Communication has been a big topic of conversation lately within the South Orange – Maplewood School District.
Several of the most recently elected Board of Education members ran on platforms that emphasized improving communication in the district, and the current board has extensively discussed its keen desire to strengthen communication with parents and community members.
Communication was cited by community members as a key issue in the superintendent search, with some mentioning “deep concerns” about the lack of communication within and from the district. The consultant hired in the search said communication was the number one issue he heard about from parents in various forums.
New Superintendent Dr. John Ramos has mentioned strong communication as one of his main goals. The Presidents’ Council recently wrote a letter to the board lauding Ramos’ emphasis on ensuring that all stakeholders are heard.
However, at last week’s Board of Education meeting, Thelma Ramsey, the consultant hired in February as part of a settlement agreement SOMSD is in with the US Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights, told the board that she was “very concerned” by what she had seen so far.
In remarks made during the public comment portion, Ramsey said that “…in my findings so far…one of the biggest barriers to improving in all areas is effective communication and the dissemination of information.” She noted that it took over a month for the administration to approve a flyer for a public forum she and the district were co-hosting in April.
She said if the flyer had been approved and distributed sooner, more parents would have had the opportunity to attend the forum, titled “Developing a Roadmap to Equity, Access, and Excellence.” She also expressed disappointment that only three board members were in attendance.
“It gives the appearance the district is going through the motions and is not committed to making changes,” said Ramsey.
The district awarded a $78,500, three-year contract to SAGE Educational Consultants, headed by Ramsey, in February to help the district address the underrepresentation of African-American students in high level classes identified in the OCR complaint. Since then, Ramsey and her team have met with teachers, staff, students and parents, and are compiling and analyzing the data they collect. She will present her first official report to the board in May.
Board member Elizabeth Baker of the Policy and Monitoring Committee, which is working with SAGE, shared Ramsey’s concerns about the lack of adequate public notice for the forum but disputed some of her other characterizations, including the specifics behind the delay in the flyer.
“I want the community to feel there is going to be a dialogue with SAGE on how we can…communicate better,” said Baker, who attended the forum along with President Wayne Eastman and 2nd Vice President Johanna Wright. She said they gleaned a tremendous amount of important feedback from the event and were committed to continuing to solicit input.
Also at last Monday’s board meeting, former SOMS librarian Elissa Malespina questioned the board’s proposal to purchase a $19,000 communications software program. Malespina, who has consulted on communication with the board at its request (and for no remuneration) asked why the district would pay for a program when many solutions could be implemented for free.
The proposed program is a contact-management software system called, “Let’s Talk.” According to a district spokeswoman, the program:
- Provides a portal for stakeholders to use to submit a question, complaint, request, suggestion, or any other comment for the administration or the Board;
- Encourages input from a larger number of community members, including the often silent majority, to help the district plan and improve;
- Integrates conversations and input about district issues through a wide variety of sources – such as email, phone calls, meetings, social media, and one-to-one conversations – and helps staff address concerns at the early stages;
- Provides a systematic, effective way to respond to staff, parent and other stakeholder contacts, ensuring that every comment goes to the appropriate staff member(s) and tracking all responses to each comment, including timeliness;
- Tracks all contacts in a way that provides summary information to help district staff monitor trending topics, address rumors, and identify and respond to emerging issues earlier in the process.
The board deferred the decision on whether to purchase the program to its May meeting.