Schools Head on Bullying and District Controversies
Final installment of Patch's three-part series with Dr. LeRoy Seitz on back-to-school 2012.
The 2012-13 school year begins Thursday, and controversial Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz says he wants to get the new year off to a positive start. In what is becoming a yearly tradition, Patch sat down with the superintendent Aug. 22 at the Board of Education building for a wide-ranging discussion on matters educational.
In part one of our three-part chat with Seitz, we covered the continuing athletic field brouhaha, school maintenance, property taxes and making difficult choices. In part two, we talked about district initiatives, the teacher tenure law and student achievement. This final part focuses on stopping bullying and harassment in schools, controversies that have created district distractions and whether it is true that apparently warring factions of the Board of Education just can't get along.
Patch: Last year, the primary push for Parsippany-Troy Hills schools was the campaign to deal with harassment, intimidation and bullying. The state's unfunded mandate on anti-bullying was deemed unconstitutional, but you told me then that the program will go on. What is the district planning for 2012-13, and what resources will be needed?
Dr. LeRoy Seitz: The HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) issue is a major one and [remains] a priority. What we found is that by highlighting [bullying], you get a halo effect—you tend to get a reduction. When we started it and people were new to the process—and the definition of HIBs is so broad that it can apply to just about any situation. But as the year went on, we got training for everyone and we're seeing it's a good thing because when there's an incident, whether it's bullying or not, we report it and kids know there are in some cases consequences. More importantly, there is a remedial element to get the child to understand that what he or she did is wrong and what they should do instead. And if they do feel frustrated or angry, there are ways to deal with it without attacking another person. So I think [the anti-bullying effort] was long overdue and we would love to see it funded, but it isn't, so we will just keep pushing forward with it.
As far as resources, we still have our Student Leadership Retreat, which focuses on bullying. We'd like to get that more engaged during the school year. But I think pulling back the curtains and putting light on the problem is probably the most effective thing that could have been done. Parents have a tool now: They can pick up the phone if there is a problem and we have to address it. Not that we wouldn't without the law, but I think right now because it's really spelled out very clearly what everybody's responsibilities are, parents and students are more willing to come forward and say, "My child's [or I am or my classmate is] being picked on, what are you going to do about it?" We know we have two days to get the report, 10 days to do the investigation and it gets reported to the Board of Education. Then the parents of the children involved get letters telling them what we did [to address the situation] and they can come in if they want to talk about it if they feel it was inadequate.
So I really think this is a good thing, probably one of the better things that has happened in the last 10 years.
One of the interesting moves the schools made last year was offering the assembly for Rachel's Challenge, the nationwide kindness effort inspired by the first child killed at Columbine High School in Colorado. Will it continue?
Seitz: There was an effort at the Hills and the High to build a chain of kindness from one high school to the other. That was quite an effort. It's a nice program and a very moving program, but those one-shot programs don't seem to have a lasting impact. What you need is something you see and do every day. So with the teachers and coaches and the student leaders all being aware of [anti-bullying intiatives] and focusing on that and getting service organizations involved, you create greater awareness, and that's how you move the district forward. And we did see a significant reduction in reports of HIBs.
Seitz: It would be great to have a year without any HIBs, but the reality is we probably won't, so... The next thing, if you have someone who commits a HIB, what are you doing to change that behavior? That's what we're focusing on now.
Among the other new things we expect to see in the upcoming school year is the new and improved Pomptonian school lunch program.
Seitz: The school lunch program has a new component to it, nutritional guidelines. We'll be sending out information to the parents before the start of school. There will be a link to a website where they can get an understanding of why they're being charged more and getting what they may perceive to be less, the elimination of low-fat [flavored] milk. Really, it's a move in the right direction. When you begin to realize what you're eating and how it affects you, being pulled into eating healthier foods [in healthier portion sizes], it's a great thing. Look at portion sizes: That information came out about five years ago. That's a huge thing. They've used to have these huge muffins and now they offer littler muffins. The students adjusted to it, and they'll adjust to this. And they have an option of buying more protein or whatever [outside of the standard lunch] if that's what they want.
The other new component, which we're not ready to go public with yet because we don't have the plan in place, is a breakfast program that will be launched at Knollwood and Rockaway Meadow schools in October. Breakfast will be available to everyone, but it's targeted to those in the free and reduced lunch category. Those schools were chosen because their poverty level has reached a certain point, perhaps due to the people affected by the floods.
Have the schools had to make big adjustments to help students whose families were affected by Irene?
