal management
A score of 80 percent or higher shows a board is highly qualified. Between 50 and 80 percent indicates a need for corrective action. If a board scores less than 50 percent, the state Department of Education can come in to oversee the situation.
"You never want to see that happen," Barr said. "Those corrective action plans are really tough."
Superintendent Seitz, noting that Parsippany scored as "highly qualified" in its last evaluation, said those that fail QSAC do so because their board members don't adhere to the Code of Ethics.
"Really, it is all about ethics," said Barr.
Following the session, board members appeared to be satisfied with what they heard.
"[Barr] had a lot of interesting things to say," said Golderer. "She's given me a lot to think about."
Board member Fran Orthwein gave thumbs-up to the session and to Barr.
"If everyone listens to what she said, we will be successful as a board," she said.
President Calabria agreed.
"This is a fine board made up of people I truly respect," he said. "Sure, we've had our moments, but I know the board is slowly but surely coming together.
"I have no doubt that [2011-12] will be a great year for the board and for the district."