BOARD GAMES: My Search For Transparency And Accountability At The New Rochelle Board Of Education

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Report of the October 2, 2012 BOE Meeting

POSITIVE BEHAVIORAL INTERVENTION AND SUPPORT (PBIS)

Jodi Hoffman gave a very comprehensive presentation on PBIS. It’s a program that helps schools teach behavioral expectations as part of the core curriculum. The idea behind PBIS is that if proper behavior becomes part of school’s culture, then academic performance and safety will improve.

Ms. Hoffman suggested the program can be used to organize other programs already being implemented such as Olweus and Character Education. It relies on data capture and reporting so administrators can focus their resources on the times and places where incidents most frequently take place.

The presentation can be found on the link to the October 2nd meeting here: http://www.nred.org/calendars/District-Calendar/month. I encourage everyone to take a look at this program as it could be a terrific addition to our school curriculum if we are able to implement it effectively.

Jeffrey Hastie asked Ms. Hoffman how parents fit into the picture. She responded that parents are meant to be involved and they are invited to join the PBIS teams.

Naomi Brickel asked how the program fits in with our Code of Conduct. She was particularly interested in how we reconcile our use of out-of-school suspensions with the PBIS program’s emphasis on positive discipline.

Ms. Hoffman replied that many schools wrap behavioral expectations into their Codes of Conduct. By law, schools are required to have negative consequences listed in their Codes. Although PBIS emphasizes positive reinforcement, out-of-school suspension does fall within the program because often it is a safety issue.

David Lacher was the skeptic in the group. “How do we know this works”, he asked. Mr. Lacher expressed the opinion that kids should know how to behave properly by the time they get to high school and suggested that proper behavior should be taught in the home.

Ms. Hoffman replied that, as with reading, the learning continues as children grow. At the high school level, the program is more about teaching school survival skills.

FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY

During the public comment period, I asked the Board when they plan to talk about reinstating the Citizens Advisory Committee. Back in August, President Chrisanne Petrone said she would put it on the agenda for the September 24th meeting. It wasn’t on that agenda or the meeting following. She now says we can expect a discussion about this in early November. This is a huge disappointment for those of us looking to sustain the momentum of the last committee. Virtually none of the substantive recommendations were taken and, worse, the Board let five months pass before they reviewed the report with the Administration.

Some of the recommendations that could have yielding savings immediately included:
1. Budgeting costs to actual historical spending: the Mamaroneck School District went through this exercise and found almost $1.4 million of resources that they were able to redeploy into educational programs.
2. Adjusting hourly employee wages to local market rates: anticipated savings of $300,000 to $1.2 million

There were also longer term projects that we hoped would have started by now, including putting out a request for bids for a time management system, something the Board’s internal auditor has also recommended.

I also asked for a copy of the latest annual financial report for the school year that ended in June. Board policy #3440 says the District’s annual financial report must be made available within three months after the close of the fiscal year. That would have been September 30th. The District is also required to post a public notice of the report’s availability.

School Board President Chrisanne Petrone initially had no idea what report I was talking about. In a follow-up email, she said this policy is outdated (24 years old) and needs to be updated. The only financial report they produce is the annual audit which comes out in late October. I have encouraged her to review all Board policies with an eye towards making them current and relevant.

Superintendent Organisiak followed up on the question from last week regarding the rehiring of 6 teaching assistants. Only one is a new hire and the funds were already in the budget under a “Consolidated Funds” grant. Mr. Organisciak said this line item has money available for contingencies, such as new students with special needs coming to the district mid-year.

I looked up that section in the budget and the text suggests there are funds available to pay for two teaching assistants. I have since asked Mr. John Quinn, Assistant Superintendent of Business Administration, if the other funded position remains unfilled.

CODE OF CONDUCT/ANTI-BULLYING POLICY 5535

Deborah Blatt read an email to the community that she had also sent to the Board earlier in the day. She expressed frustration that the Board would choose to eliminate the clear and comprehensive anti-bullying policy while keeping the confusing harassment policy in its place. Recall from the last Board Games column, the anti-bullying policy had clear guidelines for reporting an incident, investigating it, and following-through with possible disciplinary consequences and a report back to the parents of the victim. Our new Code of Conduct refers to a harassment policy from 1998 that is very unclear. In addition, the Code of Conduct doesn’t name the policy in full or tell parents where we can find the policy. In short, my opinion is that we have fewer rights today than we did a week ago before the anti-bullying policy was abolished.

Apparently Ms. Blatt agrees. “I can’t find the policy…a friend had to email it to me”, she read. She continued on, noting that the harassment policy is “deeply flawed” because there is no mechanism for filing a complaint or starting an investigation when a child is bullied.