Seitz: Not really. Initially, there was cleanup, and Lake Hiawatha School served as the emergency shelter. But the good thing is that the town was so supportive. Parents were either able to find someone to house them, and in a few cases—and it is really only a few—parents who had to move out of the sending area (Lake Hiawatha to Knollwood, for instance), were able to keep their children at their regular school if they had transportation because we knew they would be coming back. That happened very rarely; I'd be surprised if it was six times. But we made those adjustments. But once we got past the initial cleanup and providing clothing and other stuff [a number of PTAa held clothing and school-supplies drives], it really didn't impact the rest of the school year. We really didn't see students needing emotional support, but we had counselors available if they did. We're going to have to look carefully now at Knollwood and Rockaway Meadow because if [their displacement is] not a temporary thing, then those students may need some additional services, which we will be able to provide. We'll have to see how the next year goes and the year after that.
Yes, a number of families are still not in their homes.
Seitz: Yes, but [the town has] really handled it well.
It could be a whole lot worse, that's for sure.
Seitz: I think the fact that the community was here and people didn't have to relocate to other states helped. Parsippany is big enough that Irene directly affected a relatively limited number of people and the rest of the town stepped right up.
Now we get into dicey terroritory: There was a lot of controversy and chatter over the summertime incident involving the bus driver who left some students unattended. I understand that driver is no longer employed by the district?
Seitz: That's correct.
Is the district looking into methods to better supervise the activities of drivers when they are on their rounds?
Seitz: No, and I'll tell you why. That was, in my opinion, an anomaly. The bus driver readily admitted to it. The bus driver no longer works for us. We did notify the police, who are investigating. There's a form you have to fill out for the state as well, and we complied. The incident will be reviewed by the state. The driver could lose her commercial driver's license for six months or more. Fortunately, no one was injured. But we do monitor the performance of our bus drivers. We actually have a limited number of drivers who are district employees; most work for [bus company] STA, and we monitor them as well. If we saw a pattern develop, then we would take action, but I don't think one bus driver admittedly making a poor decision [stopping to pick up mail at a post office and leaving children alone on the bus] indicates that we have any systemic problems. If I were to see two, three or four instances of it, then yes, we would have a problem. But when that particular incident occurred, we spoke to all our drivers and reminded them of the guidelines we have. When they're hired and on a periodic basis [during their employment], they sign off on a document that lists all of their responsibilities, which verifies that they've read them, that they understand them and that they're doing them. So we have those things in place.
I don't know what the woman was thinking... [After the incident took place] she didn't fight us and immediately said it was her fault, that she made a poor decision. But there is zero tolerance for that, and there's no question. Once we verified what took place, and it was that she left two students unattended on the bus, then she could no longer work for us.
You've seen that school board member Michael Strumolo is asking the governor to intervene regarding his complaints regarding alleged nepotism and alleged past legal infractions he has hinted about involving his fellow BOE members. He also alleges that you are harassing him with threats of ethics charges. And many people point to the recent $5,000 contract for former Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein to deal with "unspecified litigation" as being involved with this. Can you speak about this at all?
Seitz: Do you have a question?
Did you threaten Mr. Strumolo?
Seitz: No. But what I would say regarding questions about this situation is that if someone has a legitimate concern or grievance, they have three options: take it the board, take it to the state ethics commission or take it to the county prosecutor's office. If you're not doing that, then in my opinion you're just playing with public opinion.
At the same token, if the board hired someone to investigate a board member's actions or behaviors, someone said something to the board and the board found substance enough to ask an outside, independent person to see if there is substance to the charges that have been apparently made. Somebody or some people had a grievance and they did one of those three things—going to the board, the prosecutor or the ethics commission. There was substance, so an investigator [Gary Stein] was hired. Mr. Strumolo chose to go a different route, and I think that speaks volumes.
Clearly the board is not unified: There appears to be a divide between Strumolo and his apparent allies and the five longest-serving board members. How can this be remedied?
Seitz: I'm not sure I agree with that statement. Each board member is entitled to his or her opinion on any topic that comes before the board. There' s nothing in the regulation that says board members have to be friends and socialize with each other. I think it's been clear that some board members feel very strongly about certain issues and just because two board members have a different opinion on something doesn't make one right and one wrong. It doesn't make a divided board. If you go back over the votes of the last year and a half, you will see that the overwhelming majority of the items proposed have been approved, in many cases unanimously. Where we have had differences, we had a board member who feels we should pay substitute teachers more, so that board member has voted no on hiring substitutes. Okay. That's a reasonable position. The other board members may disagree with it, but that doesn't make one person right and the others wrong.
Whenever you have something as complex as a referendum [such as the one proposed for field improvements for the high schools], there are a variety of options and again... Someone says, "I don't think we should re-do the track"... That doesn't make us divided. I don't think "divided board" is a fair description. There are a lot of strong feelings on the board. I think people really want to have their position be the position of the board, and when that doesn't happen you do get a discussion, sometimes a very intense discussion. But again, a 5-4 decision doesn't mean five people right, four people wrong. It means five people will support the motion, four people will not and the motion passes. That's just the way it is.
