RARITAN TWP., NJ – The embattled Flemington-Raritan School District board met in an unusual 5 p.m. meeting yesterday to agree on a set of goals, as required under state rules. They seemed to agree they have a problem with communication, but could agree on little else.
Board President Anna Fallon acknowledged that five members of the nine-member board cited communication as a concern, but, “that doesn’t mean it needs to be a goal,” she said.
“The members view this as a big issue. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of issues,” said board member Tim Bart. “I think this ties into ... leadership.”
Bart was critical that, “If the board president and vice president know something but seven others (on the board) don’t, it’s not a closed loop.” He called the board not being kept informed something that “has to change.”
Board member Michael Stager said it was a matter of “board governance” and fellow board member Jessica Abbott said the group needs to consider “how our board works ... how we select our leaders. How long those leaders last. How we communicate and what we expect to be communicated, and at what time.” She also wants the board to examine “how our views get represented.”
“It’s not today’s goal to actually solve any of these problems,” Fallon said. “Today’s goal is to identify what are our goals.
“Step two is to create an action plan,” Fallon said. “We have a lot to do. There’s no way we can solve all these issues tonight.”
“We never get the opportunity to sit like this and have some of that finer conversation,” Bart insisted. “That person writing the action plan should hear more comments. I don’t want to rush through this. If we need more time to set our goals, we’ll set a second meeting.
“We do not need to wait,” he added. “These things need to be fixed now. We’ve been re-spinning this wheel all year. I can’t as a board member wait three months for an action plan. I’m just being very frank here.”
Various board members objected to not being informed in advance of major district initiatives.
The school board’s controversial and ultimately unsuccessful plan to eliminate the assistant superintendent positon held by Daniel Bland – under the previous school superintendent – was given as an example.
“They discussed it for over a year,” said board member Sandra Barucki. “Other than the people who were on the (school board) subcommittee, the rest of us knew nothing ... until it was put on the agenda."
Barucki said the call for a vote to dismiss Bland was “a little disheartening, shocking.”
Bart cited Fallon’s unilateral decision to have a police officer attend one school board meeting “distracting. It caused a lot of problems in the community,” and Fallon’s insistence to put the officer at the front of the room rather than attend unobtrusively in the back compounded the problem, he said.
Barucki was critical of communications that are sent with “all of our names on it. I would like to see it before it goes out,” she said.
There are things we don’t know that I honestly think the public knows” more than us, Abbott said.
“The board president holds the reigns on communication overall inside the board,” Bart said, and Fallon didn’t argue with him.
“That’s right. By statute, I am the only person who can communicate those types of things,” Fallon said. “I am the voice of the board. I write communications.”
Interim District Superintendent Johanna Ruberto was critical of the board’s previous practice of managing some student issues.
“I’ve told you from day one. Parents should not be calling you,” Ruberto said. “You don’t solve their child’s problem.”
Such action by board members “weakens the district,” she said.
While Fallon said “there are short term and long-term pieces” to the goals, Bart said, “I’m comfortable if we put a time frame on it. We’ve got an issue that has to be fixed immediately. I don’t want to wait two months, one month, I’ll take the lead on this. It should be done a.s.a.p.,” he said, preferably by Sept. 15.
“We’ve talked about board leadership for a number of months,” Bart said. “We’ve not had a good conversation about it ... A significant portion of this board asked for leadership conversation. It can’t be ignored.
“The status quo in my mind is gone,” Bart continued. “It has to change now. I keep saying that. It’s not just communications. It’s leadership ... we can’t keep ducking this ... that is how you’re to build trust and respect back on this board.”
Bart said the board only has a few opportunities each year to discuss such issues, and board member Dr. Marianne Kenny agreed.
“It seems like you guys have it reversed,” said Bland. You (think) you’re not allowed to talk about things, because of the Open Public Meetings” Act, he said.
But Bland said that the truth is, “It’s the exact opposite. The purpose of the Open Public Meetings Act is to ensure transparency, not to prevent you from having a conversation.
“Don’t get into the notion that you can’t have a difficult conversation because it would have to be public. That doesn’t serve us well as an organization,” Bland said, and Ruberto agreed.
The board voted to have Bart develop a communication action plan for the board, with fellow board member Chris Walker assisting.
The board also voted that two other goals it would pursue this year include finding a long-term superintendent to replace Ruberto – who is the interim superintendent – and to consider ways to improve “board governance.”