MILLBURN, NJ -- In a special meeting held on Tuesday evening, Joanne Borin of the NJ School Boards Association reviewed the Millburn Township Board of Education Self Evaluation.
Before reviewing the information from the evaluations, Ms. Borin spoke about next steps for both the Board and the Superintendent. During the meeting, the Board and Superintendent, James Crisfield, developed goals for the coming school year with Borin’s help. The goals were accordance with the requirements of NJ QSAC (NJ Quality Single Accountability Continuum) which is meant to “measure and improve school district performance in meeting state and federal standards, as described by the U.S. Department of Education, No Child Left Behind in New Jersey Act. In the coming months, both parties will work together to establish action plans to be recommended by the end of August.
Borin began on a positive note, asking Board members to reflect on the year’s achievements. Among these were: hiring a new Superintendent, fixing infrastructure, and passing a fiscally responsible budget. According to Board Member, Lise Chapman, the Board could also count “maintaining Millburn’s strong academic performance,” as ascertained by magazine ratings and acceptance to college on the part of recent graduates.
Borin then asked what was currently in progress. The teachers’ and general staff contracts were cited as important projects in progress, in addition to updating technology, improving facility infrastructure, curriculum review, and policy review, among others. Borin also asked Board members to brainstorm key challenges that could be turned into goals. Such challenges included in the list were the continuing financial difficulties, aging buildings, and outdated policies.
Borin first worked on the District goals for which Crisfield will be responsible. The first goal to be listed as per a number of Board members was the development of a strategic plan, which Crisfield characterized as “A statement of the community’s desire for where we would like the schools to go.” According to Borin because Millburn is “an excellent school district” the plan would not change “the face” of the district. Mr. Mark Zucker expressed some frustration around the discussion of such a plan despite this assurance, however, since continually changing educational requirements mandated by the Commissioner of Education make this kind of planning a waste of time. Board President Michael Birnberg expressed understanding for Mr. Zucker’s point and felt that the importance should ultimately be on the implementation of the plan.
Jeffrey Waters shared goal suggestions that Crisfield had provided to the Board in an email. These were combined with some of the ideas the Board had brainstormed for a total of four goals, the first of which was the development of a strategic plan. A Millburn Leadership Initiative will be implemented over four years to development a platform for collaboration and shared best practices between the District, school administrators and teachers. The initiative will be implemented in phases, beginning at the district level for the first year. The third goal will be the implementation of the anti-bullying and harassment policy as mandated by the State; and the final goal will be all K - 12 curriculum revisions based on the State timeline and the implementation of a K - 5 World Language Program.
The establishment of goals for the Board was a longer process¸ with more back and forth discussion, disagreement about wording, and a number of moments of evident tension among Board members. When, for example, a goal was proposed to review the current committees, Birnberg showed some frustration since he had brought up the issue during the BOE retreat. An argument began to develop between Birnberg and Pasternak, who shared her feeling that not everyone had been allowed the time to fully address the issue of committees during the retreat. Birnberg did not see that it was fair to characterize the retreat as a “failure,” to which Pasternak responded that it was inappropriate that the Board President “Put words in [her] mouth.”
Mr. Waters, interrupted the display by trying to “hone back in on reaching closure for Board goals,” asking if the goals need to be measurable; Borin clarified that the Board would not have to evaluate itself on the goals. The conversation about committees was resumed, but Borin intervened, asking “Is there a lack of teamwork among the Board?” but Birnberg stated that it was rather, “A lack of trust among the Board.”
Ms. Rona Wenik, who had remained previously quiet, presented a form of compromise by combining some of the suggested goals into language that might be more suitable for all. She suggested that, “Improved efficiency of Board meetings,” would mean improved team and committee work, while also addressing the issue of information provided to the public which had been previously raised. Zucker cautioned on the use of the word “efficiency” which might limit the time allotted for public comment, evoking public comment about the reduced public comment. Wenik then suggested a revised version of her earlier goal which would replace the word efficiency with “productivity.”
Productivity would seem to be of high importance, because the strain between Board members continued. Birnberg shared that he felt that new board members are trained and that all members can talk to each other. As he began to say this, Pasternak shook her head, to which Birnberg said, “She’s giving me a dirty look,” and reiterated his opinion that Board members could talk to one another. To this, Pasternak mumbled, “Gimme a break,” while shaking her head.
Ultimately, when the Board had reached consensus, the following goals were decided upon:
1. Settle contracts for staff.
2. Update Board policies.
3. Improved productivity of Board meetings.
Following the development of these goals, Borin reviewed the results of the BOE Self Evaluations, which were particularly negative - especially in terms of results over the last six years - as compared to what she sees in most cohorts. Borin expressed that what troubled her about the evaluations was the fact that there are some people that don’t feel the same as the rest of the Board members and express concerns.
Of greatest concern to Borin was the issue of trust and confidentiality, which received an average score of 1.7 and 2.3, respectively, on a scale of 1 to 5 where 5 is the greatest. Mr. Waters agreed that this was concerning, stating, “There’s nothing else in the survey that matters, if I can’t trust the other eight people here. I don’t know how you fix that.” Although Borin said that she did not know the exact solution, she did offer to facilitate discussions for the Board and suggested that Board members have discussions to figure out how to work together.
In other areas, the scores ranged, with averages between 2 and 3. Board members had some discussion as to what the scores meant, but some agreed with Borin that the range in each section was indicative of some underlying problems among the Board. For instance in the section on Board governance, the scoring was split evenly (where three members chose satisfactory, three chose adequate and three chose unsatisfactory); and one comment in this section stated that the Member was embarrassed by the conduct of Board members at meetings.
Some of the major challenges identified were: a difficult budget season, the threat of charter schools, consistency among grade levels, and the Board reputation. Some of the solutions suggested were: the reduction of micromanagement, goal setting and a strategic plan.
Earlier in the meeting, Truitt noted that the Board members who are doctors were taking a more “triage” approach to the goal setting, to which Vice President Siegel agreed because of the way of thinking about “just trying to keep a patient alive.” During the tail end of the meeting Zucker responded to this comment by sharing a story about a heart surgeon who had lost a number of young patients in the 1960s. The surgeon was said to have turned to his colleagues and said, “Yesterday was a very bad day. . . let’s move forward.” Zucker suggested that the Board follow this approach because in his view, “We cannot continue this way.” Zucker also noted that much of the underlying problems between Board members had to do with individuals taking disagreement personally. When Chapman asked Borin how to use the evaluation results to improve, Zucker said, “The easy start is that some individuals have to stop being testy, and some have to stop being sensitive; and that would take care of 50%.”