How the School Ethics Act Works

Partners in Progress

From Accidental Leaders to Purposeful Advocates


How the School Ethics Act Works

Board members should be familiar with these procedures and practices

By Donna M. Kaye, Esq.

School board members and charter school trustees are probably the best trained government officials in the state. They must attend training programs in each of the three years of their first term, and in the first year of any new term if reelected or reappointed.

The New Board Member Orientation program includes a component on the School Ethics Act (SEA), with emphasis on the SEA’s Prohibited Acts (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24) and Code of Ethics (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1), the annual filing of financial, personal and relative disclosure statements, and the various resources available for those unsure of whether their conduct has ethics implications. (See box on page 22 for a listing of Prohibited Acts and the Code of Ethics.)

Re-elected and reappointed board members (we will use that term for both public school board members and charter school trustees) must attend a program that includes a review of relevant changes to New Jersey school law, and every board must adopt policies and procedures regarding ethics training at the board level. Each board must annually discuss the SEA at a regularly scheduled board meeting and each board member must be given a copy of the Code of Ethics and sign an acknowledgment that he or she is familiar with it.

Even with all of this training, the question of whether particular conduct does in fact violate the SEA is not always apparent. Fortunately, the SEA anticipates this by providing a mechanism by which any school official (that is, board member or administrator, trustee or administrator of a charter school, officer or professional employee of NJSBA) may request advice from the School Ethics Commission (SEC), the nine-member body appointed by the Governor and created to carry out the act’s provisions. The mechanism for requesting advice is called “requesting an advisory opinion.”

How can I obtain an advisory opinion? The procedure for obtaining an advisory opinion is straightforward. The school official sends a letter to the SEC at the New Jersey Department of Education, P.O. Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625, clearly explaining in detail the specific conduct or activity the school official wishes to undertake and his or her exact role in that conduct. If the information provided is not sufficient, the SEC or its staff will contact the board member for additional information.

A school official may also ask for the SEC’s opinion of whether the proposed conduct of another school official would violate the SEA. The school official seeking the opinion must copy the other school official with the request and show the SEC proof that it has done so. The school official whose proposed conduct is in question will have 10 days to respond. Ordinarily, the SEC considers the request at the next monthly meeting following the receipt of all relevant information; submitting a request early in the month will usually result in a faster response since the SEC usually meets during the third or fourth week of the month. Of course, the SEC may take more time rendering advice where the issues are complex or where it requires additional information or documentation from those involved, or because of competing priorities.

The SEC may decline to give an advisory opinion if existing opinions already address the issues, or if the procedures have not been followed for making the request. The SEC cannot provide advice on conduct that has occurred in the past or on the conduct of school employees who are not school officials.

When the SEC believes that its advice on a particular matter will provide guidance on an issue that arises frequently, the SEC can make that advisory opinion public by a vote of six of its nine members. The confidentiality of the name or district of the person requesting the opinion will not be publicly disclosed. Public advisory opinions are available to school board officials for their review through the New Jersey Department of Education website at www.state.nj.us/education/legal/. In fact, the SEC has currently posted on its website over 50 public advisory opinions, involving a range of ethics topics such as collective bargaining, negotiations, contracts, participation in employment decisions for the superintendent and other administrators, speech, business and other ventures, and the use of the doctrine of necessity. Following the advice in these opinions can reduce the probability that a board member will ever find him/herself the subject of an ethics complaint, and if that should happen, will increase the probability that the board member will be exonerated.

How likely is it that an ethics complaint will be filed against me? Most school officials are never forced to defend an ethics complaint filed against them. Most make conscious decisions to approach their responsibilities cautiously, file disclosure statements, attend training, and distance themselves from situations that could appear to be a violation. They are quick to seek out relevant guidance from school administrators, NJSBA or contained in advisory opinions and rulings by the SEC, the commissioner of education, and the courts, and to confer with their board counsel.

Each year, however, a minority of school officials is served by the SEC with a copy of a signed, notarized complaint that has been filed with the commission alleging a violation of the SEA. Anyone is permitted to file a complaint against a school official, including a member of the SEC. Complaints must be submitted in a format set out in administrative code, and the person filing the complaint bears the burden of establishing the facts to support a violation. In recent years, the SEC has ruled on anywhere from 19 to 35 complaints per year alleging violations of Prohibited Acts or Code of Ethics. Many such complaints are dismissed early on because the complainant has not offered sufficient evidence that a violation of the act has occurred, perhaps due to a mistaken impression of what actually occurred or a misunderstanding of what issues fall within the jurisdiction of the SEC. A complaint may also be dismissed because it was not filed within 180 days of notice of the alleged violation. Frivolous complaints filed for improper motives, such as political retaliation or personal animosity, are dismissed as well, and the persons filing them may be fined. Occasionally, however, complaints against board members are determined to be valid. The following is designed to help board members know what to expect if served with a complaint.

Will the board cover my counsel fees for defending an ethics complaint? There is no way to avoid the lawyer’s answer, “maybe.” Ethics proceedings are administrative matters that are eligible for indemnification under N.J.S.A. 18A:12-20 regardless of whether they result in a favorable ruling. However, the Commissioner of Education recently pointed out in an ethics ruling that the question may be more complicated. Indemnification is only required where the acts or omissions forming the basis of the charges have arisen “out of and in the course of the performance of (the board member’s)… duties as a board member.” Not all conduct that violates the SEA is inherently related to the duties of a school board member. Some private actions taken by a board member may be far afield of what is considered to be part of a board member’s duties. Where an ethics complaint alleges numerous violations, the extent of indemnification will be affected if some of the particular charges do not arise from the board member’s duties.

What should I do when I receive a complaint? A school official has 20 days to respond (also called “filing an answer”) in writing, or to request additional time. The school official may wish to obtain legal counsel to assist in responding to the complaint. Filing an answer is achieved by filing an original and two copies of the response to the allegations with the SEC, and serving a copy on the person bringing the complaint. The response must be made under oath, and should specifically address each allegation in the complaint, explaining the reasons why the school official believes the particular allegations are unfounded. Sometimes, instead of filing an answer, a school official may decide to file a motion to dismiss. In determining whether to grant the motion, the SEC will view the facts in the light most favorable to the person filing the complaint.

If the school official believes that the complaint is frivolous, this must be stated in the answer, as the “frivolous” allegation may not be added later. A frivolous complaint is one that involves bad faith, and is intended solely for harassment, delay or malicious injury, and where the complaining party knows or should know the complaint has no reasonable basis. A frivolous complaint provides ground for dismissal and the complaining party may be fined up to $500. The party bringing the complaint has 20 days to respond to the school official’s claim that the allegations are frivolous.

The SEC will not process or rule on any ethics matter where the same subject is in litigation before another court or agency, and will hold the ethics matter in abeyance until the other matter is resolved. The person filing the complaint and the school official have a duty to let the SEC know if they become aware that the same matter has been filed in any state court or with an administrative agency.

What happens if I don’t file an answer? If a school official does not respond within the 20 days allotted, the SEC will provide one more opportunity to respond. The SEC will send a notice directing the school official to respond within ten days. Do not ignore a complaint! The SEC will treat silence as an admission to all of the allegations contained in the complaint, and will decide the matter on the information before it.

If I am served with a complaint, will it be made public? If the SEC receives a complaint concerning a school official’s conduct, the SEC will serve that person with a copy of the complaint after assigning a file number. The complaint will be identified by its file number during the investigation and deliberations. No information about the complaint will be made public until the SEC first takes action at a public meeting to determine whether there is “probable cause” to credit the allegations, a violation, or until the matter is settled, withdrawn or dismissed. However, even at an early stage, the SEC must provide the Attorney General’s office information where a criminal law may have been violated, and also may provide the executive county superintendents information regarding the status of a pending complaint.

