I was recently at a party and was talking about how I went to the New Jersey School Boards Convention in Atlantic City the prior week. Innocently enough, one friend asked me, "What did you do down there?"
The question was simple enough but there is so much involved with the question that I didn't know how to start. I put my dessert down and said, "It's a lot of training". (I left out the shopping part.)
Then I got back, "What kind of training?"
Holding my breath now, I answered, "There's lots of information that you need to know as a board member, legal stuff, HIB laws, changes in teacher tenure, Sunshine laws. There are a lot of sessions. "
I do suppose many people do not know what a Board member does. They can see when attending a board meeting what goes on at the meeting itself but I don't think most people know of of the training and education that goes into being a Board member.
I find the sessions at the yearly convention, which is officially titled, "Worskhop", for the most part, pretty interesting. There is definitely a learning curve for being on a Board, which can take months or even a year, so once you get the basics down of what you can and can't do and how you can and can't conduct yourself, then it's all about keeping up with current events, legislation and new federal and state mandates. Just like other jobs.
I always find the sessions with the legislators the most interesting. They are elected officials just like the majority of the board members and they don't have answers either. Board members ask questions of them knowing full well they don't have the answers, because there are no easy answers, but it's a great way to let off steam and feel validated in your beliefs because most likely the people sitting next to you feel the same exact way.
What is good about it though is the exchange of ideas and concerns. Board members do not get paid, most elected officials do, but in some part of the personality of anyone in pubilc service is an inherent desire to help and learn, and this is what comes out at the convention. There are many things good with NJ education, many things that need improvement, but when you see all the interested and dedicated people trying to figure out what's best for the children, that's when you know we are still headed on the right track.
The main topics of discussion at the sessions I attended this year were the new HIB laws, which stands for Harrassment, Intimidation and Bullying, and tenure reform. Both of them are paperwork and personnel intense and involve implementing a new system of doing things. HIB was the biggest topic. There were concerns that this was yet another unfunded mandate by the state government. Aside from some money set aside for districts in dire need, most districts will not see any money come their way to help cover or defray the costs of administering this program.
However, that is not stopping the districts from doing what they need to do, as anytime a mandate is handed down it is executed. Existing personnel are taking on new duties and titles. Every month at my Board meeting we get an HIB report: how many cases were investigated and which turned out to be legally deemed "HIB" instances. I will not get into here what the exact parameters of bullying are within this new law, only to say that is is quite specific and I believe, is helping to weed out and finding true bullying incidents. (Your district's policy should be on your local Board of Education website.) It is a shame that a law has to be put into effect, in essence, to teach kids "to be kind" to one another, but what is needed is needed. NJ's new law will be an example for the country. Tyler Clemente's parents should find some solace in the changes that have taken place.
I do know people whose children have been involved in investigations. For the most part when their child is the victim they are experiencing satisfaction. It may not be the old-fashioned immediate satisfaction of sitting in the principal's office, hashing it out and leaving knowing that the proper steps have been taken to prevent another incident or that the alleged perpetrators have been disciplined appropriately. Form letters are used and the investigation can take up to 10 days. Measures are taken that the parents don't always find out about. Parents have to have faith that the situation is being addressed according to the new laws.
These new HIB laws give strict rules on how to handle any suspected cases. From what I hear from parents, in addition to the buzz at Workshop this year, overall the new laws are working.
The public school system is not perfect. No school or school system is, and I believe we will see drastic changes in the way education is delivered in the next 10 years. Changes have already begun.
NJ Public Schools consistently produce some of the highest reading, writing, math and AP scores in the country. NJ also has one of the highest percentages of high school graduates in the nation attending college. Our local school boards are policy-making bodies. As every board member can reiterate, they would tell you that they are "not here to run the schools but to see that they are run efficiently." There is always rumbling of changing the system, like having more members appointed rather than elected, consolidating boards, or getting rid of them. The public school system may need some fixing but the current structure of having local schools boards oversee what is best for their district makes me believe that we are in capable hands.
Suzanne Ordas Curry is a life-long PR professional and film producer of late with a curiosity about her profession, people, entertainment and education.