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Save Our Schools New Jersey Testimony to State Board

January 16, 2013

Testimony to NJ State Board of Education on behalf of Save Our Schools NJ

 Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  My name is Susan Cauldwell.  I served on the Bernards Township Board of Education for six years, including two years as its Chair, and I currently reside in Spring Lake.  I am a member of Save Our Schools New Jersey, a nonpartisan, grassroots, statewide organization whose members believe that every child in New Jersey should have access to a high quality public education.  It is on behalf of Save Our Schools NJ’s nearly 10,000 members that I address you today.

My comments will be on the topic of public participation at these meetings.

The Board’s policy on public testimony changed in July 2012.  Public testimony is now limited to two hours, no matter the number of speakers.  In addition, the designated time for public comment has been eliminated and public comment is now received at the conclusion of the public board meeting.

Save Our Schools NJ believes these changes discourage public participation.  Citizens who wish to address the State Board must spend an entire day waiting to be heard or guess when the regular meeting will conclude.  This diminishes the number of people who can participate, making it particularly difficult for individuals who work full-time or have child care responsibilities to have their voices heard.

The State Board’s mission includes engaging “legislators, school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in formulating policies that enhance education.”  Save Our Schools NJ is concerned that recent changes to your public participation process may run counter to the sentiment expressed in your mission statement.

My former board of education had two opportunities for public participation at each of its meetings.  We asked the public to weigh in on any agenda item at the start of the meeting.  At the end, the public could speak to the board about any topic.  Save Our Schools NJ encourages you to adopt a similar process, which would enable more citizens to participate and to have their comments heard by the whole Board.

Save Our Schools NJ is also concerned about the timing of public comments relative to initiatives already being implemented.  Last month, for example, you accepted public comment on the new teacher evaluation system.  At that meeting, I spoke about it and suggested it was an unfunded mandate.  However, I had little hope that my comments would have an impact as districts throughout the state were already scrambling to comply with your deadlines for implementation.  In addition, there were two teacher evaluation pilot programs already running.  Given all that, what role could public testimony on TEACH NJ play after the fact?

Save Our Schools NJ also would encourage the full Board and the Commissioner to be present for public testimony rather than relegating the public session to only a few Board members.  I can assure you that nearly every person who took the time to address my former board had an effect on our proceedings.  Whether in committee meetings, during informal conversations with our superintendent, or in times of quiet reflection, the words of the residents we represented informed our actions.  State Legislators sit through hours of public testimony each year.  Why shouldn’t State Board members be held to the same standard?

Save Our Schools NJ also encourages you to revise the Board meeting logistics, to make them more friends for the public.  At last month’s meeting, nearly 80% of the audience seats were reserved for State Board staff.  Members of the public and other advocates were given only the last few rows, and some had to stand during your meeting.  Even the teacher you so deservedly honored and his family was stuck in the back of the room.  Relegating the public to a few seats at the back of the room can further discourage public participation.

Finally, without a printed agenda, it is difficult to follow your proceedings.  Please consider having a stack of agendas available for the public at your meetings.  If that is not possible, please project the agenda on the wall during your meetings.

Public education affects everyone in our state and is still our society’s greatest equalizer. We spend billions of dollars each year to educate our students.  It is imperative that you fulfill your mission statement and hear from the public on this vital issue.

Please consider the following recommendations to make that possible:

  1. Revert to the pre-July 2012 practice of designating a specific time for public comments.
  2. Revert to the pre-July 2012 practice of not having an overall time limit for public comments.  Individual speakers are already time constrained.
  3. Accept public testimony before a program is implemented, not after.
  4. Expect that the entire State Board and the Commissioner be present for public comments, as is the expectation with legislative committee hearings.  The current practice of having only three State BOE members in attendance means that the entire Board does not hear from the public and is not able to ask questions of those who testify.
  5. Have printed agendas available for the public at each meeting.  If printed agendas are not feasible, have the agenda projected on the wall for the duration of the meeting.
  6. Provide ample seating for audience members.  Reserved seats during State BOE meetings should be for the public, not for DOE staff.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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