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School Board Member: Board Is ‘So Fractured, We Cannot Function’ (Updated)

Several board members characterized themselves as "failures"

Franklin school board

Franklin schools Superintendent Edward Seto, left, and school board president Julia Presley have been at the center of recent school board controversies.

Deep divisions among groups of members and a feeling of overall failure permeate the 2013 self-evaluations completed earlier this year by the Board of Education members.

“We are so fractured we cannot function,” one board member commented. “Plus, we are forcing the administration to spend time and money on board related in fighting (sic). My biggest failure as a board member was not preventing this split.”

“This past year the board has been and is very dysfunctional,” another board member wrote. “There is very little or no teamwork and trust among the board members and the superintendent. Revenge, favoritism, bullying and discrimination are the norm and not the exception.”

Another commented that based on what the board has done in the last three years, “I rate my performance as a complete failure.”

And, as a whole, the eight board members who completed the survey unanimously gave themselves a grade of “unsatisfactory” in the areas of “avoiding even the appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest” and working together “in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.”

Seven of the members gave the board an “unsatisfactory” grade in the area of “operates in accordance with the board member’s Code of Ethics and the Ethics Act.”

The comments offer a backdrop to board actions over the past several months, during which the board voted to not offer schools Superintendent Edward Seto a new contract when his expires next year, and several board members filed ethics complaints against board president Julia Presley.

The yearly evaluations gauge board members’ analyses of their board’s performance and their own performance during the year, said Janet Bamford, a New Jersey School Boards Association spokeswoman.

The self-evaluations are a product of the NJSBA; board members complete online questionnaires, the results of which are compiled by the NJSBA field service representative assigned to a particular district. The field service representative then delivers that compilation to the board and presents a final report to the public on district and board goals, Bamford said.

This past year the board has been and is very dysfunctional,” one board member wrote.

Thorton emailed the compilation to board members in July, a day before the board met in its annual retreat to discuss goals and objectives.

The Franklin Reporter & Advocate has acquired a copy of the compilation distributed to the board by the former field service representative, Gwen Thornton.

Thornton was transferred out of that position in early August, after a complaint by Presley to Thornton’s supervisor of unnamed “indiscretions” by Thornton. The district’s new field service representative is Mary Ann Friedman, Bamford said.

Bamford would not comment on why Thornton was reassigned.

“NJSBA considers the assignment of field service representatives to districts to be a personnel matter,” Bamford wrote in an email.

It was that transfer request which spurred board member Robert Trautmann to file yet another ethics complaint against Presley. Trautmann contends that Presley exceeded her authority when she requested Thornton’s removal.

Presley declined to comment on the latest complaint.

Bamford said the NJSBA has no “written requirement” for the board to hold a vote authorizing the board president to request the transfer of a field service representative.

After Trautmann’s request and a split vote authorizing it at the Nov. 14 work session, the school board had a brief discussion at its Nov. 21 meeting on why Presley asked for Thornton’s transfer.

Presley said she asked that Thorton be replaced as the district’s field service representative because Thornton “made a decision on her own” to email copies of the board’s self-evaluation compilation to board members.

“She was not authorized to sen it out,” Presley said. “That was a serious ethical violation.”

The compilation “should not have been sent out at all,” Presley said. She said that was not the only “indiscretion” about which she complained, “but it’s the only one of which I will speak tonight.”

Trautmann’s latest complaint to the state Board of Education’s School Ethics Commission has yet to be acted on. The commission last month sent eight of 10 complaints made by Trautmann and others on to an Administrative Law Judge for adjudication.

Bad Grades All Around

In the self-evaluations, the board members were asked to gauge their and their board’s effectiveness in the areas of planning, policy, student achievement, finance, board operations, board performance, board/superintendent relationship, board/staff relationships, and board and community. The board was also asked to note challenges facing the district.

Board members consistently gave the board poor grades in areas such as:

  • monitoring projects toward achieving the district’s vision
  • using written policies as the framework for making decisions
  • monitoring the effectiveness of instructional programs by comparing district student achievement with state and local standards
  • requiring that all requests for unbudgeted expenses be accompanied by funding sources and specific indications of need
  • provides a climate that allows free, open and orderly discussions by all members at meetings
  • uses teamwork, consensus building and collaborative decision-making
  • uses good decision-making processes
  • recognizes the need and importance of confidentiality
  • recognizes that authority rests with the board as a whole
  • works with the superintendent in a spirit of mutual trust and confidence
  • maintains ongoing open lines of communication, and observes the chain of command

The anonymous comments written by board members amplify their grades:

“There is a major divide on among board members themselves and with the superintendent,” one wrote. “The superintendent makes it very visible that there are two classes of board members – ones who are talked to and informed and included in planning and those whom are not wanted to work with and are excluded.”

“I feel the board has created good long range plans, however personal politics and gamesmanship have gotten in the way of actually performing the job of the board,” another wrote.

“There is a blatant disregard for policy and procedures when it (sic) contrary to personal agendas,” another wrote.

“… Many of my colleagues feel they are qualified to run the district themselves and seek to undermine the authority of the administration and expand the role of the board of education,” wrote another.

“… there does appear to be a conflict of interest on certain issues and there is definitely a lack of trust among the board members,” another commented.

And in the section which asked board members to list the district’s challenges, one board member wrote, “We as a board cannot even start addressing these until we can function as a board.”

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