Monday, July 23, 2007

Of Opinions and Action

Recent events in the school district made me want to review the lengthy opinion piece authored by Scott Booker in January.

Booker trashed board members who voiced support for Schools Superintendent Paula Howard and pointed out numerous lapses by the Howard and her administration. Among them:
-Last-minute notification of parents and staff when Jefferson School students were sent to the swing school and the elementary school building became an administrative site.
-High staff turnover due to what Booker saw as a lack of support and failure to do evaluations.
-Howard’s move to shut down classrooms for preschool disabled children.
-Forgetting to put $1.8 million in the budget for a charter school.
-Shoddy Human Resources operations.
-Lack of textbooks.
- Failed leadership.

The Jan. 14 article was followed by several laudatory posts on the Star-Ledger’s online forum, with writers calling on Scott Booker to run for the school board and sorting out the “ignorant and dangerous” Howard supporters from her “reasonable and righteous” detractors.

While Scott Booker did not write the headline – “Howard must be removed as city schools chief” – it summed up the gist of his piece.

In April, voters returned one of the “ignorant and dangerous” board members to office, along with one “reasonable and righteous” board member.

Fast forward to June: In rapid sequence, there is a special June 5 board meeting to hire an interim board secretary/business administrator, but the meeting adjourns with no decision. On June 6, Howard submits her resignation. On June 8, a Friday, an emergency meeting takes place at which the board unanimously accepts Howard’s resignation, hires Peter Carter as interim superintendent and upon his recommendation hires Michael Donow as board secretary/business administrator.

It’s a good thing that all the board members are now apparently “reasonable and righteous,” because they will soon have to cope with a state Department of Education report that found deficiencies in five aspects of district functioning - instruction and program, fiscal management, operations, governance and personnel – more or less what Scott Booker calls “critical functions” in his piece.

As promised, Carter is already taking aim at improvements and some of Howard’s cabinet members are gone.

I ran into Mr. Carter this week at the 504 Madison Avenue and attempted a pleasantry which failed miserably. Carter came across as driven, on a mission and not about to deal with my chit-chat. I’m told he is also about to set up a format for communicating with the board and administration, perhaps to cut down on extraneous stuff while he grapples with what must be an all-consuming task – saving a school district.

Other top administrators have tried to ward off the schmoozers, second-guessers and busybodies that Plainfield seems to have in abundance. Now even people with the best intentions may find that Carter simply cannot deviate from his task and the polite thing to do would be just to leave him to it.

As for the highly-opinionated Scott Booker, he did not run for office. He has not been heard from since January. Anna and Charles Booker don’t know him. Whatever the merits of his arguments, the call-and-response nature of the opinion piece and the forum posts suggests a bit of orchestration.

Now it’s only July and one of the forum posters is already looking at next April and attempting to demonize one of the incumbent board members. The honeymoon is over. Let the politics resume!

With Howard and her cabinet gone, how long will it be before the nay-sayers try to put the interims in the crosshairs? It most likely won’t bother Carter or shake his focus. Maybe he knows that taking potshots is a local sport.

What it will do is foul the air when Plainfield needs all the oxygen it can get. When that report comes out, there can only be one agenda. Homegrown fault-finding will likely pale next to the official analysis of the district’s problems. Throwing stink-bombs instead of knuckling down to solve the problems will only make Plainfield look foolish.

Scott Booker may feel vindicated by the monitors’ findings, but being right about what’s wrong is a hollow victory at best. The victory will come if all parties can put in their best effort to fix the problems. If not, the NJQSAC legislation’s ultimate remedy is state takeover.

Care to weigh in on the current situation, Mr. Booker?

--Bernice Paglia


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