What happens after I file an answer? Assuming the same matter is not in litigation in another forum, the SEC will process the complaint. The SEC follows separate procedures depending on the type of allegations the complaint contains:

Prohibited Acts: When a complaint alleges that a school official violated only Prohibited Acts, the SEC will determine by a majority vote whether “probable cause” exists. “Probable cause” means that “there is a reasonable ground of suspicion supported by facts and circumstances strong enough in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that the Act has been violated.” The magic words that a school official would want to hear are “no probable cause.” SEC will dismiss such a complaint. A determination that there is no “probable cause” is a final agency decision, appealable directly to the Superior Court, Appellate Division. Should the matter be appealed, the Superior Court is likely to defer to the SEC’s decision given the court’s narrow standard of review.

If the SEC finds that there is “probable cause,” additional proceedings will follow, since a finding of probable cause is only a preliminary finding, not a final decision. In many cases, the school official will not dispute the factual allegations, and the SEC will make a determination of violation in a summary fashion based solely on the submitted documents. If the school official does not admit the factual allegations, the matter will be transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for determination of the facts at a hearing conducted by an administrative law judge (ALJ) under the Uniform Administrative Procedure Rules. As may be expected, a matter scheduled for a hearing will take longer to resolve than one where the facts are not disputed. At this point, the person who originally filed a complaint is no longer a party, and the SEC’s attorney will prosecute the allegations. School officials who fail to appear at any scheduled hearing will be considered to have admitted the allegations against them, so it is important for a school official to participate in his or her defense.

Code of Ethics for Board Members: When a complaint alleges that a board member violated only the Code of Ethics, there is a more streamlined process that does not involve a preliminary finding of “probable cause.” The matter will go directly to a hearing, conducted either by the SEC itself or an administrative law judge (ALJ). In either case, the same rules for conducting the hearing will apply, and the parties will have the opportunity to submit pertinent documents. The complaining party has the burden of proving the facts that form the basis of the complaint, and very specific kinds of factual evidence must be presented to establish a violation of each section. A board member’s failure to appear at a hearing will be considered an admission of the allegations.

Combination: When a complaint alleges a violation of both Prohibited Acts and the Code of Ethics, the SEC will first determine whether there is “probable cause” to credit any allegations of Prohibited Acts. If so, the entire case will proceed as if it were entirely a Prohibited Acts case. However, if there is no “probable cause,” the SEC will decide whether to hear the Code of Ethics charges or transmit them to an ALJ.

What if the complainant decides to withdraw the complaint before it is adjudicated? Complaints that allege a violation only of the Code of Ethics, may be settled or withdrawn at any time before a ruling. However, complaints that allege violations of Prohibited Acts may not be withdrawn without the permission of the SEC with a written request containing a full explanation of why withdrawing it would be in the public’s interest.

What happens during “probable cause” proceedings? The SEC may conduct a conference to help determine whether there is “probable cause.” The parties will be advised of the conference, and may submit documents before and after the conference according to established timelines. The SEC will consider the answer the school official may have filed in its determination. The SEC and the parties may issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents that may be relevant to the case. All relevant evidence is admissible during investigatory proceedings.

What happens during a hearing? Hearings are conducted in accordance with the rules of the OAL. The proceedings may be informal, and in some circumstances be conducted by telephone. The formal rules of evidence will be relaxed, and in general, all relevant evidence – even hearsay – may be admitted. Nonetheless, the judge may exclude evidence if he or she determines that its value is outweighed by the risk that its introduction will consume too much time or will unduly create prejudice or confusion. The goal of the proceeding is to ascertain the truth and promote fairness.

During the hearing, the complaining party will usually have the first opportunity to make a presentation, which may consist of an opening statement. The complaining party, who has the burden of proof, will usually also be the first to present witnesses and other evidence. However, the judge ultimately has the authority to decide the sequence of the proceedings, and controls the sequence and manner of cross examination. The judge may make rulings necessary to prevent argumentative, repetitive or irrelevant questioning, to expedite or limit testimony and to clarify confusion or gaps in the proofs.

What happens after a hearing? The ALJ mails an initial decision to the parties. The parties have 13 days to file exceptions to the initial decision. The SEC must adopt, reject or modify the ALJ’s decision by a majority vote in a written decision containing findings of fact, conclusions of law and any penalty recommendations. The SEC may decline to issue a penalty for very minor violations.

If the SEC finds a violation, the school official has 30 days to appeal that determination to the Commissioner of Education. On appeal, the Commissioner will also review the SEC’s recommended penalty. Even if the school official does not file an appeal of the underlying violation, the Commissioner has 45 days to review the recommended penalty, and either party may file exceptions to the recommended penalty within 13 days of the date the SEC decision is forwarded to the Commissioner. If the Commissioner fails to act within the 45 days, the SEC decision will become the final decision.

If the Commissioner of Education decides to censure, suspend or remove the school official, the SEC must adopt a resolution at its next meeting and direct the local board of education to read the resolution at the board’s next regularly scheduled public meeting and to post it for at least 30 days where the board posts its public notices.

A school official may appeal the Commissioner’s final decision of the violation or determination of the penalty to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

Conclusion   A school official can minimize the prospect of being served with an ethics complaint by vigilantly avoiding even the impression that he or she is violating the act. However, the reality is that no school official is completely insulated from the possibility of having to defend an ethics action at some point.  The consolation is that, for the official who remains apprised of ethics rulings and opinions, consults with others, and takes advantage of the advisory opinion mechanism, the defense of an ethics matter should be fairly simple, with dismissal of the complaint early on.  The law contains penalties for those who have illegal motives in bringing unfounded complaints, and a board member who has acted ethically in carrying out board responsibilities will have his or her expenses covered by the board.

Prohibited Acts N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24
a.  No school official or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest;
b. No school official shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for himself, members of his immediate family or others;
c. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he or a member of his immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his immediate family;
d. No school official shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties;
e. No school official, or member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties.  This provision shall not apply to the solicitation or acceptance of contributions to the campaign of an announced candidate for elective public office, if the school official has no knowledge or reason to believe that the campaign contribution, if accepted, was given with the intent to influence the school official in the discharge of his official duties;
f. No school official shall use, or allow to be used, his public office or employment, or any information, not generally available to the members of the public, which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his office or employment, for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself, any member of his immediate family, or any business organization with which he is associated;
g. No school official or business organization in which he has an interest shall represent any person or party other than the school board or school district in connection with any cause, proceeding, application or other matter pending before the school district in which he serves or in any proceeding involving the school district in which he serves or, for officers or employees of the New Jersey School Boards Association, any school district. This provision shall not be deemed to prohibit representation within the context of official labor union or similar representational responsibilities;
h. No school official shall be deemed in conflict with these provisions if, by reason of his participation in any matter required to be voted upon, no material or monetary gain accrues to him as a member of any business, profession, occupation or group, to any greater extent than any gain could reasonably be expected to accrue to any other member of that business, profession, occupation or group;
i. No elected member shall be prohibited from making an inquiry for information on behalf of a constituent, if no fee, reward or other thing of value is promised to, given to or accepted by the member or a member of his immediate family, whether directly or indirectly, in return therefor;
j. Nothing shall prohibit any school official, or members of his immediate family, from representing himself, or themselves, in negotiations or proceedings concerning his, or their, own interests; and
k. Employees of the New Jersey School Boards Association shall not be precluded from providing assistance, in the normal course of their duties, to boards of education in the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement regardless of whether a member of their immediate family is a member of, or covered by, a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a Statewide union with which a board of education is negotiating.

Code of Ethics for School Board Members N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1
A school board member shall abide by the following Code of Ethics for School Board Members:

I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.
b. I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.
c. I will confine my board action to policy making, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.
d. I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.
e. I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.
f. I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.
g. I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools.  In all other matters, I will provide accurate information and, in concert with my fellow board members, interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its school.
h. I will vote to appoint the best qualified personnel available after consideration of the recommendation of the chief administrative officer.
i. I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.
j. I will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and will act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.

