Saturday, January 17, 2009

Anger, Perception and the Hoboken Board of Education

At this week's Hoboken Board of Education meeting some Board members and Board Superintendent Raslowski expressed puzzlement at public anger directed at the HoLa program, a proposed K-8 bilingual English/Spanish immersion program. While I didn't stand up to express my anger at the meeting, I most certainly was angry. As I listened to the members of the public that spoke out against the HoLa program that night I heard many sentiments expressed that I agreed with but none of them got to the heart of what was angering me. Having given it some thought in the ensuing days I now think I've gotten to the source so let me attempt to clarify for the Board and Superintendent why I am angry. First off, I am *not* angry about the HoLa program itself. The proposed program sounds good and, from what I heard at the meeting, most "anti-HoLa" speakers agree. What angers me and others is the way that the Board and the Superintendent are proceeding with the proposal.

And now I get to the topic of perception. While no member of the public can divine what is motivating the Board and Superintendent to proceed as they have, my perception is that the HoLa proposal is being foisted upon the public without a proper vetting. It appears to be rushed and this perception was reinforced at the meeting by the contingent of HoLa advocates who repeatedly appealed to the Board to adopt the program by January 21 so that parents would be able to sign up for the program in time for the 2009-2010 school year. There are significant costs associated with the program but not once at the meeting did the Board or the Superintendent attempt to placate the public by explaining why the program would be affordable. Nobody took time to explain why the program hasn't been opened to a competitive bidding process. A number of speakers pointed out how the existing public schools needed attention and asked if starting a new program would detract from existing problems. Again, the Board and Superintendent were mute. I found it interesting that the HoLa program has been scaled back significantly in terms of cost since it was first announced to the public late last year but no explanation for this change was given at the meeting. One speaker asked the Superintendent how this program fit into his vision of the school system but he deflected the question. With so many opportunities to defend the program I cannot understand the silence. The reluctance to address issues that need addressing makes me angry.

But here's what I discovered upon thinking about it more. My anger is rooted deeper than the mishandling of the HoLa program proposal. It's rooted in my perception that the Board and the Superintendent don't care about the right things. I want to emphasize that I'm talking about *perceptions* here. I have no idea how the Board and Superintendent actually feel about the school system. The best I, and any member of the public, can do is to infer how they feel by evaluating how well they are managing the school system. All I perceive is the result of their actions. So what do I perceive? I perceive a unevenly-performing school system that, on average, does not perform well compared to the rest of the state. I perceive a school system with poorly managed programs, namely the Gifted and Talented program and the Primary Years International Baccalaureate program. I see many of our friends leaving Hoboken when their children reach Kindergarten age. I hear parents saying they will leave Hoboken when their kids reach high school age. I perceive a highly paid Superintendent who has chosen not to enroll his kids in the public school system. I perceive a city mayor who has chosen to not enroll his kids in the public school system. I perceive a Superintendent who, when given the opportunity, won't express his vision for the school system but will take the time to dress down a member of the public who made scurrilous remarks. I perceive a Superintendent and Board who hired a boyhood chum of the Superintendent's and provided him with a significant salary. I perceive a Board and Superintendent who ignore the reasons why HoLa advocates are unwilling to enroll their kids in current school system and, instead, advocate spending money to address their particular desires. Overall, I perceive that the Superintendent and school Board are out of touch with the current state of the school system and with the public. Perhaps the Board members and the Superintendent have good explanations for every one of these perceptions but, so far, I haven't heard any of these issues addressed.

In most circumstances, politics' central concern is with creating a positive perception. So why the flagrant disdain for perception by the Board and Superintendent? It's my turn to be puzzled. If I were in their shoes, I would be bending over backwards show the public that despite all the negative perceptions, I have the best interests of the school system at heart. I would do my best to create positive perceptions and create public confidence in the school system. I would make sure that the existing school system is adequately financed for the future before taking on costly new programs and I would convey my findings to the public. I would speak to the public about how a new program fits with my vision of the school system in the coming years and how the school system will benefit from the new programs. I would disclose all information necessary to convince the public that there were no conflicts of interest associated with any spending or hiring proposals and that all proposals were submitted to an open, competitive process. If I detected polarized views regarding a new program I would hold special meetings devoted to discussing the issues and reaching a consensus. Where is the vision? Where is the transparency? How are you helping the school system? As for the puzzlement expressed by the Board and Superintendent over public anger, I hope this clarifies things.

To conclude I feel that I should also convey some of my positive perceptions about the school system. With a child enrolled in the public school system, and having visited all the elementary schools and the high school on a number of occasions, I perceive a hard-working, friendly staff, energetic and motivated teachers, a devoted group of involved parents and principals who dedicate themselves to communicating with students and parents. This is what keeps me from getting too discouraged. But I know that all of this can be irrevocably damaged as a result of poor decisions by the Board and the Superintendent. Consider this an appeal to start communicating and working with the public you serve. The public wants to have confidence in Hoboken's public school system.