I need to let you know before you read any further, that as I write this, I am in a very bad mood. I am a N.Y. Mets fan and after having my heart broken again on the last day of the baseball season, I am not as nice as I normally am. I just want you to know before you proceed it is not my fault, but the Mets’ fault.
For those of you who have attended NJSBA Workshop in Atlantic City, you may remember buttons that a vendor used to give out. They had three buttons they distributed: one said Blame the Board Member, another said Blame the Superintendent, and the last one said Blame the BA. They were cute little buttons that were built on inside humor and everyone seemed to have fun with them. It was rather harmless because we were making fun of each other, but just imagine if the person handing them out was your state representative!
At the most recent Assembly Education Committee Meeting on September 22, it was clear that some people thought that perhaps board members should assume more blame. State legislators are probably no different than all of us -when something bad happens, we need to find someone to blame. We are a society that is fixated on assigning blame and pretty much nothing goes wrong without someone being blamed, whether rightly or wrongly.
At its meeting, the Education Committee once again heard from Commissioner of Education, Lucille Davy on a variety of issues. During her testimony, the commissioner updated the committee on the school construction grant program, graduation rates, administrators’ diplomas, and the SRA (special review assessment). Most of it was not new to educators, except for the way the school construction grants program will be processed. (If a district is considering a construction project, I urge them to visit the NJDOE’s School Facilities page to get the information because the process has changed.) You might also want to go the School Board Notes article Assembly Ed Committee Explores Construction Grants, SRA to get more details on the meeting. While it was a very important meeting, for the purposes of this blog entry, I will focus more on legislators’ remarks and perceptions than the content.
The issue of “maybe it is the board members’ fault” came up twice and both times it was Assemblyman Joe Malone who raised the issue. The first time was during the discussion of the diploma controversy in the Freehold Regional district, in which top administrators, including the superintendent, had received their advanced degrees from non-accredited institutions. All of the legislators were upset with that incident. The committee chair, Assemblyman Joe Cryan, said that it offended him because of who was involved; Cryan pointed out that the superintendent is “the leader of the district” and that we all “expect better” from someone in that position. While the entire committee seemed to agree that diploma mills degrees are not a widespread problem, they still wanted something done to prevent it from happening again and indicated that legislation would be forthcoming. While everyone agrees (including those of us in education) that this is wrong, we must now figure out whom to blame. While most of them seem to lay the blame on the perpetrators of such an action, Assemblyman Malone asked “is there any culpability on the part of the board members?” and while he did state that the “vast majority of school board members do a good job” he followed that up with the comment that when this happens in a district he can only think that the board members are either “complicit in the activity or just stupid!” Now there’s a choice for us: are we stupid or frauds? Luckily, Assemblyman Cryan came to our aid and said that he does not want to blame “an unpaid volunteer” but the person who commits the act.
While that attack seemed to reflect the views of only Assemblyman Malone, in the discussion on school construction, his views were not as isolated. After Susan Kutner from the NJDOE had finished explaining the grants program, Assemblyman Malone again spoke up. Though I can not speak for Assemblyman Malone, he obviously believes that many construction projects are a little excessive. (I suspected that he believed this when he asked the commissioner “Are there any constraints on school districts so they cannot just build these temples to the gods?”) Now I have to admit at this point, I was I getting a little agitated myself but it was not about the building programs. At times like this I sometimes find it hard to stay seated. Like Howard Beale, the slightly disturbed character in the 1976 movie classic Network I feel like standing up and screaming “I am mad as H#@* and I am not going to take it any more!”. I did not however get up and scream but sat and observed to see if someone would add some clarity to the situation. Well I was wrong – it got even more surreal. Assemblyman Malone’s suggestion was “If a school district is going to do a major project or a new building. the taxpayers of that town should be totally aware in advance what that building is going to look like, and what it is going to cost.” I almost jumped out of my chair in the audience and yelled “great idea… and why don’t we call it a referendum!”
What really frustrated me was that, as I stated in Winston Churchill defending local school districts – Part 2 ,the entire problem with the waste and fraud in the last school construction program was NOT with the projects that were run by local districts, it was with the ones that were completely run by the state. Why should we be blamed for something we did not do? Also, most construction projects are scaled down somewhat from what the district really needs because they put forward what they think they can get passed.
I will let you all know, though, that at these meetings I am a very pleasant and warm person on the outside . But on the inside, I sometimes feel like the deranged Howard Beale. I will bet anything that Howard Beale was a Met fan too.