Donna M. Kaye, Esq.,is senior counsel in NJSBA’s Legal and Policy Services Department. She can be reached at dkaye@njsba.org.

Partners in Progress

A successful superintendent-board working relationship is key to the smooth running of a school district

By Douglas B. Groff

A good relationship between a board of education and a superintendent is a little like a good marriage. Each side should have certain expectations on how the relationship should progress and mature. And, like a good marriage, developing a positive relationship can begin during the “courting” period, which for a superintendent would be the initial interview process.

The clear definition of the board’s and the superintendent’s roles and responsibilities should be discussed during the interview process with many of the parameters being finalized when the superintendent is hired. Even though the basic distinction between the two roles – the board being the policy making body and the superintendent acting as the daily manager of the school district—is acknowledged in general terms, specifics regarding special needs of the district need to be clearly delineated. Accomplishing this at the start of the relationship really sets the tone, while establishing boundaries for both the board and the superintendent.

Issues surrounding areas that could be claimed as common territory by both the board and the superintendent can and should be determined during the interview process. That could include topics such as personnel, policy development, recommending and hiring of new staff, day-to-day operations of the schools, and communication procedures, among other areas.

Establishing an effective and successful school board/superintendent team takes time, energy, and real commitment in order to keep everyone focused on the primary goal of student learning. Listed below are several key ingredients that need to be included in meeting that important goal:

Building trust through effective and timely communication. When I interviewed for my job, I stressed the importance of two-way communication. I called it the “no surprises” form of communication. It was established early on that in cases of emergency (i.e. bus accident) and other high-priority district related matters, all board members would be notified via e-mail at the same time. However, on matters that I viewed as highly controversial, it was predetermined that I contact the board president and in his absence, the board vice president to discuss the matter prior to communicating with the full board.

Members of the board receive a weekly report updating them on key administrative activities that took place during the week. Also included in this report are updates from the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and the school business administrator. On the Fridays before each board meeting, members receive board agenda packets along with other support documents. This agenda includes all of the resolutions and action items needing formal board approval. Rather than asking “surprise” questions at the meeting, board members are encouraged to contact me prior to the meeting with their questions. Most often, I am able to answer the questions during a phone conversation or through an e-mail response. Other times, I indicate that I will have an answer prepared for the board meeting. Since I have promised not to “surprise” the board, I have expected the same from them and, except on a few occasions, they have kept their word. I believe this clear line of communication is critical to building an effective board / superintendent working relationship.

Sometimes boards of education can get sidetracked or distracted due to a variety of circumstances, whether they be differences of opinion, political differences, personal differences, or other issues that can keep a board from focusing on its major priority – student learning. In order to keep the board focused on this goal, our board recognizes students or staff at one meeting each month. I remind the board that student achievement, whether it involves academics, extracurricular activities, athletic competition, or community services, is what their role is all about. We also recognize staff each month for all the special work they accomplish on behalf of their students each and every day.

Personnel Matters Personnel is an area that some boards like to micromanage. But it is best left to the superintendent who, by code, is responsible for recommending candidates for employment to the board, as well as recommending which employees will be non-renewed or terminated. Once again, during the interview process, I requested, and it was accepted by the board, that a multi-tiered interview process would be established and, at times, based on the vacancy (i.e. principal, supervisor, assistant superintendent) would include board members as members of the screening committee. The bottom line, however, was that recommendation of personnel remained the responsibility of the superintendent. The board, to this day, has kept its promise and left personnel selection to my discretion.

Evaluation One of the most important responsibilities given to a board of education is conducting the annual evaluation of the superintendent. Although some may look at this evaluation as a “gotcha” opportunity, a well-crafted, mutually developed evaluation provides direction to the school district on a yearly basis.

The evaluation process allows for both the board and superintendent to review progress made on the previous year’s goals and decide whether these goals have been achieved or are still works in progress. Once this is determined, a new set of no more than three to five goals can be developed that reflect key school district initiatives. These goals must be reasonable, attainable, and most importantly, directly correlated to improving student learning outcomes.

Mutually establishing annual goals provides the superintendent with a “road map” for implementing the types of strategies necessary to successfully achieve the goals. In reality, these goals become priorities for the entire school community. Once again, it is essential for the board and superintendent to work as a cohesive team on establishing goals that will serve the best interests of the school system.

A board’s main responsibility is to see that a school district is governed well and adopt school district policy to ensure that governance is maintained. The superintendent, on the other hand, administers and manages the district based on the adopted policies. Effective, successful school districts understand the need to respect these separate roles. When it comes to policy adoption, I serve as a resource to the board during the policy development process.

Maintaining a balance between board governance and administrative management is key to an effective, successful board / superintendent relationship. This balance, from time to time, may need to be realigned due to changes in the district’s goals, direction, or other circumstances. A savvy superintendent will recognize the need to restore balance by making the necessary adjustments.

All in all, an effective, successful board / superintendent relationship relies on the principle of the “3C’s” – Communicate, Collaborate, and Celebrate. The superintendent as well as the board must continually communicate clear, concise, honest, and accurate information with each other. Good communication can then lead to open and meaningful collaboration on behalf of the district’s mission and goals. And, finally, both the board and superintendent must celebrate the success stories of the school system. Through effective communication, a common purpose of collaboration and celebrating district success stories sends a strong message to the community that the board and superintendent are working in tandem to ensure that students are receiving the best educational programs available. And isn’t that what it is all about?

Douglas B. Groffrecently retired as superintendent of the Galloway Township school district. In his 40-year career, he has been a teacher, principal, superintendent of several districts, county superintendent of schools and assistant commissioner of education. He can be reached at GroffD@gtps.k12.nj.us.

From Accidental Leaders to Purposeful Advocates

You got involved to help your local district. Get more involved for the same reason.

By Ray Pinney

Whether you have been a board member for 20 days or 20 years, you have probably had the experience of finding yourself a little surprised that you’re serving on a board of education. After all, it was probably not your childhood dream to serve in such a post.

People have always aspired – often from a young age – to jobs like president, U.S. senator, governor or even mayor of their community.

That’s not the case with the job of school board member. More often than not, people come upon their desire to join a board almost accidentally, usually as a parent, although not always. Though accidental, many people find it so fulfilling that once elected or appointed, they stay longer than they originally anticipated.

While many municipal and state elected officials purposefully study political science in college, and join political parties, few local board members ever take this route to their school board. Local issues, whether financial or academic, draw them to serving on the board of education. Local issues drive their continued board involvement. And often, strong concern for their local educational issues keeps some board members focusing solely on local issues and not worrying about regional or state issues.

While most board members are resolutely, and admirably, non-partisan, they need to be political activists when it comes to their school districts.

I have seen many board members over the years really get involved with NJSBA and their county school boards association and become excellent and effective advocates for their school district. These board members are not better advocates because they care more than other board members, or even because they are more knowledgeable on the education issues. What is different is that they clearly see the connection between being effective locally and getting involved on a county or statewide basis. They believe involving themselves in advocacy efforts and networking opportunities helps them be better local board members.

However, that connection is not what separates them from their colleagues. Most board members I know would like to be more active but they are lacking the one key ingredient in being an effective and active school board advocate.

What is that key ingredient? Not surprisingly, it’s time.

Try as we might, most of us fear we can’t find the time to keep abreast of the issues, communicate with state leaders and be effective advocates. Most board members have very busy lives with family, professional and community obligations, as well as local board commitments.

While many board members find that advocating for their district and getting involved with other organizations such as NJSBA is well worth the time, others feel although they’d like to get involved, they simply don’t have the time.

NJSBA recognized this situation and has adapted some of our advocacy and networking opportunities to accommodate the time constraints of the local board member.

