South Orange-Maplewood BOE Members Clash in Testy Exchange Over Policy Details

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Debate over policies governing the authority of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education president and the rules surrounding public comment at meetings took a sharp and contentious tone at its July 15 meeting, with some members yelling over each other as the board president struggled to maintain order.

The verbal clashes reignited long-simmering disagreements about procedures surrounding board members’ conduct and the issue of how to handle feedback from the public at meetings — while exposing discord among some members that at times seemed to veer into the personal.

Board member Johanna Wright, a frequent critic of board leadership and sometimes a lone dissenter in votes, made clear her objections to some of the new by-law language regarding the board president’s power. Alluding to the events surrounding board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and a traffic stop, which bitterly divided the board as well as the community, Wright criticized the actions of former BOE President Elizabeth Baker — who in turn accused Wright of bringing up the issues for “personal, political gains.”

Wright is one of three board members who are up for re-election in the fall. She has not yet commented on whether she will run again. Lawson-Muhammad confirmed to Village Green she is running for re-election in the fall, but has not formally announced.

Johanna Wright at the June 15 BOE meeting (credit Bruno J. Navarro)

The strife is taking place as the district is welcoming a new leader, Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor. Although Taylor’s tenure began on July 8, he was absent from Monday’s meeting because of a previously disclosed personal commitment.

The board is currently working to update its Policy Manual, with guidance from an outside consulting firm, after an audit by New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) identified a variety of policies that were out of compliance and out of date. As discussion of the by-laws began on Monday, Wright sought clarification of the definition of “authority,” as described in the first reading of updated BOE Policy 0146, titled “Board Member Authority.”

“There is no authority of an individual board member at any time other than as a member of the whole,” Joanne Butler, the school district’s in-house counsel, said. “This language simply clarifies that an individual doesn’t have any authority.” Butler explained that no BOE member has any administrative ability and “cannot command services” of any school district staffers.  

“I’m not proficient in legalese,” Wright said. “Does that mean the executive committee cannot bind the actions of the board?”

“Yes,” Butler replied, adding that privileged information discussed in executive session could not be released by a BOE member of their own accord.

“Who determines what is confidential?” Wright asked. “A good example is when we receive videotapes from the town hall, and the videotapes came to us, three members didn’t know anything about that.” She continued, “I’m talking about the dissemination of information to board members equally.”

Amid the ensuing crosstalk between the board members, President Annemarie Maini called for a point of order — one of several times she did so during Monday’s meeting.

“One question at a time!” said Maini.

“So, are you asking me to be quiet?” Wright replied.

In mentioning video, Wright was referring to an April 2018 traffic stop involving Lawson-Muhammad, who was seen in South Orange Police Department dashcam video identifying herself as a Board of Education member, implying a relationship with South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, and calling Police Chief Kyle Kroll a “skinhead,” after she was stopped for speeding.

Lawson-Muhammad, who had not yet arrived at Monday’s BOE meeting during this part of the discussion, has since apologized and said she would fight a recommendation by the New Jersey Department of Education School Ethics Commission that she be suspended from the board for six months. 

Elizabeth Baker, who was president of the BOE at the time of Lawson-Muhammad’s traffic stop, was notified of the incident by the South Orange village administrator, and was provided with a copy of the video. Baker herself was accused by Walter Fields of Black Parents Workshop of ethics violations for her actions following the incident. She was cleared of all charges by the Ethics Commission.

“This is an issue which has been addressed already,” the school district’s attorney said at Monday’s meeting. “No, I’m addressing it now,” Wright said sharply.

Baker interjected. “This is not the subject,” she said. “You’re abusing a discussion over policy for your own personal political gains.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Wright replied.

Interrupting, Maini again called for a point of order.

“We don’t know who this board is,” Wright added. “I’m talking about what we’re doing ethically and unethically.”

Maini emphasized that “eight people have worked very hard to communicate, to signal to the community” the board’s reasoning and its decisions, which are passed by a majority vote. “I don’t think the minority can go and undermine that conversation. That is what I would like to see in that policy.”

Board member Robin Baker also weighed in, alluding to the incident with Lawson-Muhammad. “It was not a board issue, per se, so it wasn’t something that necessarily had to be disseminated among everybody,” she said. “It became a board issue later.”

Wright disagreed. “It was always a board issue,” she said. “We tried to make it not a board issue.”

A Battle Over Revamping Public Speaks

Another contentious exchange erupted around the policy that governs public speaks, which are portions of the regular Board of Education meetings that provide members of the community opportunities to address the board.

“I think any time a student is here and wants to speak to us, we owe it to them to listen to them,” Wright said. “There should never be any exceptions to that.”

Wright was alluding to the BOE’s June 13 meeting, when former Maplewood Middle School science teacher Debra Hwang requested a public discussion of her employment status — a process known as a Donaldson hearing. At that meeting, nearly a dozen speakers urged the board to renew Hwang’s contract despite an administration recommendation to the contrary. The contract was not renewed.

“That wasn’t a public speaks,” Elizabeth Baker replied. “That was a Donaldson hearing, which was a personnel proceeding being held in public.”

