LIVINGSTON, NJ — The New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) representative to the Livingston Board of Education, Charlene Peterson, presented the results of the board’s self-evaluation completed this past summer during their most recent meeting. 

Although the self-evaluation is no longer required, Peterson noted that completion of the self-evaluation is a form of good governance.

“If you hold the rest of the district accountable, this is a way for the board to hold themselves accountable and to take a step back and reflect on their own work,” said Peterson.

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In order to complete the evaluation, each board member anonymously fills out a document covering nine district standards and provides his or her own perspective on each topic.

The standards included in the evaluation, which board members are prompted to rate on a scale of zero to four according to their district’s performance, include: planning; policy; student achievement; finance; board operations; board performance; board/superintendent relations; board/staff relationships; and board and community interactions.

After the NJSBA compiled the data and scored the document, Peterson was able to share it with the LBOE for review and reflection.

According to Peterson, the board’s responses indicated that the highest area of achievement at LPS was board and staff relations, which scoring an average overall score of 3.3. The domain that scored the lowest was board operations with an average of 2.6.

Recognizing that student achievement is “the most important work” that that a school board does, Peterson also pointed out that the LBOE scored itself at 2.9 collectively and 3.4 individually.

She also summarized the board’s responses for the standard of planning.

“It was clear that you recognize the value of planning, but there was mention about the things that you as a district had to deal with this year that took away your resources or the focus on planning,” said Peterson. “You talked about the ransomware attack and the COVID-19 situation and how that impacted your ability of what you hoped to accomplish.”

Additionally, Peterson referenced the district’s strategic plan and the need to update it. She noted that one board member anonymously indicated an unsatisfactory rating on the self-evaluation as it pertained to reviewing action plans developed to support the goals.

“It seems to be a common theme of saying, ‘what we need to do is a better job in our oversight and asking for plans and asking for information,’” said Peterson.  

Discussing the board’s responses to policy, LBOE member Pam Chirls expressed concern about “a disconnect,” stating that although the board reviews and approves policies, members do “not really see them connected to the work that [they are] doing in a very apparent way.”   

Peterson explained that some school boards identify 10-to-12 policies annually and review them individually at monthly meetings in order to “keep key policies in the forefront of the work the board does.”

She also referenced a board member’s comments on the board’s recent responsibility to approve a restart policy that would provide the parameters for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic moving forward without also being required to approve a restart plan crafted by the administration.

“The complexity of the problems that we were faced with the reopening put us in the position of not having the opportunity to work through the problems on the local level,” said Chirls.

Comments from the self-evaluation included the volume of policies that the board is required to review, and that consideration of a policy committee may be an option to streamline the process.

Evaluation responses confirmed that the LBOE as a whole considers focusing on the standard of student achievement to be a main focus of the board’s work.

“One of the things that the board was pretty much unanimous about was saying that you would find it helpful to receive more robust data—and in a more timely way to help do your review,” said Peterson.

Consideration of an effective committee structure with a five-member board was another factor as it related to best practices because only two members may be assigned to any given committee in order to avoid a quorum.

Focusing on finance and budget, Peterson commended the LBOE for establishing budget goals early in the school year.

“I have to say that you're one of the few boards I know of that does that,” she said. “It provides helpful guidance in setting budget parameters.”

A discussion ensued among board members about the need to revisit the governance structure as well. Ultimately, all board members except Buddy August—whose tenure will end on Jan. 1— requested additional information on the topic for future review.

Comments from the evaluation expressed that the structure of the board as a whole “lessens the total work of the board.” According to Monday’s presentation, board members had been conducted due diligence to consider expanding the size of the board. However, the philosophical discussion of structure was delayed when board was forced to shift its focus to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was further noted during this discussion that the pandemic contributed to the individualization of board member activity, as opportunities to engage with each other were limited for several months.  

Board President Ronnie Konner pointed out that most board meetings since the start of the pandemic have been focused primarily on public comments, which did not leave “enough time as a group” to address items in the public setting, she said.

The board also engaged in a discussion about the parameters of executive sessions and what types of conversations should be held confidentiality to avoid having them “spill out in ways not appropriate or productive.” 

To this point, Chirls clarified that the Business Administrator Steve Robinson directs the board as to what is appropriate for executive session versus public meetings.

LBOE Vice President Samantha Messner commented that some topics have been “stretched” to be considered confidential and that holding certain conversations in private “muddies the waters” and “may be the genesis of some of the disagreements” among board members).

Konner ultimately suggested that this topic be added to the board’s goals, adding that it could be an opportunity for increased focus and renewed training.

Board member Seth Cohen also weighed in with an observation about the timing of the evaluation, stating that the responses could have resulted in a different outcome had it not been issued during the pandemic.  

Cohen stated that when the board was working on the district budget in the spring, it “screamed collaboration.” He also said that there was a “barrage of information from every angle” while board members were submitting their responses, as they were also simultaneously focused on reopening plans for the schools.

“It was not an easy process, and that is where the fracture developed,” he said.   

Regarding the area of board-superintendent relations, Peterson stated that this relationship typically comes down to trust, respect and understanding of each other’s roles as well as utilization of the chain of command. She suggested that the board provide updates on its goals in public session, where board members can ask questions for further clarification.

Peterson also touched upon the standard of board-staff relations, which was the area that board members rated as the highest of all nine standards.

Although the chain of command precludes direct interactions between the board and staff members, Peterson said that approving and recognizing the value of professional development would serve as evidence of the board’s support of faculty members. 

The board also shows its support of LPS staff members by attending school functions whenever possible across the district.

The final category, board and community relations, alludes to individual board members serving as district liaisons to various committees within the community, such as the Livingston Recycling and Reclamation Committee, the Livingston Committee for Diversity and Inclusion and more.

As part of the self-evaluation process, board members were also asked to identify major challenges that the district is currently is facing. The anonymous responses included: COVID-19 and how it affects learning and uncertainty with staffing; bias, diversity and equity within the schools; budgeting, social and emotional well-being among students and staff; updating the district’s strategic plan; making data-informed decisions; and classroom sizes.

Based on the self-evaluation outcome, feedback on governance areas that require more focus and training include: board of whole/board committees structure; strategic planning; consensus building/decision-making; roles of board members; and board-superintendent protocols.

For further explanation of each component of the self-evaluation, see the photos above.