Whether you have 15 minutes a week or 15 days a year, NJSBA has opportunities for you to get involved and informed. We not only want involved members, we absolutely need them. More importantly local districts need active board members so that we are all more effective.

How can you get involved and stay informed without compromising your other time commitments? There are several ways that NJSBA allows you to do this. The time commitments vary with each one. You can decide how much or how little time to spend.

EAGLE (Education Advocates Grassroots Lobbying Effort) If you only have 15 minutes a week to stay informed and find it difficult to travel to various meetings, this is the group for you. No regularly scheduled meetings to attend, just a short weekly update that brings you the hottest education issues that you need to be aware of in a concise fashion. In addition to the information provided, a link to NJSBA’s BoardBlog is also included, which gives you additional insight into the education issues facing New Jersey as well as links to pertinent bills.

While the updates are very valuable and help keep you abreast of legislative happenings, they will also let you know when you should contact your state legislators on pertinent issues. This will allow your communication with statewide officials to have the most impact since it will coincide with discussion on the bills, and will arrive when other board members are also communicating with their lawmakers. The updates will alert you to local or statewide events that you might be interested in attending.

Another advantage is that this communication is not one-way and board members can ask follow-up questions or even provide information about what is happening in their districts. NJSBA can then use that information in its advocacy efforts.

School Leader Connect The field of social media is expanding greatly and NJSBA has quickly moved into this arena. School Leader Connect can allow board members to attend meetings online, and communicate with other attendees, without having to fight traffic.

At NJSBA’s School Leader Connect site, board members have had the opportunity to watch live events such as meetings with the Commissioner of Education and have the opportunity to ask questions via the Internet. The programs are recorded so that if board members don’t have time to watch them live, they can review them at a later, more convenient time.

The School Leader Connect site also allows board members to network with others in various groups to discuss and dialogue on education issues. At some events we have almost as many attendees online as we do live. Other times it is strictly an online event.

While it may not completely replace face-to-face meetings, it does provide users the opportunity to build and enhance their networking opportunities. To view School Leader Connect, go to http://slconnect.ning.com.

County School Boards Associations Before the advent of social media, or the personal computer, or for that matter the television, county school board associations filled a niche for board members to network with each other and to advocate for school districts. Although the roots of these associations date back to another era, their basic mission remains relevant today. The mission is to provide a forum for local board members to acquire training and information, to create a networking infrastructure, and to come together to advocate for their local school districts. All this is done close to home in your own county.

While NJSBA provides staff support for the county school board associations, they are governed by your local school board colleagues. They usually meet four or five times a year and choose topics of discussion that interest local districts. These meetings provide you with valuable information and an opportunity to network with neighboring districts. The county associations have also historically been effective organizations for school boards advocacy efforts. They are a natural coalition that often shares a common interest and more important, shares common legislators.

County associations are governed by their membership and are frequently looking for active members.

NJSBA Standing Committees NJSBA has several statewide standing committees that are vital to our governance and our advocacy efforts. They incorporate board members from a variety of school districts with different sizes, geography, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Two of the largest committees are the Legislative Committee. and the Urban Boards Committee Each committee has a different function and criteria for appointments, but all are valuable to NJSBA.

These committees all meet periodically during the year, usually in the central region of the state. So while there is a time and travel commitment, most members find the discussion and participation make it well worth their time.

If you are an advocacy-minded individual, the Legislative Committee is the committee you would be the most interested in. It meets four times a year and helps to coordinate NJSBA’s advocacy agenda for the legislative sessions.

The Urban Boards Committee, as you would imagine, is a committee that explores urban education issues and makes policy recommendations to the Association.

There are other standing and ad hoc committees and in which NJSBA welcomes participation. Although the time commitments vary for each committee, member participation is vital to the operation of the Association. In all cases we try to create committees that represent all the different types of school districts in the state.

Delegate Assembly Every school district in the state may send a representative to the NJSBA Delegate Assembly, the Association’s major policy making body. (NJSBA’s other governance body, the Board of Directors, oversees the Association’s operations and finances. It consists of local school board members elected by the 21 county associations, Urban Boards Committee, vocational schools and County Association leadership.) Delegate Assemblies are held twice a year – in November and in May. Even if you are not your board’s delegate or alternate, you can attend the meeting as a nonvoting member. If your board has not filled that position, you can also volunteer to fill it.

As discussed earlier, while many board members come to the position accidentally, it is no accident that every state has a school boards association. Board members nationwide find that they need to create these associations for three primary reasons. One reason is to improve training opportunities for board members. Another reason is to create networking opportunities for local board members. A third reason is advocacy. School board members found they needed to come together in order to be more effective in their advocacy efforts.

While NJSBA’s staff members provide school boards with a voice in the halls of Trenton, that voice becomes clearer, louder, more relevant and more influential with increased participation from its members.

If getting involved to help influence education policy at the state level is not enough of a motivating factor for you, then get involved for a local reason – to help yourself become better informed and make better decisions at the local level. Isn’t having an impact on your local district the reason you ran for the board- whether it was for the first time this year or 20 years ago?

If you are interested in getting involved with any of the NJSBA committees or your county association, please contact Ray Pinney at rpinney@njsba.org or by telephone at (609) 278-5244.

Ray Pinney is member outreach coordinator for NJSBA. He can be reached at rpinney@njsba.org.


Meet NJSBA’s New President

Ray Wiss of the Northern Valley Regional board takes the reins

By Janet Bamford

May you live in interesting times, says the old Chinese curse. Raymond R. Wiss, the new president of the New Jersey School Boards Association takes office at a most interesting time.

School boards around the state are coping with 2010-2011 aid cuts which, in some cases, amounted to 100 percent of a district’s state aid. Virtually all school districts have been forced to lay off staff. This past April, for the first time since the mid-1970s, a majority of school budgets failed.

There have also been changes that have helped districts: in May, a law took effect requiring school employees to pay at least 1.5 percent of their current base salary towards their health benefits.

More changes are coming. The Legislature passed a 2 percent cap, with limited exceptions, on school budgets. The state’s Race to the Top application promises some sort of merit bonuses for teachers. Reestablishing a board’s authority to invoke “last best offer” in negotiations is part of the governor’s proposed toolkit. And the administration says it wants more charter schools and for corporations to have the ability to direct some of their taxes due to private schools in the form of “economic opportunity scholarships.” Interesting times, indeed.

Wiss, a veteran of two decades of school board service, is easily up to the challenges. He served on the Old Tappan (K-8) board for eight years from 1988 to 1996, before spending four years as mayor of Old Tappan. A year after leaving the mayor’s post, he joined his town’s regional high school board, Northern Valley.

Wiss has a long history of involvement with state and county board activities, too. He chairs a committee that has overseen the renovation and redesign of NJSBA’s headquarters building in Trenton, so that it could accommodate the web-based training and information services needed by the state’s school board members. He has also been Bergen County’s representative to the NJSBA’s Board of Directors and has served on various state association committees.

Wiss is also a member of the Bergen County School Boards Association executive committee. In 2007, he received the Archie F. Hay Award for Distinguished Service from the Bergen County organization. He has also earned the Certificated Board Member designation through NJSBA’s Board Member Academy.

The Park Ridge native is an attoney who specializes in civil litigation, and is the managing member of the law firm of Wiss & Bouregy. Wiss and wife live in Old Tappan and have three adult children.

Recently School Leader magazine sat down to speak with Wiss about school board service and the challenges that boards and the New Jersey School Boards Association will face in the near future.

What made you first decide to join a board of education?

I have always had a strong sense of community service and the notion that there is an obligation to pay back as best one can. My oldest child was just entering kindergarten and I had two young children, so this was an area where I had a natural interest, and where I could get involved and hopefully lend some of my talents.

What advice would you give to new board members?

I would say now that you are involved, get even more involved. There are a number of ways you can lend your influence to the process. You can act locally, or on a regional or statewide basis to help influence NJSBA policy and to influence the legislative discussion on the issues.

