Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where's the "Public" in Public Education?

According to the Plainfield School District web site, the school board will meet Tuesday, June 12 in the Plainfield High School conference room with an executive session at 6:30 p.m. and a work & study meeting at 8 p.m.
The business meeting will be 7 p.m. June 19 at Cedarbrook School.

Usually there is a legal notice in the Courier News that confirms the date, time and place.

For those who are not familiar with school board meetings, the work & study meeting is the one where board members and the superintendent discuss items and decide whether they will be moved to the agenda for a vote at the business meeting. The work & study sessions often yield valuable background information as well as individual members’ views and concerns.

Often items are added to the agenda for the business meeting, mostly personnel matters that may have been discussed in closed session. There is a mechanism for board agendas to be published online, but most often this does not happen. Printed copies are usually available at the Plainfield Public Library, at a table to the left and rear of the reference desk.

This writer’s main gripe with trying to attend board meetings is that the posted opening time for public sessions doesn’t mean much. The board actually opens the meeting at 6:30, then immediately goes into closed session. Depending what they have to discuss, the closed or executive sessions can drag on past the 7 or 8 p.m. stated time to resume public session.

On Friday, there was a legal notice for a 6 p.m. executive session and a 6:45 p.m. business meeting and as required for emergency special meetings, the items to be considered were stated, albeit it in acronyms: “CSA proposed resignation. Appointment of interim CSA. Appointment of interim BS/BS.”

Even though I scoured the paper for Plainfield legal notices that day, I missed that one. It was right in the middle of the page. This was not the first time that I had a hard time seeing a legal notice that was in plain view. There’s something about 230 square inches of legal print that fools the eye. When I looked at the same page later, the notice leapt out at me.

The point is, it’s not easy to find out when and where the meetings are, let alone what’s on the agenda. And the frequent need for the board to adjourn into closed session can make the pace of these meetings daunting to the average citizen.

When Plaintalker started two years ago, it became clear that covering both the City Council and the Board of Education meetings was going to be a huge challenge. We tried to see whether we could get anyone who would cover the BOE meetings and report stories in a factual and objective way. We did not find anyone who was willing to take it on, even among those few who already attended most meetings.

Newspapers nowadays are short-staffed and can’t send reporters to meetings that go on for many hours. Deadlines are earlier than ever and there is no way to assure that the anticipated news story will unfold in time to be filed for the next day. Bloggers have more flexibility, if they can stand to put in the time to get the story.

At times, various community groups have sent representatives to meetings in order to report back on the issues. But even that commitment can become onerous.

If board meetings were recorded and played on the local cable channel, maybe more people would be able to follow the action on their own schedule. Or maybe it would still be too much trouble.

The coming years may hold a lot of changes for the school district. Abbott districts may see their funding reduced. The new monitoring system could result in actions as drastic as state takeover, depending on the findings. Teacher turnover is a big issue. Then there are issues of gangs and violence in the schools, lack of parental involvement, accountability of the administration and more. Coverage and analysis of these issues may be spotty at best, even though the school budget dwarfs the municipal budget.

The district now faces a search for a new superintendent. History tells us that there can be a superintendent who will challenge and engage the community to participate in public education, who can get contracts settled without rancor, who can be honest with parents, students, taxpayers and politicians and who sincerely understands and embraces the opportunity to make urban education work.

Is there another such leader out there? For Plainfield’s sake, we hope so.

--Bernice Paglia


Post a Comment

<< Home