Greetings, residents of Roxbury Township.  Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to serve as the high school principal for the past 15 years.  It has been an honor and a pleasure to do so.

As I “walk into the sunset,” I’d like to bring an important issue to your attention.  It is a significant issue that will plague the district for years to come if something isn’t done soon. I approach this matter firm in the knowledge that the most important element in the performance of a school is the teaching staff.  Virtually every expert, professor, practitioner, and school leader will tell you that programs, textbooks, technology, curricula, and facilities are important, but not one of those elements (and that includes administrators...yes, principals too) is more important to the success of a school than the teachers.  I hold firmly to the belief that if a school leader wants to improve the performance of his/her school, there are only two ways to do so, 1. get better teachers, or 2. make the teachers one has better. Clearly, the first point relies on hiring (and by extension, retention) practices while the other deals with professional development.  I would like to address the first of these points.

During my tenure in the district, I saw the school budget defeated in 6 out of my first 8 years.  

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This had an immediate impact that was incredibly negative, but the far-reaching consequences of those decisions by the community have now emerged.  Right now, Roxbury cannot compete for talented teachers with its neighbors, not only those in Morris County, but in every county that surrounds Morris County as well.  

This is especially true for the ones in the early stages of their career. Beginning in 2003, while Roxbury defeated budgets and elected people who advocated cutting teachers and administrators, as well as opposing teacher raises, your neighbors grew their budgets, set in place competitive teacher salary guides and enhanced their facilities.

Back then, Roxbury could neither repair its facilities nor pay its teachers.  Currently those next door neighbors operate with an annual budget 10 million dollars greater than Roxbury’s. I ask you, members of the Board of Education and the Roxbury Community, what could you do in Roxbury with 10 million more dollars in your budget every year?

Beginning in 2012, the Roxbury district was able to make significant (and necessary) improvements in the infrastructure and technology of the district.  These investments were essential and have been important in the establishment of a safe, secure, and technologically proficient school setting for the district’s students.  

But the cost of this was not born by the taxpayers, it was paid for by the teachers and school employees whose salaries were reduced by state statute to pay for medical benefits, the resulting assets which accrued to the school district.  

So, you were able to fix one problem by making the other one worse. Accordingly, your schools are in better shape, but your school employees are taking home less money for their families today than they did in 2010. And that situation is not improving.

The break even point of the “benefit bonanza” for the district ended two years ago, resulting in the need to “tighten the belt” once again.  You still have facility needs, but you can’t pay to address them and solve the more important problem of hiring and retaining quality teachers at the same time.

The salary guide for teachers is abysmal in most respects, and the resources to fix the problem are not and never will be available when the district is limited to a 2% cap.  It is no wonder that the Board of Education and the Education Association cannot come to agreement on a contract that will satisfy both parties when the resources to do so are unavailable.

I must advise you, that similar to my experience between 2003 and 2011, you will see a “brain drain” in Roxbury’s schools as quality staff look for and receive positions in other districts that pay thousands of dollars more for their experience than your district can do.  

A perfect example of this occurred just last summer when we had some excellent teachers take positions in other districts for substantially greater compensation than we offered. We struggled mightily, and to a degree, unsuccessfully, to find replacement teachers.

Right now, some of the most talented young staff at RHS have been offered and will accept positions in other districts.  I suspect that the same is true in some of my former colleagues’ buildings. Who could blame those young people when they can earn upwards of 10,000 more dollars in compensation per year by signing with a district whose salary guide recognizes the importance of hiring and retaining the best teachers. By the way, this is happening on the administrative level too

There are some myopic people who would say, “let them  go, and hire someone at step one” There could not be a more wasteful and foolish perspective.   

The time and energy associated with advertising, interviewing, hiring and training new staff is considerable.  Doing all of this, only to see the talent move on to other districts because they will be better compensated, could not be more regressive for a school or its students.  Something must be done.

As you may know, I am not one who identifies a problem without offering a solution, and I would like to take credit for the one I will propose, but that belongs with an educational professional I have grown to respect.  

To address this important issue, I would encourage the Board of Education consider proposing a referendum to the community with the express purpose of fixing the teacher salary guide. I do not have the information or the resources to determine the size of such a referendum, but I believe that sufficient dollars distributed over a short period of time would address a problem that will never be fixed otherwise.  

Those resources, directed completely into educational salaries, would be able to fix the multitude of issues with the teachers’ guide. Competitive salaries will allow the district to attract and retain the best teachers.

If the Roxbury community is truly interested in providing the best possible education to its students, it needs to hire and retain the best teachers.  To do so, requires a competitive salary structure. I know that the challenge I place before you with this proposal will be considerable. Yet, I believe that the Board of Education and other forward thinkers have the best interests of Roxbury’s students foremost in their minds.  

They have the power to sway public opinion to do the right thing for your students.  That being so, I implore you to find a way to get the resources you need to pay your teachers and to prevent the destructive and wasteful brain drain cycle that is inevitable if you do not. I wish you good fortune in this effort.

Jeffrey Swanson, former Principal RHS