MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Emotions were running high at Monday night’s South Orange Maplewood Board of Education retreat over board President Thair Joshua’s decision not to share the superintendent’s mid-year review with the three new members of the board.
This was the first time the issue had been brought up in front of the public but it was clear that this has been an ongoing discussion between the members. During a presentation by the district's New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) representative, Charlene Peterson, about the superintendent evaluation process, newly-installed member Elissa Malespina asked Peterson what the ‘best practices’ would be regarding new members receiving a copy of a mid-year review that was completed while they were not on the board.
While the question was posed as hypothetical, it quickly became clear that this dispute had begun way before the Monday night meeting. Peterson did not seem to be aware of the board members' dispute and at first just lauded the board for even conducting a mid-year review when only one per year is required.
“What it comes down to I guess is basically information that you would need to make an informed decision or to fill out an informed evaluation,” said Peterson. “Without understanding what was done, without understanding what was presented it’s hard for me to be able to address that.”
Peterson added that she couldn’t know whether a member of the board would need to have that information because she doesn't know what information is included and if that information is available anywhere else. She added that if the BOE members have a pre-conference that would be the time to answer any questions about the past mid-year evaluation that was made with former members of the board.
Malespina continued with her original line of questioning about whether Peterson thought it would be good for all board members to have this mid-year evaluation.
“I’m talking now as an educator and as a supervisor — if I knew that were specific goals that were given to a person to achieve, do you believe that we should have access to that so that we can understand it?”
Peterson stated that the question would be more appropriate for the board attorney who has access to all the relevant information that she does not.
“That’s an individual district decision that — I can talk about process, I can talk about the evaluation process. It is a good practice to have a mid-term evaluation but in terms of your access to the content of it without understanding what it looked like, what took place it’s hard for me to give a definitive answer,” Peterson said.
Questions from board members Annemarie Maini and Shannon Cuttle temporarily moved the discussion away from the mid-year evaluations but board member Johanna Wright brought it right back, noting that the district was still in the same 2020-2021 school year as it had been during the mid-year evaluation, but six members have access and the three new members do not.
“I wanna be clear, are you saying to me that those three new board members should not have access to board material? I thought board members were able to see anything they wanted to see that dealt with the board and the board business,” Wright asked.
Peterson maintained her original position that because this is a district specific question she could not make a judgement one way or another. She then repeated that it is a better question for the board attorney who is better able to understand because they are aware of what was discussed in executive session.
“So then you’re saying then that board members don’t have rights to board information regarding the evaluation of the superintendent,” Wright continued.
At this point Joshua interjected, and explained the real life disagreement that had been going on behind the scenes, as it had only been referred to as a hypothetical situation up until this point. Joshua had been asked by new members of the board for the materials from the mid-year evaluation and he declined to provide it.
“My understanding is that there is no requirement to give this information and that there is also no reason not to. The way I view this is that I don’t want new board members to be prejudiced one way or another by decisions that were made by board members who are no longer here,” Joshua stated.
He decided that the new members of the board would be getting the district goals, the action plans, the merit goals and the evidence from Dr. Ronald Taylor. After the evaluation is completed, Joshua said, he will give the new members the mid-year evaluation so they won’t be influenced by the past information.
“You decided this without discussing it with the rest of the board members, this was your decision alone Mr. President?” Wright asked.
“Yes it was, board member Wright,” Joshua responded.
Wright then asked if Joshua had even discussed it with the executive board. To which he responded that they had discussed it but it was ultimately his decision. He also reiterated that the information would be made available to the new board members after the evaluation was complete.
Wright continued “I’m good with that, as long as everybody has a right, a constitutional right to information that’s important. You wanna hold it out and have people form their own opinion before they see—”
At this point Joshua loudly interjects “Yes, that is what an evaluation is.” After apologizing for cutting her off he added “an evaluation is supposed to be based on your view of what you saw as you were a board member. That’s what I did last year, that’s what everyone did last year, that’s what will be done next year.”
Board member Maini who was president for the past two years offered the perspective that the board from last year is a completely different board.
“There’s the idea that the board ceases to exist in December and the new board forms,” said Maini. “I just want that to be clear that the old board’s review doesn’t mean anything now because it’s the new board that now directs the work. So I’m just not 100 percent sure that prior documents need to be shared.”
Board member Malespina rejoined the discussion to formally state her position that the new board members should receive the information.
“If it was important enough to be written down and evaluated on then it is important enough that we as board members see it,” Malespina said. “It is good to have as much evidence and knowledge as possible as Charlene stated multiple times in this presentation, and by you not giving that document to us you are making it so that you are making it unequal— the knowledge base is unequal. It is not fair that six members have the document and that three new members do not.”
The board’s acting in-house counsel Joanne Butler suggested that it would be better to continue this in another setting and that she could prepare something for the board’s next discussion.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be focusing on this tonight,” said Butler. Peterson "has made her position and the position of school boards known and if there is more that the board want’s beyond that, that can certainly be addressed. But it’s not something that needs to be addressed right now.”
Absent from this tense conversation about the mid-year evaluations were the other two new members of the board Susan Bergin and Courtney Winkfield. President Joshua ended the conversation by saying that the board would wait and continue to talk about the issue in executive session.
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