Wright began to speak when an apparently exasperated Maini called for a point of order yet again. “Mrs. Wright, please!

“You called on me. Why do you folks cut me off, and I can’t cut you off?” Wright replied. “You cut me off incessantly and consistently!”

Maini reiterated that public comments were not a part of a Donaldson hearing.

“I’m just saying I think children should always be allowed to speak. That’s all,” Wright added. “If we say we care about children the way you profess, then we want to hear from children, period.”

Butler confirmed that the BOE is allowed to set a time parameter for a Donaldson hearing, which is usually a half-hour.

On the topic of whether speakers should be allowed to cede their time to others, Butler said the administration reviewed policies at other school districts and found it is not common. “…we did not find any policies that specifically addressed whether it was allowed or not allowed,” Butler said.

Also at the June 13 meeting, more than a dozen members of the community spoke on the topic of budgeting for an upgrade to the existing artificial turf at Underhill Sports Complex and the elimination of grass in favor of the synthetic version at Ritzer Field. The item was later approved as part of the nearly $160 million capital improvement plan this month.

At that meeting, several people who signed up to address the board ceded their three minutes to someone else, giving some speakers a much longer time frame than others.

Elizabeth Baker said that she was “comfortable” with the ceding of time by just one participant to another.

“I think it is problematic when a single speaker collects multiple cedings of time to have an eight-, 10-, 12-minute presentation to the board for which they didn’t follow the board procedure,” she added.

Baker also said that speakers should be present to cede their time “because there have been situations where individuals have signed up for time for children and family members who were never here at the meeting and then claim that the time has been ceded.” That, she added, created “a perilous situation” for the board president to call out what is “a manipulation of the procedure.”

Maini said she was “not a big fan” of the practice. “I appreciate when two people come and want extended time. I think one or two people who are both present makes sense.”

Board member Susie Adamson said that she supported eliminating the practice altogether. “I don’t find the practice of ceding time to be particularly fair because if you don’t know somebody in the audience who can give you more time, you only get your allotted three minutes instead of 15,” she said.

Adamson, who has said she would not seek re-election after her three-year term expires in December, reiterated a point Butler had made earlier. “The board meetings are not public forums. They are meetings of the board conducted in public,” she said. “So while we do have, by law, the requirement to allow for public expression, it is not necessarily a town hall meeting.”

Wright pushed back.

“When you have issues that we have in our district, it would behoove us to try and listen to these people so we can get some type of understanding, and it doesn’t cost anything to listen. ‘Listen’ and ‘silent’ have the same letters, and it’s not a coincidence,” she said.

Wright said that hearing the community’s concerns are the first step to fixing the issues facing the school district. Wright added that the speaking time limit should be enforced equally. “It’s sort of like our code of conduct,” Wright said. “What applies for some, won’t apply to others, and what we have to do is we have to be consistently consistent with it.”

Board member Shannon Cuttle argued that a clear policy would help ensure fairness in hearing from all members of the community.

“I have no interest in stifling anybody’s First Amendment right who is coming before the board,” Cuttle said. “But I do think that better structures in place around public speaks will help expedite the process to ensure that all voices are heard in equal and timely fashion, but doing in a way that’s actually communicated, detailed and spelled out to the public, and the school community, so there’s a clear understanding of expectations when they come to board meetings.”

All the policies were being introduced for a first reading, so they will be back on the agenda for the board’s August 19 meeting.

Reached for comment by Village Green after the meeting, Maini elaborated on the lengthy and sometimes painstaking policy and by-law review process the board has undertaken. At its retreat in June, the BOE reviewed three by-laws: 0146 Board Member Authority, 0171 Duties of President and Vice President, and 0167 Public Participation in Board Meetings.

“The first two policies were to allow the President to speak on behalf of the Board. This addition was under the recommendation of the New Jersey School Board Association. The Board felt it was important to allow the Board President to speak on behalf of the Board particularly when there are emergent issues.”

Maini said the public participation policy has been a “long-standing concern” of the board, “as we attempt to ensure that voices are heard and free speech is valued and respected, but also ensure that the work of the Board is clear and attainable during its meetings.” Maini said boards of education have some discretion in how they allow for public participation at meetings; for example, the Newark Board of Education follows a strict 30-minute time limitation.

“No one on our Board believes that it is a good idea to go to that extreme,” she said.

Regarding the tenor of the conversation on Monday, Maini said “it was clear” that part of it violated Robert’s Rules of Order regarding staying on topic. “The purpose of the discussion was to add a necessary responsibility to the Board President through a by-law and not to rehash a matter from 2018 that has already been addressed both within the Board and the Ethics Commission.”

Maini continued, “It was also mentioned during the discussion that many of the concerns that are discussed (and many of the things discussed during the election season) are not in the purview of the Board. The school district organization only works if problems are identified and solved at the lowest appropriate level of the organization. I look forward to Dr. Taylor’s experience and ability to improve the day to day management and communication issues of our District, and to be able to focus energy, experience, and expertise to mentor teachers and building leaders to create a fantastic learning environment for all of our students.”

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