How would you describe your community and your schools?

Northern Valley is a very high achieving district of about 2500 or 2600 students equally divided between two high schools – Northern Valley Old Tappan and Northern Valley Demarest. There are significant expectations by the parental community and all of the community for the achievements of the students. Both of our high schools have been recognized as blue ribbon schools. They are very competitive and I think there is an expectation that the programs and instruction will be not only good but excellent. That is a standard that I have grown to expect, both when I was an elementary board member and as the Old Tappan representative to Northern Valley Regional. That colors my aspirations for education as a whole in this state – the standard is one of excellence and not anything less.

What are some of the biggest challenges that your board has faced lately?

We’re trying to maintain our aspirations for educational excellence in an era of declining resources. That’s not any different for us in the Northern Valley than elsewhere in the state. The pragmatic realities are measured district by district. What can the local electorate afford? What economies of scale can be achieved by any school district? That varies from district to district. The challenge for board members is always to motivate parental support and the support of the electorate.

While we have a lot of support in our district, we face many of the same issues as other districts. Our superintendent has given notice that she’s leaving at the end of next year, so we’re facing a superintendent search. We had a facilities referendum not long ago.

We passed our budget this year, but we were subject to the same reduction in excess surplus as everyone else, and in our district we got zeroed out on state aid. So the notion of state aid to education is a bit of an anomaly in Northern Valley. We get no state aid whatsoever. So there are very real challenges.

What are the statewide challenges boards face?

Many of the reforms proposed by the governor are long overdue and many of them will make for a healthier system once they are adopted and integrated.

On the other hand, if the focus becomes too singularly on economics, there may be a tendency to forget the primary concern is the educational welfare of the children and maintaining a public education system that aspires to excellence.

Our challenge is to become a loud and clear and cogent voice when we find that the reforms will curtail educational opportunity and may result in something less than what our children need.

The best long-term investment is in our children. When we talk about the appropriate use of limited resources, we can’t forget that education deserves a high priority because the next generation is what moves us all forward.

How will the governor’s toolbox of reforms change the dynamic of education in New Jersey?

As I said before, I think some of the reforms are going to be helpful. If the toolkit includes systemic reforms that will be either more economically efficient or provide us with the resources with which to advance education, then those would certainly be helpful. There is the 1.5 percent contribution toward health care effective as of May 21, and that is beneficial.

There is talk of reimplementation of last best offer. I would hope that the dynamic of negotiation across the table with NJEA reps would continue, because the best way of having a district that that moves forward is to have management and labor reach an agreement that they both buy into. But there are times it is helpful as a management tool to have the ability to say that we’ve made a good faith effort and we need to be met halfway. I think that type of systemic reform will be very helpful.

On the other hand, there are things under the current system that I think are not adequately being addressed right now. There are unfunded mandates which have plagued board members throughout my two decades of experience and probably well before.

Legislation is adopted, presumably with the intent of advancing the public education system, but then the implementation is left to the local school district. Special education is an example of this. If a child moves into your district and has an IEP that calls for a $150,000 a year out-of-district placement, it is your responsibility on a local basis to provide for it and to pay for that child’s education. The state mandates you do so but doesn’t provide a funding source and so the only available funding source is local property taxes.

Now with the cap, which is presently at 4 percent but is proposed to be 2 percent, that obligation is undeterred. You still have to provide for the education of that child, but you now have fewer dollars with which to do so.

When the reform neglects certain issues or when the reform singularly focuses on economics and not educational outcomes, it is our responsibility and our challenge to be the alarm that says to the community at large – this isn’t a good idea.

How has school board service changed since 20 years ago when you started?

I would say it is certainly more challenging on a personal level. It demands a larger commitment from a school board member than it ever has in terms of time and effort. I also think there is a recognition that it is no longer enough to be a good local school board member. We are all the product of the legislation that is adopted on a statewide basis, and unless we get involved on a statewide basis, all we are left with is being the implementer at a local level of the programs and initiatives that were adopted by others.

I am a believer that local school districts should be the ones to take the pulse of the community to develop programs that are consistent with the goals, desires, and financial capabilities of the community. At the same time, it is important that local board members work with the elected officials to shape legislation. We are in the throes of a great debate about the landscape of public education and we need to be participants in it. That is the Association’s challenge.

What will be your priorities as NJSBA president?

One of my initiatives is to increase the bottom-up dialogue at NJSBA. We want to communicate with local board members and find out what issues and problems they face, as well as the success stories they would like to share with other board members.

The Association is going to need to increase its advocacy role in the policy debate that is taking place, and in order to define our position and focus our advocacy, it’s imperative that we know we’re speaking with the voice of those we represent. Just as I’d expect the local school board member to be the best representative of his or her community and to know what the community needs and wants, we need that imparted to us so that we as an association know that we are the best representatives of the school board members that we represent.

What do you think are the greatest strengths of NJSBA?

NJSBA’s greatest strengths spring from the fact that our association emanates from the local school board members across the state. We represent rural, urban and suburban districts and districts of different socioeconomic levels. When we come together and discuss educational issues and synthesize those issues and promote and advocate those issues, the fact that we have the ability to represent the state in its totality is an enormous strength. That’s part of my notion of the importance of “bottom-up communications.”

Our other great strength springs from the fact that we’re not bound by any political agenda or union agenda. We’re here solely to advocate for what’s best for public education and for the children.

What NJSBA services has your board made use of?

Over the years, over 20, years you wind up using almost everything. The training and educational support that NJSBA lends is an absolute priority. We’ve used NJSBA for our policy manual and for superintendent search. We’ve made calls to staff members for wisdom on labor issues and legal issues. It’s good to know there’s an ‘Associational’ avenue out there to promote the interests of school boards. Our districts, both the elementary school district and the high school, have been supportive about participating in Workshop programs. Frankly the camaraderie of sitting down with fellow school board members from across the state and sharing ideas and issues and problems and thoughts has been great.

There are proposals to expand the number of charter schools and also to enact educational opportunity scholarships. How will these affect districts?

I would hope the administration would be very cautious before a full scale implementation of an expanded charter school model. There is a role for charter schools for students in districts that are not performing to the level at which they should. That would provide those students with educational alternatives that will allow them to be the best they can be.

On the other hand, state and local school board members have an ongoing responsibility to make sure all of the students in the state are provided for. Our role should also be to analyze and assess why the school system is failing and to remediate that system. We have a duty to educate and appropriately represent every student in every school in our state.

In terms of the recent legislation that would allow corporations to dedicate a certain portion of their taxes to private schools, my initial reaction is that is not a good idea. In essence it is a deflection of revenue that would otherwise be available more generally in support of public education. While you may call it a designation, the way you designate to whom a contribution should go, I don’t view tax dollars to be merely contributions. I daresay the IRS and any taxing authority wouldn’t consider tax dollars to be contributions either. If you’re diverting money that would otherwise be available to the general revenue coffers of the state of New Jersey, and therefore be available in support of public education, I think that’s counterproductive in an era when money has already been taken away from our public schools.

Regionalization is perennially seen as a solution to high education costs in New Jersey. What are your views on regionalization and consolidation?

As for regionalization, the issue must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  If the result is a more effective and efficient system, both educationally and economically, we should be supportive of such an outcome. However, forced regionalization not only erodes the notion of home rule (which is premised upon a belief that local decision-makers are best situated to understand the needs and financial constraints of their communities), but, in many instances may not yield a financial or educational benefit to the community.  While economies of scale should be pursued, in all instances, larger is not necessarily better or more efficient.

What part of being a board member is the most personally rewarding to you?

