I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, December 20, 2013

Local Control Is a White People Thing: Ask Asbury Park

Is it wrong of me to feel a little embarrassed when someone catches something reformy going on in New Jersey that I completely missed? Luckily, some Facebook friends hipped me to this pick-up from the always excellent folks at Schools Matter, quoting the Asbury Park Press:
ASBURY PARK — Where is the democracy?
That’s the question several community members here are asking after the state monitor overturned the school board’s pick for superintendent last week.
They brought their concerns — including that the monitor had applied for the interim superintendent position before taking on the state role — to a public forum at a Wednesday night board meeting that attracted some 50 members of the public. [emphasis mine]
I'm sorry - did you just say the person who has the ultimate say over whether someone gets the chief schools job in Asbury Park applied for that job herself?!
“Folks elected (the board) to do the best for the children in the city of Asbury Park,” said Teretha Jones, who has a nephew attending school in Asbury Park. “And to deny that is, number one, disrespectful to people. It is totally and outrageously intolerable and will not be stood for.”
A school board majority initially voted to hire Gregory Allen as the district’s next superintendent Oct. 16, with members saying they believed he was the best candidate for the community.
Board member Qzeena Taylor said the board expected to offer Allen a salary of $145,000. Allen’s contract had already been submitted to the county superintendent for a final approval.
But state monitor Carole Morris disagreed with the board’s choice and said in a Nov. 13 letter addressed to the board that the superintendent selection process was flawed and that Allen did not “demonstrate mastery knowledge of the topics.”
She also cited the board’s rejection of candidates recommended by the New Jersey School Boards Association and said she was unable to find a “substantial background check” or verification of the information in Allen’s resumé.
The NJSBA listed Allen as a candidate who exceeded expectations out of a pool of 38 applicants, but he was not in the association’s top 12 recommendations, board members say.
Look, I don't know Gregory Allen from Santa Claus. Maybe he's not the best candidate for the position... but the NJSBA did say he "exceeded expectations." It's not like he's a 32 year-old with no school-level administrative experience, or a TFAer who apparently only taught for two years, right? So what's the problem?
Morris cited the board’s rejection of candidates recommended by the New Jersey School Boards Association and said she was unable to find a “substantial background check” or verification of the information in Allen’s resume.
“To my knowledge, there was no visit to the work site of the candidate chosen,” Morris said in the letter.
Really? Was there something the Asbury Park board would learn on a site visit that they couldn't learn from talking to Allen's superiors and coworkers on the phone? Does every BOE - all of which are mostly populated with people working full-time jobs - have to go on a site visit? Will the state reject the choices for superintendent in Bridgewater and Princeton if their boards their don't go on site visits?

And why wasn't Allen on the list of finalists if he "exceeded expectations"? Allen himself has a theory:
The consultant’s decision not to move his candidacy forward is the result of his involvement as a witness in an ethics case that was filed against a board member while he was serving as the assistant board secretary and director of special projects in Pleasantville, according to Allen.
If you have ten minutes of your life to waste (apparently, like me), you can click here and review this legal thriller, which is literally about whether Allen had possession of a post-it note. No, I'm not kidding.

Again: I have no idea if Gregory Allen is well-qualified to lead the Asbury Park school district. I do know, however, that the ultimate authority to make that decision should not rest with someone who has a conflict of interest:
Daniel Harris said he questioned whether Morris had a political agenda because she first applied for the interim superintendent position and then became state monitor.
Morris said it will be up to the board to decide how to proceed with the superintendent search process. In the letter, she gave the board two options: reopen the existing search or begin a new search when new board members take office Jan. 7. [emphasis mine]
In a sane world, Morris would have recused herself from this decision; she would brought in someone else to oversee this process. Of course, in a sane world, it never would have come to this: the state monitor would have worked closely with the board to come up with a list of candidates they could all live with.

To be clear: by all accounts, Asbury Park was not a well-run district when the state appointed a monitor back in 2007. But it's now been six years: has anything improved? If not, why? Doesn't the state have the responsibility to develop a plan to move any district under its control toward autonomy? Isn't it a sign of failure on the part of the State of New Jersey that it can't move districts under its control toward self-governance in a timely manner?

But the state apparently thinks it's better for a district like Asbury Park to be under the control of a state monitor who has a clear conflict of interest than to be governed by its own citizens. Why is that, I wonder? What brings on such a patronizing attitude? Maybe we should look at the districts the state lists as under a fiscal monitor or full state control:

Not seeing it? Let me make it a little clearer:

Keep in mind that the state total I have in green includes the districts under state control; the percentage of students who are black or Hispanic for the schools under local control is undoubtedly lower. I'm also including Perth Amboy here because NJDOE Commissioner Cerf famously overturned the decision of the board there to fire its former superintendent, Janine Caffrey - multiple times. I think that qualifies as  a form of state control.

And what about economic disadvantage, as measured by the percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch?

With the exception of Elmwood Park, New Jersey's state-monitored and state-controlled districts have  a far greater percentage of students in poverty than the districts that have retained autonomy.

In New Jersey, local control is a white people thing. If your community has many children of color and/or children in economic deprivation, the state is much more likely to come in and tell you how your schools should be run.

Is everybody OK with this?


Works for me!

Me too!

What's the problem?

Never bothered me!

Stop asking questions!

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