Ms. Blatt shared with the community that her daughter had been the victim of an incident with a staff member and referred to the follow-on investigation as “outrageous”. She said she was not informed that she could file a formal complaint. “The district has gone nowhere over the last 5 years to make our children safer.”

Despite Ms. Blatt’s impassioned speech, as well as comments made at last week’s meeting from various residents expressing similar concerns, the BOE voted unanimously to abolish the anti-bullying policy.

BUSING

Robert Cox addressed the Board about a dispute between the School and the Cox family regarding the distance between their home and the Albert Leonard Middle School (ALMS). The District claims the home is less than 1.5 miles away from ALMS and therefore the family is not busing eligible. Mr. Cox claims the home is further than 1.5 miles away making the family eligible for busing.

The wrinkle to this case is that it came up once before and the District determined that the Cox residence was located more than 1.5 miles away from ALMS and therefore was eligible for busing. Accordingly, they provided bus transportation to Mr. Cox’s older son from September 2008 through June 2011.

The District has suddenly reversed its decision claiming that new mapping software shows the house is less than 1.5 miles away. Mr. Cox believes the decision is retaliation for his reporting on various issues at the School District. If Superintendent Organisciak does not grant his appeal, Mr. Cox plans to sue and believes it will cost the school district as much as $50,000 in legal fees.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the District already set a precedent by providing bus services to Mr. Cox’s older son. It appears wasteful and petty to have the District spend $50,000 in a case they may well easily lose. A quick look on google maps shows that the home is located 1.5 miles away from the school on the shortest route available. We current pay roughly $6,000 per student per year for busing in the district (2x that of Scarsdale, FYI). The cost to fight and win this case is dramatically larger than the cost to bus his daughter to school for three years. I’d rather see the District spend that $50,000 on a teaching assistant in one of our many overcrowded classrooms.

DIVERSITY

Mark McLean addressed the Board about its lack of a Diversity Policy. Mr. Hastie had put this on the agenda for discussion but public comments were being made before the Board had an opportunity to discuss it.

Mr. McLean said he expected the Board to hide behind state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination, suggesting they would use that as an excuse to not have a Diversity Policy.

“I am glad to be reassured that the Board of Education will not engage in criminal activity by discriminating, but that does not create diversity…You cannot create diversity by not doing something.”

He then went on to ask about the racial composition of the student population versus that of the teachers and staff. “That should be the determining factor in figuring out if we need a diversity policy,” he said.

Later in the meeting, the Board addressed this agenda item. President Chrisanne Petrone pointed out that the New York State School Boards Association doesn’t have a diversity policy, nor does the New Rochelle Fire Department, the Municipal Civil Service department, or the Westchester/Putnam School Board Association. “We need to figure out what this means for us,” she said.

Jeffrey Hastie pointed out that we always talk about the diversity of our student population, but the people that stand before them do not reflect that. He suggested the policy could say, ‘we will look for and try to promote diversity within our staff’.

Following a question from Ms. Petrone, Mr. Hastie made it clear that he is not suggesting we employ a quota system for hiring.

Lianne Merchant joined in, asking “why not?” She added that while teacher quality should be the ultimate aspiration of the District, diversity in hiring goes hand in hand with high quality hiring.

Dierdre Polow agreed with that sentiment and asked for clarification on how it would be worded. Ms. Merchant and Mr. Hastie agreed to work on the wording for future discussion.

David Lacher was not so enthusiastic. He exclaimed frustration that so much time was being spent talking about this “when we have work to do”. Mr. Lacher expressed that the District already practices diversity, and that simply creating a policy “doesn’t make it so”. He went on to say that not only doesn’t a policy mean the District will ultimately have better diversity, but that it will create an environment for their critics to say they’re not following their policies. He alleged that these critics comb through their policies simply to make sure they’re following them to the letter.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Amy Ecker proposed a town hall style meeting with the community, the Board of Education, and senior members of the Administration. She asked the Board to respond with ideas about how this could be accomplished, with an eye towards improving transparency and general relations with the residents of New Rochelle.

BOARD OF EDUCATION GOALS – A COMPLIMENT TO THE PRESIDENT

President Chrisanne Petrone made a poignant comment: “If we don’t give the administration guidance, then we have ourselves to blame for them not meeting our goals.” I agree completely and urge the Board to create tangible and achievable goals that will put the District on a path of continuous improvement.

She added that this discussion should have taken place during the summer so their goals would be in place before the school year began. She further expressed an interest in creating a calendar-based schedule so the Board can get a head start on those topics and issues that recur every year.

Kudos to Ms. Petrone.

The next meeting is on Tuesday, October 30th at 7pm at the Campus School. The address is 50 Washington Avenue.

See you there!

Adam D. Egelberg, CFA
adamegelberg@gmail.com

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