It is the faces of children at graduation, whether it is an eighth grade or a high school graduation. Seeing the look of satisfaction and attainment on the part of the graduates is as much reward as one would hope to get and frankly exceeds anything we may be entitled to! If, when you look at the graduating students or their parents, you feel that you have helped prepare them well for the next challenge, you can take great satisfaction in that. sl

Janet Bamford is managing editor of School Leader. She can be reached at jbamford@njsba.org.

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A Different Workshop for Different Times

NJSBA has retooled Workshop to meet members’ needs this year

By Erik Endress

Nobody needs to be reminded of the financial distress that the whole state is experiencing this year – least of all board members.

That’s why NJSBA has made changes in its annual Workshop training event.

Workshop 2010 has been moved from Atlantic City to Somerset this year, and will be held on October 19 and 20.

The move was made to better accommodate the tighter budget of school districts. The Somerset location is closer to a majority of New Jersey’s school board members, permitting them to attend without incurring any lodging costs. Board members who live outside a fifty-mile radius of Somerset can choose to stay over at any of the moderately priced hotel rooms within one or two blocks of the event. View a list of hotels.

The Palace at Somerset Park is the home of Workshop 2010. Inside, you will find beautiful meeting rooms and amenities, including comfortable seating and state-of-the-art technology. There will also be something that many people asked us to improve on – continuous break and refreshment service, which will provide coffee, tea and other refreshments all day long.

Our Exposition Hall at the Garden State Exhibit Center will be home to hundreds of exhibitors who provide various goods and services to New Jersey school districts. You can see a map of the Exposition Hall and all participating vendors now at School Leader Connect (www.slconnect.org) at the Workshop 2010 tab. Select the tab for the Exposition Hall.

What hasn’t changed about Workshop is the care and thought that has gone into planning the event. This year’s theme, “Tools, Techniques and Tactics,” says it all. We’re confident members will find the training opportunities to be as relevant and helpful as ever, and the opportunities to network with other board members to be more valuable than ever.

Top Notch Training There will be a full complement of the mandatory training sessions that board members need to complete to fulfill the requirements of the School Ethics and School District Accountability Acts.

A full day session of New Board Governance I: Member Orientation will be held on Monday, Oct. 18, the day before Workshop begins. A joint Governance II and III session will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 19, while Governance IV will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 20. All will be at the Holiday Inn in Somerset.

Throughout both days of Workshop, board members can participate in Action Labs and Group Sessions. Along with some of the most popular offerings from years past, such as Superintendent Search, School Law Forum, and The Role of the Board President, there are sessions planned on such timely topics as 21st century skills, school safety and liability, student nutrition and wellness, implementing technology on a limited budget, and facilities management basics for board members.

For school board members who can’t get away from work during the day, Workshop will offer a limited number of evening programs, covering topics such as school law, finance and charter school governance.

We’ve made it easier for you to see what sessions you might be interested in and to actually create and print your daily schedule. You can see the current online schedule of everything happening at Workshop 2010 at School Leader Connect. View the schedule by day, topic, audience or type of session.

Networking Opportunities Lunch will be served each day at the Exposition Hall. On Tuesday, you can participate in the TD Bank Tailgate Party & BBQ where we’ll be serving BBQ bratwursts, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and much more. On Wednesday, it’s Back to School for lunch where you’ll find things that might be served in your school cafeteria, but kicked up a notch. Can you say “lobster macaroni and cheese?”

On Tuesday evening from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m, we hope you and all of your colleagues will join us at The Palace at Somerset Park for the NJSBA Member Appreciation Event. This four hour event features appetizers, a dinner buffet, dessert, music and dancing.

Workshop Fees Cut To keep Workshop attendance within reach of local school districts, NJSBA has cut the Workshop group registration fee in half, to $550.

That fee will cover attendance by up to 11 board members, administrators and other staff from the same district. And by applying part of NJSBA’s $2,000 per-district service credit toward Workshop registration, districts can participate in the 2010 event for free!

School officials should ask their business administrator to register their district using the registration form that is available online.

Workshop 2010 is about helping you and your colleagues learn the tools, techniques and tactics required to do your job. We’ve selected a great venue that is easy to get to. We’ve built a program full of outstanding topics and informative sessions. And we’ve created a fabulous new evening event for every attendee to enjoy.

The only thing missing is you. We hope to see you there.


Cisco Systems

Comegno Law Group

DiCara Rubino Architects

DMR Architects

Garland Company

Garrison Architects

LDP Consulting Group

Maschio’s Food Services, Inc.


NJ Army National Guard


New Jersey SmartStart Building

Parette Somjen Architects

PNC Bank

Pomptonian Food Service

Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, P.C.

Promedia Technology Services


Schenck, Rice, Smith & King , LLP

SMART Technoligies


Spiezle Artectural Group

SSP Architects

TD Bank

TransNet Corporation

Tremco, Inc.


NJSBA will host a live Learn@Lunch webcast about Workshop 2010 on Wednesday, Aug. 11 from 12 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. We’ll be talking about some of the exciting new programs planned, including the new Member Appreciation Event. We will also help you understand the logistics of the new location. To register, visit www.njsba.org and click on the Workshop Preview link under “What’s New.”

Erik Endress is the director of NJSBA’s Association & Business Development Department. He can be reached at eendress@njsba.org.

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Students Paint a Better Tomorrow

12 outstanding programs were honored with 2010 Innovations in Special Education awards

By Ann Marie Smith

Education always involves collaboration – between children, teachers, administrators, parents and school boards. But the education of New Jersey’s 244,000 special-needs children requires an extraordinary partnership. Helping these students reach their full potential and prepare for productive lives is a task that educators all over the state tackle each day.

For the past nine years, the New Jersey School Boards Association and ASAH, a non-profit organization of private schools and agencies serving students with disabilities, have co-sponsored the Innovations in Special Education awards. The awards honor exceptional programs for special education students.

This year there were 53 submissions to Innovations in Special Education; 12 were selected to receive special recognition at a ceremony during Special Education Week in New Jersey in May.

The judges included representatives of NJSBA, ASAH, and the New Jersey Department of Education. In choosing the winning programs, the judges assessed programs’ degree of innovation, effectiveness, parental or community involvement, and evaluation strategies.

“The selected programs demonstrate how working together, education professionals, parents and community organizations and businesses can empower children with special needs to take on the challenges of adulthood and lead fulfilling and productive lives,” said Harry J. Delgado, immediate past president of NJSBA. “They embody this year’s theme, “Painting a Better Tomorrow.”

Springboard Program
Bergen County Special Services School District, Bergen County

The Springboard Program helps students ages 18-21 make a successful transition into the world of adulthood by teaching daily living skills in real-life settings – through homes in Paramus and Garfield. Students, under the supervision of faculty and staff, are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of both houses, and are able to apply daily life skills. In the kitchens of both houses, the students take cooking lessons that include everything from stocking pantries, developing menus and grocery shopping to kitchen safety, cleaning, cooking and appropriately storing food. Banking, money, and governmental skills are also reviewed and practiced during Springboard instruction. To address the occupational needs of students, they are taught effective job-hunting skills and participate in internships in the community. Each student is assigned a job coach who works with the students and their families to provide personal occupational opportunities. Job coaches assist students in obtaining and retaining internships or paid positions in an area of interest to the student that also enhances that students strengths.

Contact: Robert Mortorano, principal, Bergen County Special Services; (201) 343-6000 ext. 8539.

Bonnie Brae Builders
Bonnie Brae School, Somerset County

Troubled adolescent boys, ages 16 to 19, are given the opportunity to discover, develop, and maximize the skills necessary to become responsible young men. Established in 2008, the purpose of the program is to develop social, emotional and practical life skills to successfully transition from high school to employment, job training or post-secondary education. Students work two days a week along side a volunteer mentor with Habitat for Humanity. The program provides the opportunity for students to experience positive interactions with the community and develop a better understanding of themselves.

