SO-Maplewood Board of Ed Looking to Improve District Communications

by The Village Green
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“We feel your pain,” said South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Johanna Wright to a group of parents assembled to discuss school district communications on Tuesday night at the Columbia High School library.

To begin the meeting, Wright, who is Chair of the Board’s Communications, Engagement & Outreach Committee, and Beth Daugherty, a committee member, said they were looking for any and all feedback on how the South Orange-Maplewood School District communicates on every level.

Audience members were not shy.

Comments ranged from complaints about the district website being unnavigable and out-of-date, to the district not pushing out enough information on policy changes.

One parent of a 5th grader asked, “When will we hear about math placement?” She noted that, in lieu of real information, parents were hearing rumors about the program. In addition, she said it was difficult to make plans for summer camp or childcare when she didn’t know yet if her child would need to take a summer “step-up” program. Parents and students likewise complained about the opacity of the process involving AP placement and the advanced English Language Arts class.

Another parent complained that she would like to hear about potential policy changes — such as the discontinuation of the IB Middle Years Programme — from the district directly, rather than from media outlets like The Village Green.

Parents told stories about being unable to reach a real person in response to getting robocalls that their child had missed a class, or being unable to call in to a teacher’s extension. One parent said a teacher had been unable to call out on the district phone system to her one day.

Communications during and after school lockdowns was also cited as a problem. “We find out about it from our children,” one mother said, but the district does not follow up with an official communication “until later in the day.”

Parents catalogued a wide range of satisfaction with teacher communications, with some educators providing excellent communication and feedback and others being difficult to track down. One parent said that there should be a standard for periodic communication from teachers (“a five-sentence email once a week explaining what the kids are doing”), while another noted that Powerschool should not act as a replacement for direct teacher to parent/student communication. Parents bemoaned the loss of parent-teacher conferences once students reached middle school.

A couple of parents worried that this meeting would ultimately lead to no changes in district communication.

“These meetings are frustrating,” said one father who called periodic forums on communication “redundant.” “We need to put things in play.” The parent also mused that communications were sabotaged by “ongoing political battles between administrators, teachers and the Board of Education.”

“We’re tired of it,” he said.

Another major complaint was the manner in which public comments were conducted at Board of Education meetings. Parents complained that the meetings ran too late and that they often could not stay until their time to speak. One parent complained that the same people came and spoke at each meeting, keeping others from getting to the mic. Many complained that the Board did not address the concerns of commenters — neither in the meeting nor at a later time afterward. South Orange Village President Sheena Collum suggested that the Board of Education consider adopting a policy much like one in process for the South Orange Board of Trustees whereby a board member or administrator would answer public comments at the end of the meeting or be assigned to follow up.

Collum also suggested that the Board of Education end meetings earlier and have them more often (she pledged to work out a schedule whereby South Orange Trustees meetings would not conflict with Board of Education meetings). “You make bad decisions when you go late,” said Collum.

Maplewood Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan noted that one problem was getting to the people who did not come to such meetings. “We are preaching to the choir,” said Ryan. “The challenge we face is figuring out what we are doing that is preventing people from coming.” Others agreed and suggestions were made for board members and meetings to go out into the community more often.

Besides Collum and Ryan, South Orange Trustees Howard Levison and Mark Rosner attended Tuesday’s meeting. Seven of nine Board of Education members were in attendance (Wright, Daugherty, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, Wayne Eastman, Madhu Pai, Elizabeth Baker and Maureen Jones), as was Maplewood Township Committee candidate Nancy Adams. A number of attendees suggested that future meetings should include administrators and teachers.

Another suggestion was that the talent of HSA and PTA members who put together successful email programs, websites and Facebook pages for their individual schools might aggregate their talents to work on centralized district communications. One parent suggested a district communications “ombudsman.” Another suggested that Board of Education members should have individual email addresses, a change that Wright said was coming.

At one point, Daugherty asked parents for a show of hands on how they received information, including email, Facebook and twitter.

South Orange Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA) member Danielle Perrotta suggested that the district use tools like Google docs, forms and surveys to engage parents and work around their busy schedules. Conversely, another parent noted that not everyone is online and that “there is still a need for paper.” She also reminded the group of the need to reach out in various languages, as Clinton School does for its large English as a Second Language population.

In the end, Wright wrapped up the meeting, promising that the notes would be posted on the district website and that all suggestions would be discussed and considered for possible action at the next meeting of the Communications, Engagement & Outreach committee in June.

“I can’t wait for the next meeting!” said Wright.

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