OPINION: What Does a Board of Ed Member Do (and Why Should You Care)?

by The Village Green
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Madhu Pai is a resident of South Orange, the 1st Vice President of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education and a current candidate for the upcoming Board of Education elections on November 3rd.

Across South Orange and Maplewood, lawn signs are popping up. Debates are happening. The Village Green and Maplewood Online are abuzz and people are gathering over coffee and wine to discuss the candidates. The Board of Education election season has begun!

With nearly 60% of your local tax dollars going to support our school district, the upcoming vote on November 3rd is important for you and all community members. When you go to the polls this year, it’s critical to know not only whom you’re voting for but also exactly what they’ll be doing. The role of a Board of Education member may not be what you think.

The Board of Education (BOE) is a body of 9 individuals who serve as a governing entity that ensures our school district is being run efficiently and effectively. Each board member’s term is three years long, and three seats are up for re-election each year. Currently Wayne Eastman is the Board President, I am the 1st Vice President and Joanna Wright is the 2nd Vice President of the BOE.

The BOE sets policy and goals for the school district, and holds the Superintendent accountable for implementing policy and meeting goals through proper management of the school district. While the BOE is not (and should not) always be unified in opinion, to be effective it must be unified in its goal of providing one set of marching orders to the Superintendent. Good BOE members collaborate and work as a team.

The key responsibilities of BOE members are:

1. To hire and oversee the Superintendent

This past summer, in a unanimous 8-0 vote (among all voting members), the BOE hired Dr. John Ramos to be our Superintendent, filling a multi-year leadership gap. Dr. Ramos comes to this district with many years experience in teaching, district administration and having served prior as a Superintendent.

He is a rare find given his balanced focus on getting the basics of our district’s operations right, and pushing forward well thought out and properly paced innovation. This balance is something we’ve been lacking in our district. Through a comprehensive process that gathered extensive input from the community, we were able to bring someone of Dr. Ramos’ caliber to our district despite the terrible disadvantage of the Governor’s salary cap.

2. To set a vision for the district and write policy

The board sets policy that leads to an end result for the district. The current board has set multiple policies about things like school safety, teacher evaluation and standardized testing, among other things. You can find our district policies here: https://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/page/39

I’m very proud of our most recent policy: The Access and Equity Policy. The architect of the policy is my running mate and BOE president, Wayne Eastman. This new policy is truly visionary because it will redefine the way the school district operates by providing choice and open access for all students to take more rigorous classes. The policy will ensure that rigor is a part of all curricula. It will empower and enable students to take on challenging coursework. It will also hopefully provide teachers with a voice in determining how teaching and learning will happen in this district.

The creation of this policy is particularly rewarding for me because it was based on the platform for choice that Wayne and I ran on in 2012. Once it is voted on by the BOE, and hopefully passed, the Superintendent will be responsible for bringing forth a plan to implement the Access and Equity policy, including the specifics of how. And we’ll be responsible for holding him accountable for good implementation.

The lines between policy governance (BOE work) and district management (Administration work) can get blurred on the campaign trail with promises made or ideas presented about specific programs or budget items. It’s important to note that management is not the role of a school board. The Superintendent manages running the district, focusing on details like developing curriculum, managing staff, creating the budget and recommending specific educational programs.

A good BOE doesn’t interfere with the Superintendent’s operation with the district, or with the day-to-day work of principals or teachers. To do so would demoralize district Administration and also prevent the BOE from doing its own work to move our schools forward.

3. To set District Goals

The board evaluates the Superintendent under District Goals across 5 elements that he must manage: Curriculum and Instruction, Communications, Financial Management, Hiring and Development of Staff, and Facilities & Technology.

The current district goals can be found here:

Download (PDF, 1.27MB)

We’re currently working to make the goals more streamlined, focused and consistent with recent changes in state and federal education policy.

One often-discussed goal is Communication. It was among the first priorities that I and other BOE members discussed with Dr. Ramos. We recently approved a three-month pilot of the “Let’s Talk” program to help improve communication. “Let’s Talk” is a portal for the community to reach the Superintendent, key Administrators and the BOE. It tracks and provides analytics around response rates and timing to ensure we are all delivering on timely and meaningful communication. I am confident that it will bring a positive change in district communication.

In our own outreach with the community, the BOE has held multiple public forums including a joint session with Township officials on school safety and a forum to discuss the future of Seth Boyden. I also led the pilot of BOE Office Hours, intended to provide the community with opportunities for face-to-face interaction with BOE members outside of the monthly board meetings. Although we discontinued Office Hours due to low community attendance, it was an important step in making the BOE more accessible to the community.

4. To set the Operating Budget tax cap for budget development.

Every BOE candidate is asked questions about how they will approach the budget. The BOE doesn’t create the budget. Nor does the BOE redline or vote on individual items on the budget. The BOE’s role is to oversee an effective budget development process, and set a tax cap on the Operating Budget intended to prevent tax increases that would hurt taxpayers.

During our time in office, Mr. Eastman and I have voted and fought for a 2% tax cap for the Operating Budget. We pressed the Administration to find more innovative solutions to bridge the school district’s $20 million budget deficit – one that cannot be addressed by simply cutting programs, or solved by increasing taxes.

The BOE also adopts resolutions that can benefit the school budget. The board recently passed a resolution to enter into a new Healthcare plan that will reduce the district’s premium payments by $600,000 while providing the same healthcare benefits to our staff. Given that 95% of the school budget is fixed costs like salary and healthcare, this savings is substantial. It will allow the district to allocate more dollars toward supporting our teachers and supporting sound educational programs.

5. To negotiate contracts with the Teachers and Administrators Union

During my three years on the BOE, we’ve successfully reached agreements with both the Teachers Union and the Administrators Union. We have avoided the contentious, multi-year negotiations that have hurt both our staff and students in the past. In my view, the BOE has done an excellent job with negotiations, and must maintain the positive momentum of mutual respect and trust that has been created with our teachers and staff.

This is a critical place where my running mate Margaret (Peggy) Freedson’s expertise will add value. Given her former role as a teacher, and current role as a teacher educator, Peggy can help craft effective policies and guide our Superintendent in building a strong foundation with district staff.

Being a BOE member is a complex role that requires a fundamental understanding of “policy governance.” It takes work and time to learn, which is why I feel a whole-scale turn over of the Board this year would not be good for the district — and why I am running again. We have a lot to do, and we must move quickly.

The Board of Education is very different from a PTA board, which works to support the Principal in enriching the school day. The role of a BOE member is not to “rubber stamp” Administration’s initiatives. A good BOE member understands that what matters most isn’t simply supporting or punishing the Superintendent and Administration. Rather, our role is to find thoughtful ways to motivate the Administration while demanding accountability and providing constructive feedback. Over the past few months, the BOE has built a relationship of mutual respect and understanding with Dr. Ramos. We are already working in partnership to drive the district forward in ways that will positively impact our students and staff.

It is my sincere hope that the entire community has a chance to interact with the candidates this election season. In doing so, I hope this explanation of a BOE member’s roles and responsibilities will provide some context to evaluate which candidates have the best experience, expertise, vision and skills to be effective BOE members. Please have your say and cast your three votes for the Board of Education on November 3rd.

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