If we were not making progress, if we weren't able to effectively run the school system, if the board were not meeting its governance responsibilities, then I'd think we had problems and a divided board. The opposite is true here: In terms of governance, while there may be debate and discussion, this district has continued to move forward, we've been able to administer programs regarding students' activities and performance, hire teachers and so forth. All that's been moving along. At the same time, if you have eight or nine board members with the same opinion, everyone says it's a unified board. Where you have a board with nine different opinions, the comment is that it is a divided board. I don't see that. If there were stonewalling going on, people refused to attend meetings and things were not being approved—say 60 percent of the items on the superintendent's bulleting were not getting approved, then you have a problem with governance and a problem with your board.
We're not seeing that. Things are getting done. The only thing we're struggling with is negotiations with four groups, all at the same time, and I think that is not a divided board. It's a board trying to address a very complicated situation.
I assume you're talking about public employees' health care contributions...
Seitz: Yes. If teachers' salaries are frozen, in four years a teacher will be taking home $8,000 a year less than they are today because of the contributions to health care. Do I think everybody should contribute toward health care costs? Absolutely. What that percent should be is open to discussion. But that requirement has made negotiations a challenge. And then when you have people on the board with strong opinions as to what we should do, that makes it difficult to get negotiations completed.
They're working at it and it's going to be a long process. If you go back five years, when we started negotiations with the paraprofessionals' union, people might say we had a unified board. It took five years to get a contract. I don't think the personalities on the board are driving this. I think the complexity of the negotiations in this new environment are making it challenging.
Do you think there is a possibility we will see contracts for the four unions this year?
Litigation between you and the board is expected finally to get its hearing in court in September. Of course we have no idea how a judge will rule, but what happens should you prevail in your legal action?
Seitz: I'll finish out my contract. [The one approved by County Executive Superintendent Kathleen Serafino has not been signed due to the litigation, but it is supposed to run through 2015].
And if you don't prevail...
Seitz: Whichever side does not prevail will appeal to the appellate court. Right now, it's being heard by an administrative law judge. His decision will go to the commissioner [Christopher Cerf], who will either approve or disapprove it. I would anticipate that even if I am successful that the commissioner may disapprove of the administrative law judge's decision.
There's a legal issue and there's a political arena here too. The good thing is it hasn't impacted the school district and hopefully it will be resolved soon.
Finally, what keeps you in Parsippany? What makes you excited to head this school district?
Seitz: They're one and the same. This is a great school district. I love the job I do. If you love what you're doing and have a great place to do it, why would you go any place else? I've been doing this a very long time and it's just something I really like. We've been able to make tremendous progress in this district in facilities, technology, student achievement and staffing, and it's a wonderful experience. We have a very collaborative, collegial community here. We work together and resolve problems and move forward. That's why I'm here; it's very enjoyable.
I am certified in Pennsylvania and I've been invited to apply for a couple of superintendent jobs there. It's just not of interest to me. I really like it here. First of all, I like New Jersey, I like Parsippany. And I like working with the people in this town—not just the district, but the town. I have access to the mayor and the council members whenever I need it. They feel free to give me a call when they have a question. The parents and the Par-Troy Council, who I meet with once a month, are great. Like the board, we don't always have the same opinions, and we have maybe 16 people in the room, not everyone agrees with everything we do, but that's what makes the district work effectively. People voice their opinions, we listen, we weigh everything and make a decision. Generally, we make it with full consensus.
I just like what I'm doing. In most of your career, especially as an administrator, you're training for the next job. When you're a teacher, you're training to become a vice principal. A vice principal is trying to become a principal. And it goes on and on. When you become a superintendent, at first it's a lot of work. But once you go through it a couple of years, you get a sense of how the job works. Then it becomes really fun! Now you're doing the same thing over and over, but dealing with different problems, different initiatives and different school districts. So it's really a lot of fun. And there are great people here. We may have disagreements, but it's rare that we don't reach an understanding on the challenges we have.
And there's nothing wrong with people questioning what we do. That's really important. Certainly you want it done with a certain degree of respect, but if someone says, "Why is your referendum $11 million?," that's a fair question. Now, if you ask it as a federal prosecutor, that's one thing. But if you ask: "The mayor's plan is $5 million; yours is $11 million, what's the deal?," that's fair. It's their money and they need to feel confident that we've done our due diligence and that the product they're going to get is a good one.
If you look at where we were in 2006 and where we are today, the accomplishments of this district are fantastic, and as you pointed out, there are specific things you can point to that show how we have excelled: The academic decathlon team; the NJ Monthly rankings; the report cards that show continuous improvement and the Money Magazine Best Places to Live, which is based in part on the quality of the school district, clearly this district is doing very well. That's really what this is all about: You keep looking at the district, you develop a vision, you know what your goals are and then you begin to see where the gaps—opportunities—are. My job is to identify that gap, recognize that opportunity and then make it happen.
Clearly, we're making it happen in Parsippany, and that excites me every day.