MADISON, NJ – The borough’s Board of Education hosted a distinguished panel at its Tuesday, Oct. 2, public meeting.
Former Madison Superintendent of Schools Lawrence Feinsod, the executive director of the New Jersey School Board Association, was joined by former Governor Richard Codey as well as Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and Assemblyman John McKeon.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Rossi introduced the guests who were there to discuss the challenges of public education, initiatives and to respond to questions.
“We don’t care about party labels,” Codey said and raised the topic of charter schools. He noted that taxpayers have no say and that funding, paid for by the local district, and follows the child into charter schools. “They’re not going away,” he said of charter schools that have opened in Millburn, Livingston, West Orange and Princeton, among other communities.
Feinsod said he had spent 16 years as Superintendent in Madison and had said no to 27 other invitations. “But I made an exception for Madison,” he said. As of Oct. 15, he will be the Essex County Executive Superintendent. Among his major concerns, he said, are student achievement and teacher accountability. Changes in teacher tenure are also a focus at the state level. “Local control of the Board of Education has eroded within the last couple of years,” he said. “And that’s true around the state. The best education takes place when you are closest to the children.” He said there are 86 charter schools in New Jersey and “they will not diminish.”
McKeon congratulated Madison and the Board of Education, as well as the football team for its season. He said he has his legislative office on Main Street in Madison. “If children are interested in government, we welcome them to visit.” McKeon emphasized the economic realities and the “financial vicissitudes that siphon money away from public schools because of charter schools.” He added the 2 percent cap “throws everything out of kilter. Parents are pitted against special education parents.” McKeon also referred to bullying, which Rossi had reported on earlier in the evening. He said “15 percent of students don’t want to come to school to avoid bullying.”
Jasey thanked the Madison school board for serving.
“It’s personal and you don’t get paid,” she said. “We do it because of our kids.” In terms of charter schools, she said, “We need to review, revise and revisit the law,” adding charter schools were endorsed 17 years ago by the League of Women Voters and other organizations. “No one envisioned virtual schools or laboratories for districts that are failing. It’s become a parallel education.” She said, however, that virtual schools help resolve staff issues and there has been no difference in scores. “We need to return to a calmer, more cooperative approach and tone down the rhetoric.”
Board member David Arthur said New Jersey is known as a state with a strong special education reputation and people move here for that reason. He praised Rossi’s emphasis on professional development. He also asked the panel about the idea of fast tracking students to complete high school in two years. “Is there any traction?”
Feinsod responded, “That’s a head scratcher. Do we really need four years?” Codey said he is against the idea. “With just two years in high school, you’re not a well rounded student,” he said. At the other end of the spectrum, he said more money should be put into pre-kindergarten classes. “They do better in school and as citizens,” he said.
“The tone of conversation has to change, Jasey said. “We need to act like adults and put the kids first.” She said full funding should be phased in rather than relying on property taxes to pay for schools. “We need to figure out priorities with finite resources, invest in education and our kids.”
Board member Shade Grahling brought up the issue of state and federal mandates. “How do we address the huge number?” she asked.
Superintendent Rossi said he was inundated with 93 state and federal reports. Feinsod said he has created a task force to do away with “things that don’t make much sense and just create roadblocks.” Arthur suggested that “every time you pass a mandate you have to get rid of one.”
Feinsod also referred to the “cap within the cap," which limits superintendents’ salaries. “The local school board should have the right to determine the salary of its CEO,” he said.
Rossi tackled the issue of too much testing and the reliance on test scores. He suggested that state education officials “include practitioners in the field” before mandating tests. He also said that some areas are ambiguous, such as guidance counselors or physical education teachers that can’t be measured in the same way as core teachers. Rossi enumerated the number of tests from elementary through high school, “On top of everything else, it’s way too much. It’s the wrong approach, “he said. Feinsod responded he’s hearing more comments along that line across the country. “There’s a ground swell. We’re re-thinking the number of tests.”
Jasey added, “We know that tests don’t tell us a whole lot. It’s happening nationally and eroding our public schools. It’s killing learning and places enormous pressure on teachers sand children. We need to find what really works, what the children really need.”
Board President Lisa Ellis brought up volunteer involvement and asked “how to connect the dots better.” Jasey suggested the Garden State Coalition and Save Our Schools, a grass roots organization that has a large email network.
As the meeting ended, Jasey said, “If we can’t provide the best opportunities, our country is in trouble. It’s a global world.”