Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who represents the people at the NJ BOE?

Guest post by Susan Cauldwell

How much power should one elected official have? It's common knowledge that the Office of New Jersey's Governor is highly coveted as it gives the officeholder vast power and abilities. Is that good or bad for the people of the state?

Here's how Article 5, Section 4 of the NJ Constitution describes the powers bestowed upon the Governor:
Each principal department shall be under the supervision of the Governor. The head of each principal department shall be a single executive unless otherwise provided by law. Such single executives shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to serve at the pleasure of the Governor during the Governor's term of office and until the appointment and qualification of their successors. The Governor may appoint the Lieutenant Governor to serve as the head of a principal department, without the advice and consent of the Senate, and to serve at the pleasure of the Governor during the Governor's term of office.

Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law. The Governor may appoint the Lieutenant Governor hereto without the advice and consent of the Senate. Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor. Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.
In plain English, the above two paragraphs say that the Governor appoints all State of NJ department heads, with the advice and consent of the NJ State Senate. If a NJ State department is headed by a board or commission, the Governor also gets to appoint those members, too, with the advice and consent of the State Senate. The State Department of Education is headed by a Commissioner and guided by a Board of Education.

Examining this structure in light of the recent action by the NJ State Board of Education to appoint Chris Cerf as Newark Schools' Superintendent, it is correct to conclude that the public never had a chance to impact the decision. For starters, Commissioner David Hespe (appointed by the Governor) effusively endorsed the appointment at last week's State Board of Education meeting. In addition, all six 'yes' votes by the State Board came from members who were appointed by the sitting Governor. Four of the six votes to appoint came from State Board members with ties to private schools, one came from a former police officer who now works for a State Senator, and another came inexplicably from a current public school teacher and former NJ School Boards Association officer. The vote was close, 6-4, to appoint Chris Cerf. Had just one 'yes' voter flipped, the appointment would not have occurred. While two board members took pains to explain their 'yes' votes and assure the audience that local control of Newark schools was foremost on their agenda, another member exclaimed that he "couldn't think of a better choice." One State Board member who voted to approve Chris Cerf attended just four of the last twelve State Board meetings and did not attend any State Board meetings from August 2014 through January 2015.

By contrast, the four 'no' votes all have public and/or higher education experience and were not appointed by the current Governor. Two of these members described the appointment of Chris Cerf in negative terms and not in keeping with the wishes of the local Newark community. Another member who voted 'no' implored the Commissioner to appoint an interim Newark superintendent and immediately begin a search for a new superintendent.

The State Board was well aware that Newark residents wanted their local advisory board of education to conduct a search and appoint a new superintendent. Newarkers have been protesting the State appointed superintendent for years. It's mystifying that the State Board would think Chris Cerf, the man responsible for bringing Cami Anderson to Newark, would suddenly be an acceptable replacement. Also, the State Board received thousands of e-mails, calls, and signatures on petitions from residents all around the state, urging them not to approve the appointment of Chris Cerf and to allow the residents of Newark to choose their own superintendent, just like every other local board of education in NJ (except Camden) is permitted to do.

What conclusions can be drawn about the six State BOE members, appointed by the sitting Governor, who voted for Chris Cerf? Did the Governor influence the vote? If so, how? Some board members strenuously objected to the suggestion that the Governor influenced their vote, despite several reports to the contrary. Like local board of education members, State BOE members serve without compensation. It's very unlikely any of them are benefiting financially from being on the State BOE. Perhaps it would be just too personally embarrassing to be removed from the State BOE.

If the Commissioner of Education and a majority of the current State BOE are beholden to the Governor, who represents "the people?" Are the people even supposed to be represented by the DOE or State BOE? The language in the State Constitution appears to indicate that the people are left out of decisions such as the appointment of a Newark school superintendent. Despite the enormous statewide interest in this matter, no one was permitted to address the State BOE. One person who dared to speak up during the meeting was quickly removed. This is wrong. The people deserve to be heard. The Committee that the Governor established to oversee the transition to local control in Newark is weighted in his favor, with five of nine members (none of whom live in Newark or have a background in education) appointed and undoubtedly beholden to him. The same is true for the Governor's Study Commission on Assessments. More than 300 public comments have been received without any comment, discussion, or altering of course. It is reasonable to expect that this form will hold with the recently announced Governor's Common Core Review Committee. When will public sentiment be incorporated into DOE policy and practice?

My personal feeling is that the State BOE should be allowed to consider public opinion without fear of retribution. Whether this can be achieved is debatable. One way to do this is to uncouple the State BOE from the Governor. Some states elect State BOE members; others allow appointments by the legislature in addition to the chief executive. Perhaps New Jersey should use a combination approach: some elected State BOE members, some members appointed by the Governor, and some members appointed by the legislature. Or perhaps an elected State BOE is the answer. The election would be non-partisan to minimize the influence of political parties. The idea is to insulate the State BOE from political retribution and make the State BOE as well as the DOE responsive to the public.

This could be the beginning of a cascade of reforms at the DOE. Other needed changes include the way State BOE meetings are conducted. The public should be heard at every meeting and public comment should be built into the meetings, like local boards of education do. Currently, the Commissioner and a majority of the State BOE are not present for public comment, which is limited to three or four opportunities over the course of a year. The atmosphere at DOE headquarters is not oriented toward the public. For example, at least half the seats in the meeting room are reserved for DOE staff. The public is forced to squeeze into the back of the room. Occupancy limits are also strictly enforced. Security staff is less than accommodating. Just last week, a parent was asked to produce ID in order for his 8th grade son to be admitted to the meeting room. No such requirement exists at the State House. The State BOE should also vary its meeting times and locations so that working members of the public are afforded an opportunity to attend and participate. If there is any doubt who is in charge at the State DOE, one look at the press releases says it all. Of the twenty-one press releases posted since January, twelve lead with the words "Christie Administration."

If the status quo holds, the right thing to do for taxpayers is to abolish the State BOE and redirect the resources to other areas. As currently comprised, the State BOE is clearly not necessary and serves no purpose other than to rubber stamp whatever the Commissioner desires. This is not democracy.

Susan Cauldwell is the Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, a 501(c)(3) set up to support the work of SOS NJ, which is a grassroots, all volunteer, non-partisan pro public education organization.