Contact: Sharon Singleton, special education teacher; (908) 647-0800 ext. 703.

iPod Testing Program
Boonton Township Public Schools, Morris County

The district purchased iPods for use in testing special-needs middle school students. Classroom teachers provide copies of upcoming tests, which are read and uploaded into the iPods. Students are able to review and hear the test, which is read to them via ear buds as they take tests with regular-instruction students. The program avoids the need for students to leave general education classrooms to have special education teachers read the tests to them, and it allows special education students to stay with their peers.

Contact: Cordé M. Reed, director of special services, Boonton Township schools; (973) 334-4162 ext. 370.

Learning is Unleashed
ECLC of NJ – Ho-Ho-Kus, Bergen County

The program brings dogs into the school to help students with autism and other disabilities build confidence, improve social and communication skills, and reduce behavior problems. These canine educators are fully integrated into daily school life and are an essential part of the students’ physical, occupational, and speech therapy services.

Each classroom has a weekly 45 minute dog therapy session. ECLC has also added a full-time facility service dog, Patrina, (provided by Canine Companions for Independence), which is part of many students’ prescribed physical or occupational therapy plans. The service dog engages students in the classroom and during therapy sessions, and children thrive in the presence of the dog’s unconditional love and attention.

Contact: Vicki Lindorff, principal, ECLC of NJ, (201) 670-7880.

Peer Groups
Green Brook Township, Somerset County

In this K-8 program, regular education students in both elementary and middle school volunteer their lunch time to eat and play with fellow students who are autistic. They help the students feel socially safe, learn age-appropriate social skills and develop friendships. A favorite activity for autistic students and their regular education peers is playing Wii video games. It has been extremely popular and successful in assisting the formation of friendships. In the process of playing a variety of games on the Wii system, the students are motivated to interact with one another in order to make the bowling, tennis and other games function. In their interaction, the students are practicing conversational skills, cooperative play skills and conflict management skills. The students with autism learn to apply these skills outside the group with their regular education peers, which promotes positive friendships and social opportunities that they would not have otherwise experienced. Peer Groups foster an improved level of acceptance of students with autism by the regular education population.

Contact: Stephanie Bilenker, CSA/director of special services, Green Brook Township, (732) 968-1171.

The Renaissance of Uniting Students Together (TRUST)
Kinnelon School District, Morris County

The Kinnelon School District TRUST program was formed in 2008 for high school students to provide social and recreational experiences for special education students in the district’s primary, elementary and middle schools (ages 6 through 13) who do not ordinarily have access to these types of activities. Activities have included an egg decorating and hunt event, a pajama and popcorn movie night held at the town library, a Halloween haunted house, and a faux New Years Eve party complete with a DJ, karaoke and refreshments. Student mentors are also engaged with younger students in activities such as tutoring and lunch and recess dates. The creation and rapid growth of this group of high schoolers engaged in helping special education students has yielded many benefits for all concerned.

Contact: Dr. Richard Maizell, director of special services, Kinnelon School District; (973) 838-1418 ext. 111.

Support Our Troops
Mainland Regional High School, Atlantic County

The goal of this project is to increase civic responsibility by hands-on experiences designed to heighten the awareness of special education students to the needs of others, particularly, military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special education students at Mainland Regional, ages 15 to 18, operate an ongoing drive to send personal items such as deodorant, tissues and toothpaste to American military personnel deployed overseas. In each box, the students include poems, letters and cards they write. The soldiers respond by e-mail with great appreciation and connections are made. Students use a variety of skills in marketing the cause, budgeting for postage, conducting an inventory of items, corresponding with recipients, and maintaining collaborative partnerships with community sponsors.

Contact: Jo-Anne Goldberg, supervisor, Mainland Regional High School; (609) 927-0825.

Shop Talk
Passaic County Technical Institute

In the vocational high school, deaf children are mainstreamed into various “shops,” such as auto servicing, medical arts, clerical skills and culinary arts. The goal is to give these students, who are generally severely language delayed, the vocabulary and language they need to succeed in their chosen fields. “Shop Talk” identifies the vocabulary and language needed for the particular shop and reinforces it in a variety of contexts so that the student learns both the sign and the English word and can understand it receptively and use it expressively in appropriate situations. Shop talk is designed to address the specific needs of each individual student in his or her chosen shop so that when that student enters the workforce, he or she is prepared for the vocabulary and concepts they are most likely to encounter.

Contact: Naomi Miller, speech/language therapist, Passaic County Technical Institute; (973) 389-2052.

Game Day
River Vale-Woodside School, Bergen County

The program provides children with learning disabilities in grades two through five the opportunity to develop stronger social skills by playing games with non-disabled students in a supportive environment. Taking turns, sharing, patience, being a gracious winner or accepting defeat are a few of the skills being addressed. The program also provides children with the chance to develop friendships with regular education peers.

The program does not require a large budget; students play games that can be bought at garage sales, or donated through PTA grants or from parents whose children outgrew them.

Contact: Kerry Arbadji, resource teacher, River Vale-Woodside School; (201) 358-4000.

Health and Fitness Program
The Children’s Institute, Essex County

Initiated in the 2005-2006 school year, the program assists special needs children in developing healthy eating and fitness habits to address the growing problem of childhood obesity. This is especially important for special needs children, who can often face additional physical challenges. The program’s multi-pronged approach educates students, families and school staff about nutrition, fitness and self-esteem. Activities have included using pedometers to track daily steps; installing cardiovascular equipment; using Wii fitness programs and fitness trainers and nutritionists; and running health fairs; family outings such as weekend hikes; yoga classes and hip-hop dance classes. Surveys of the students indicate they are engaging in healthier eating and are exercising more.

Contact: Gina Catania, vice principal, The Children’s Institute; (973) 509-3050 ext. 244.

The Road to Work and Community Based Living – Super Senior Program
The Midland School, Somerset County

Super Seniors is a two-year program for students 18 to 20 years old who have completed the four years of core curriculum and testing requirements needed to receive their high school diplomas. The goal of the program is to provide intense career preparation, and it includes instruction both at the school and at worksites. The students receive two days a week of instruction in academics, language and social skills within the work areas of an office, commercial kitchen, apartment, garden/greenhouse, restaurant and supermarket. They practice clerical, food preparation, housekeeping, landscaping, stock clerking and food service skills. Students also receive on-site job training at sites such as supermarkets, corporate cafeterias, hotels, garden centers, horse stables, animal shelters and health clubs two days a week. Job coaches accompany the students to help them adjust to the environment and learn job skills. Students also receive training in resume writing and job interviewing, and they receive occupational, speech and language therapies focusing on problem solving for adult living.

Contact: Barbara S. Barkan, principal, The Midland School, (908) 722-8222 ext. 101.

Is There a Picasso Among Us?
The Schroth School – LADACIN Network, Monmouth County

Learning the skills necessary for self expression is central to a students’ development, particularly for those who cannot communicate through traditional means. In this program, students study an artistic genre and then collaborate to create works of art in that genre. In the 2008-2009 school year, students studied Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist art. The Abstract Expressionist genre allows for a greater freedom of movement through the creative process and is better suited to the physical abilities of the students than the more traditional genres. To create their artworks, the artists were not limited to traditional paint and palette, but also had access to digital media. Students shared their skills and creations at a special art exhibit displayed at a simulated “museum” designed to resemble a real art gallery. Community support for the project was significant, with a gallery in Freehold displaying the show. The 2010 show will be on tour to three locations in Monmouth County.

Contact: Lisa Graul, principal, Schroth School; (732) 493-5900 ext. 253.

Ann Marie Smith works in NJSBA’s communications department. She can be reached at amsmith@njsba.org.

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Student Activity Fees: Proceed with caution

By David Bosted, Esq.

In the aftermath of the state budget crisis, many school districts are looking to offset the cost of extracurricular activities by imposing student activity fees.

