Four city school board members sent a letter and held a phone conference with the New Jersey commissioner of education earlier in the month without informing their president.
“Communicating with the commissioner of education without going through the board president is a problem and it raises significant issues,” said school board president Jonathan Hodges, after he handed out copies of the letter marked “confidential” to board of education members during a March 12th, 2015 meeting. “There should not be that level of communication without going through the board president.”
School board vice-president Kenneth Simmons and board members Chrystal Cleaves, Flavio Rivera, and Christopher Irving are listed at the footer of the letter as being the members who dispatched the letter dated March 6th, 2015.
Rivera and Cleaves defended the letter during that March 12th meeting. Rivera said the letter came about due to state-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans’ unresponsiveness to board concerns.
The letter states: “The Board has asked for several documents from the office of the State District Superintendent, and continues to be left with very little information on how best to support the State in its creation of the budget.”
The four members also complain about their suggestions being ignored. The letter states the board has been telling the superintendent to prepare for the impending fiscal cliff since 2013, but very little has been put in place to reduce spending.
“Unfortunately, these recommendations were met with an increase in central office staff from that period to now,” reads the letter.
The letter states the board made the same recommendation during a 2014 retreat that was held in Seton Hall University. Hodges said on Wednesday evening the superintendent has taken steps to curb spending. He cited the re-organization that was announced in June 2014, which, the superintendent said saved $4.5 million. Hodges also cited the 363 staff reductions that was announced that very evening.
In their letter the four board members list four suggestions to create budget savings: change health insurance plan, outsource positions like substitute teachers, instructional aides. The suggestions also includes examining every department budget for a period of time to figure out their true needs.
They also suggest “creating an effective reduction in force list.”
Hodges mildly scolded the members who sent the letter without his permission over a sentence in the letter that read: “Please note that this memorandum does not reflect concerns of more than five Board members.”
“That language implies quorum and that’s a problem,” said Hodges. “If you had said ‘more than four’ then you’re accurate; ‘more than five’ – it’s five and under.”
Cleaves disputed Hodges’ interpretation that that sentence implied quorum. Five board members meeting together constitutes a public meeting or quorum. “It’s interpretation,” she said.
Hodges said anyone can send a letter, but they should do it without stating it’s the opinion of the board. He said he was more concerned with the phone conference that took place subsequent to the letter.
“It’s the phone call that was made without the board president that’s the problem,” said Hodges. He said he had no idea the phone conference took place. Evans said he received a call from the state’s department of education informing him of the phone conference.
Vice-president Simmons said he neither wrote the letter nor took part in the phone conference.
Evans said in interactions between board to staff, board to board, board to community there are “clear rules of engagement” that have to be followed. “You can’t speak for the board unless the board as a group voted to authorize you to speak for the board,” said Evans. “Everyone can speak for themselves as a citizen, but not for the board.”
The district will hold an ethics workshop sometime in the future for board members that will include a piece on the “rules of engagement,” said the superintendent.
Though the letter is public record, Hodges refused to provide copies to reporters. “I don’t see a need to for this letter to be public [because] it’s marked confidential,” said Hodges.
The letter to commissioner David Hespe was released by the New Jersey Department of Education on Tuesday afternoon.