As I complete my second and final term as a member of the Ramsey (Bergen) Board of Education and end 38 years of public service – naval officer, career prosecutor, mayor and school trustee – it is time for reflection. Here, then, is my perspective on what it means to be a school board member. Spoiler alert: My views do not always coincide with those of the New Jersey School Boards Association or the dictates of the New Jersey School Ethics Commission.
At just about every event I’ve attended as a school board member, the constant refrain is this: “It’s all about the kids.” Well, it is not solely about the kids, in my opinion; it is also about property taxpayers, the folks who foot 95 percent of the public education bill in most suburban school districts. Taxpayers don’t just get short shrift from the public education community, they get no shrift. They are the Rodney Dangerfields in the equation.
We must strike a balance between what we would ideally like to provide students and staff in our districts and what local residents can afford. It’s not easy to determine the point of equilibrium, but shame on us if we don’t make the attempt.
In its “Code of Ethics for School Board Members,” the NJSEC fails to pay even lip service to the role played by taxpayers in support of their school districts. Take another look at that document we’re required to recite at every reorganization meeting. For all the attention the Code of Ethics pays to property taxpayers, you would think that funding for public education flows like manna from the heavens or, more preposterous, is bestowed on us by a benevolent state government. There’s no mention in the code of any relationship whatsoever between the quality of a school district’s product – the education of our children – and the hardworking, overtaxed residents who make it possible. To me, that is an outrage.
This inexcusable arrogance was brought home to me at the start of my school board service, in the days before the two-percent cap. A six-term board member stated publicly that we should raise school taxes as much as possible, because nothing was more important than the kids. Fortunately, a majority of our board did not share that mindset, and that particular board member was not
The Ramsey school budget has been defeated three times in the last 15 years, and with each defeat, the mayor and council gave us a haircut, as expected. But sometimes a school budget deserves to be defeated, as ours did in April 2009, when 34 percent of eligible voters turned out to express their extreme displeasure with a four-year teachers’ contract that raised salaries by 18 percent at the height of this Great Recession, without getting a single cost-saving concession in return. I say it is to our detriment when we do not allow the public to have this direct voice in a district’s affairs.
The 2010 school vote reinforced my bias in favor of giving the public a vote on the budget. That was the year Gov. Christie stripped Ramsey of all its state aid – $2.2 million – with no fair notice. We eliminated 15 full-time staff positions and cut academic and extracurricular programs…and still we had to propose an almost seven percent increase in school taxes, just to tread water. Ramsey voters came through for us, despite the fact that the governor irresponsibly urged voters in the state to reject budgets in all districts where teachers refused a wage freeze.
For the past three years, I’ve been our board’s delegate to the NJSBA, and that experience deepened the respect I already had for “School Boards” and the dedicated people who staff that fine organization. But I disagree strongly with one of its precepts. As board members, we are urged to speak with one voice, to present a united front to the public we serve.
Contrary to the “united front” theory of board governance, I believe citizens like to see a lively debate about public policy, especially when the ultimate decision affects two-thirds of their property tax bills. The notion of seven or nine school board members marching in lockstep on every matter should cause consternation among the citizenry, not contentment. They might wonder what was decided behind closed doors. Are there no downsides to this proposed policy? Has the matter been fully vetted?
I know that no single board member can speak for the entire board unless authorized to do so and that it is usually the board president’s role to be the spokesperson. Still, that should not stop individuals from presenting their own views at board meetings, even when those views conflict with the majority’s position. I’ve taken that approach a step further. Throughout my tenure, I’ve written an e-newsletter on school issues that I send out regularly to about 500 families in our district, a practice that does not endear me to some colleagues. I never violate confidentiality, but I freely discuss my take on school issues in the public domain, being careful to include this disclaimer each time: “The views expressed in this email are mine. I do not speak for the Ramsey Board of Education.”
My departure from collegial unity manifested itself most recently in the latest teacher contract. By an 8-1 vote, the board granted teachers aggregate increases of 2.9 percent, 2.9 percent and 2.9 percent over three years. It was the second highest award in Bergen County that year. I understood my colleagues’ reasons for accepting the settlement. After extremely contentious negotiations in two previous contract cycles, they wanted labor peace for a while, especially with a new superintendent about to arrive. I respected their view, but I also had to maintain my own self-respect. I could not vote “yes” for a contract that violated my own basic principle – that the interests of property taxpayers must be an equal partner in the process.
Going forward, I make this wish for your success: that each of your school boards has one or two mavericks on it, members who do not hesitate to interrupt a Kumbaya moment with a probing question, members who are willing to be the lone dissenter, when a principle is at stake.