In March, NJSBA conducted a survey to gauge the impact of the governor’s proposed $820 million in cuts to state school aid for the 2010-2011 school year. Three hundred twenty-three (323) of the state’s 588 school districts responded to NJSBA’s survey.

The survey found that, in the interest of preserving extracurricular offerings, 31.5 percent of the responding districts say they plan to charge parents activity fees for students’ participation in clubs and sports.

Prior to this year, according to an informal poll by NJSBA, approximately 20 New Jersey districts charged such fees, and since March districts such as Cherry Hill, Lenape, Eastern Regional, Upper Freehold, Washington Township (Gloucester) and Collingswood have added them. In 2006, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association reported that 35 percent of schools across the country were charging fees to participate in sports programs

But this is an area in which school boards must tread lightly. Before enacting activity fees, boards should consider carefully all the implications of such a practice. If a district does decide to take this route, it must address specific issues in its policy.

The Value of Extracurricular Activities Extracurricular and sports activities are exceptionally important to the student-athletes, student performers and club members, school spirit, and to the community.

There is a link between student engagement in schools (including in extra curricular activities) and academic achievement. Not surprisingly, the more engaged a student is, the better he or she performs in school.

Too, the hours between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. are often described as the “trouble time” for teens. High school extracurricular activities and sports provide a healthy alternative to trouble-making for students.

Before initiating activity fees, districts should consider whether the cost of school sports and activities can be reduced.

For instance, the cost of interscholastic sports for districts is approximately 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of total district expenditures.  With efficiencies, perhaps that could be reduced. 

Some districts are lowering costs by reducing travel. New uniform purchases have been delayed and teams are doubling up, even tripling up on buses. Districts have reduced the amount of rented time at swimming pools and at ice hockey rinks.

Salaries are the most costly sports item in the annual budget. Coaches get stipends of several thousand dollars. Many schools have athletic directors; some have full-time athletic trainers. The coaches work long hours and many are considered heroes and role models by their teams. Even so, their salaries are the largest single expense for most teams. When you look for economies, look at the largest expenditures first. Perhaps a district could solicit volunteer coaches. (A volunteer coach would need to have, at a minimum, the qualifications of a substitute teacher.)

Evaluating Your Current Program Board members should ask for – and receive – detailed information on the costs of various sports, clubs and performing arts. Often board members are pressured to make quick policy decisions based on vague assertions or outdated impressions about costs. When financial numbers are disaggregated, it may turn out that specific sports or activities are exceptional bargains or are unusually pricey. That is hard to discern when every activity is lumped together.

Cost is not the only aspect of sports that districts should be evaluating. Districts should also be evaluating the performance of their coaches and student activity advisors. Surveys of parents and participants can help identify strengths and weaknesses of the current advisors. In sports, districts create an unnecessary liability for themselves if they ignore coaching problems season after season. If a bad coaching situation morphs into a monster legal problem, that cost can dwarf all others.

The Problem of Fairness The first question a district should ask itself is: can our families afford activity fees? All policies note that no child will be denied the right to participate due to an inability to pay.

But other fairness questions arise, too.

One key problem: if the student has paid to play a sport, how can they reasonably be denied playing time? A policy should stipulate that playing time is not guaranteed. Of course, that doesn’t control what might be shouted on the sidelines, or afterwards at school board meetings, so board members should steel themselves for possible criticism.

The fairness question also comes up when student-athletes are cut from a team or injured. Districts handle that question in various ways. For example, Hopewell Valley Regional school district requests all activity fees be paid prior to the first meeting or practice of an extracurricular activity. If a student is “cut” he or she is entitled to a full refund. Students who voluntarily drop out of an activity forfeit their fee. Refunds are made because of injury, illness or moving out of district on a pro-rated basis. A student can receive a full refund if less than one half of the activity season is completed, but receives no refund if the team is more than halfway through its season.

Boards can also expect community members to question whether students who have raised money for a team or activity through fundraisers such as booster club events or team car washes can credit some fundraising to their fees.

How to Structure Fees? For administrative simplicity, most recent policies seem to have just one or two levels of fees – perhaps one for middle school students and another for high school students.

In addition, as mentioned, all fee policies have a fee waiver or scholarship program for those who cannot participate based on their economic situation. Usually the waiver is tied to receiving a “free or reduced” price lunch, however, some policies have additional criteria for a fee waiver. Possibly a district could have a partial fee waiver, equivalent to “reduced price lunch,” rather than only “free” or “full price.” Many policies stipulate that a parent should contact the building principal or another administrator to have a confidential discussion about the family’s financial situation.

If there is a high percentage of “free and reduced” students in a district, then the amount raised by activity fees may not go very far in raising revenue to offset the costs of extracurricular activities. Districts must question whether activity fees are worth the time and effort it takes to collect them.

Having an a la carte menu approach intuitively makes sense, with each activity having a separate fee that is proportional to the actual cost per participant of that sport. We have seen variations in policies in order to deal with situations such as students playing several sports, families with multiple children, and the question of whether expensive sports should cost the same as the inexpensive French club. Boards should be forewarned, though. In such a model, the paperwork can become an administrative nightmare. NJSBA has retained several examples of these complex fee structures in case a district wants to investigate some alternatives.

How Much? There is no widespread agreement on the right amount for these fees. About twenty New Jersey districts had activity fees in 2009-2010. The fees averaged approximately $100, but the fees ranged from $50 in East Brunswick to $300 in Glen Ridge, with discounts for more than one child. Many policies have a maximum “per family” fee.

If a board decides to impose a student fee, the ideal is to have a fee that is high enough to defray a significant part of the cost of the activity, but not so high that it discourages participation. An annual fee of $50-$125 seems to meet that criteria. One assessment, collected in the fall, allows participation in additional sports in the winter and spring. It is possible that a single fee may actually encourage more participation in the winter and spring activities and sports, since the fee has already been paid.

Do Fees Affect Student Participation Levels? Some people feel that with fees, participation drops off, but NJSBA has not seen any studies or statistics on participation levels. If your board is close to adopting activity fees, now is the time to assemble the “before” data, to compare with the “after” information on participation.

If fees are introduced, the business office should be the central point for collecting fees. Parents will have questions, therefore having one source giving consistent answers to all teams will be important. Don’t push this time-consuming and inherently unpleasant administrative task off onto the busy coaches.

Booster Clubs and Sports Many sports have booster clubs and fund-raisers.  Some districts say these are not really significant compared to the cost per participant of fielding the team. Any district considering a participant fee should seek accurate numbers on that. If there is a participant fee, logic suggests that district fundraisers will suffer because the participants will feel “I’ve already paid the fee.” Districts may want to consider using fundraising to offset a participation fee for a sport. Also, fundraising among alumni and local residents has been effective to purchase new equipment for a team or a sport they formerly played.

How does a district avoid the perception that the fees are an unnecessary pain?  In some situations the student receives something in return for an activity fee. For example, part of a $25 fee to participate in the school musical could go towards a souvenir t-shirt advertising the play. The t-shirts can also create publicity and “buzz” that increases gate revenues.

Policies Should be Clear, Legal and Workable  NJSBA often tells districts that policies should be “clear, legal and workable.” This maxim applies to policy on student activity fees, and “workable” is probably the most difficult element.

The key is, are the funds raised by student fees really a significant offset to the overall cost of running the programs, or merely a nuisance that detracts from the overall experience?  School board members should be alert to how their actions on activity fees affect student participation and community attitudes. Participation in school sports have been an important part of character education and physical fitness for more than a century.

In deciding whether to enact activity fees, it’s smart for boards to arm themselves with accurate financial information and consider all possible advantages and disadvantages of such fees.

Sample policies on activity fees are available from NJSBA’s Legal and Policy Services Department. Call 609-278-5267, or contact David Bosted at the e-mail address below.

David Bosted, Esq. is a policy consultant with NJSBA’s Legal and Policy Services Department. He can be reached at dbosted@njsba.org.

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