Maplewood Salon Schools / Kids South Orange

Opinion: South Orange-Maplewood BOE Has Had Enough Time, Opportunity to Address Racial Inequities

Editor’s note: James Davis ran for a seat on the Board of Education in 2016. This letter is in response to a presentation given on Monday by South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Asst. Superintendent for Administration Kevin Walston and Director of Planning and Assessment Dr. Kalisha Morgan, regarding a 2014 complaint by the Office of Civil Rights.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s.

Village Green will cover the presentation in an upcoming article.

“The Board of Education is very different from a PTA board, which works to support the Principal in enriching the school day. The BOE sets policy and goals for the school district, hires the Superintendent (when necessary) and holds the Superintendent accountable for implementing policy and meeting goals through proper management of the school district. Our role is defined as Policy Governance.” Madhu Pai, 9-4-2017

I wanted to begin this post with that quote because it is germane to the point I will be making shortly. Last night, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and the community saw and heard the first report on the progress on compliance with the Office of Civil Rights Agreement (OCR Agreement) that requires our district to correct inequities in the academic opportunities for African-American children in our district.

The general reactions among the BOE members last night were disbelief and some even got emotional. Some even seemed shocked at the data.

However, I want to step back for a minute and ask, why?

The OCR agreement was signed by the district in 2014 and the ACLU complaint included preliminary statistics that were the precursor to what was disclosed at the BOE meeting last night.

[See the agreement and Sage Consultants’ report here]

Among other requirements of the OCR Agreement, the district was supposed to file an annual report detailing the district’s progress in the two areas mentioned above. But here are a few reasons why the collective dismay among the BOE does not match up with the facts:

1. Former Acting Superintendent James Memoli and his successor, Dr. John Ramos were both on payroll during the critical data collection phase of the OCR Agreement. Both Superintendents failed to address material components of the OCR Agreement. To make matters worse, the BOE consistently failed to hold either accountable for their collective failure to abide by the OCR Agreement. In fact, the BOE attempted to rehire Memoli this year when Dr. Thomas Ficarra was hired by the district. In addition, Dr. Ramos received a stellar evaluation from the BOE and received almost 100% of his bonus 2 years in a row. We need to ask the BOE members, why?

2. This district has legal counsel that has shown itself to be ineffective. I’m not sure, nor am I privy to the conversations between legal counsel and our BOE, but did our lawyers not advise our BOE that filing the annual reports was a requirement of the OCR Agreement? If the legal counsel did inform our BOE, why did the BOE fail to act on the advice? Which BOE member(s) has primary contact with district legal counsel?

3. Two of the BOE members are attorneys (Elizabeth Baker and Donna Smith). Surely, one of the reasons they were elected was based on the legal acumen they could bring to the role. It appears, however, that none of that mattered. We need to ask Ms. Baker and Ms. Smith why the OCR Agreement was not a high priority based on their experience as attorneys and the seriousness of the issues that have to be addressed.

4. In a 2016 letter from Dr. Ramos (Ms. Baker was copied) to Sage Consulting (the consultant hired by the BOE to collect the same data that was presented last night), Dr. Ramos told Sage to stop its work because the district was awaiting word from the Office of Civil Rights in order to confirm that the district could enact the Access and Equity Policy. To date, it appears that the district never received permission to stop collecting data through Sage Consulting (Mr. Sabin referred to Sage in his remarks last night). But why did Ms. Baker, as the boss of the Supt., not request confirmation from Dr. Ramos that the district had permission to deviate from the OCR Agreement?

Based on the above, I question the shock and dismay I witnessed at the BOE meeting. For the last three years as the BOE has patted itself on the back for passing the Access and Equity Policy, our kids have continued to be denied a “thorough and efficient” education as required by the New Jersey Constitution.

Only the community can hold the BOE accountable and it seems that Ms. Baker and Ms. Smith (who are the only two BOE members up for election this cycle) need to address these questions publicly and show that they are capable of addressing these issues in a manner where our kids are not adversely impacted.

WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT FROM BOE MEMBERS?

BOE members are supposed to follow three main rules: Duty of Loyalty, Duty of Care and a Duty of Obedience.

A Duty of Loyalty means that a BOE member should not make decisions that will benefit that BOE member personally.

A Duty of Care means that the BOE must oversee the prudent use of all assets, including facility, people, and good will; and provide oversight for all activities that advance the district’s effectiveness and sustainability.

A Duty of Obedience means that the BOE member must act to ensure that the district obeys applicable laws and acts in accordance with ethical practices; that the district adheres to its stated corporate purposes, and that its activities advance its mission.

The three-year absence of express action to file an OCR report and the three-year material omission by the BOE to properly evaluate Dr. Ramos and to oversee the completion of the OCR Agreement could arguably be considered malfeasance on the part of any BOE member who is not on record voting to evaluate the Dr. Ramos accordingly or not bringing overt action to get the district to comply with the OCR Agreement.

While it is the job of the BOE to evaluate the Supt., it is the job of the community to evaluate the BOE and hold them accountable for the manner in which they adhere to the duty of loyalty, duty of care and duty of obedience.

The BOE had more than enough time and more than enough opportunity to address the OCR report. To now make proclamations that they are concerned is truly remarkable.

Let’s show our concern by asking the questions posed above at coffees, when you see a BOE member at an event or whenever you deem the opportunity to be appropriate. Our kids’ futures should not be the collateral damage for the BOE’s inattention and ineffectiveness.

James Davis
South Orange

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