Saturday, February 20, 2010

Maureen First

With much fanfare Maureen Sullivan has announced her "resignation" from Kids First, the slate of three Hoboken School Board candidates who were elected to the Hoboken Board of Education with an overwhelming majority almost one year ago. While resigning from an electoral slate a year after the election would appear to be a meaningless gesture, the excessive volume with which Sullivan is broadcasting this news indicates that she wants everyone to hear that she's got something important to say. And the news is this: she's appalled that the majority of the Board voted against her in their decision to hire Dr Frank Romano as the next Hoboken Superintendent of Schools. Sullivan's stated reason for opposing the decision is that she feels Dr. Romano's salary is too high. The other dissenting vote came from Board member Carrie Gilliard who favored a candidate who failed to submit their application on time. Gilliard stated that the Board "rushed" the hiring process, presumably because they did not (illegally) accept this late application or re-open the search to consider her candidate.

Let's put things in perspective: seven of nine Board members voted in favor of hiring Dr. Romano. Only three of those seven members were elected on "Kids First" tickets. Furthermore, the only two dissenting votes also came from members elected on "Kids First" tickets. To me that sounds like a healthy vote in favor of Dr. Romano. It's clear evidence that the vote had everything to do with individual decisions and nothing to do with electoral slates. Nevertheless, as a result of losing the vote Sullivan has publicly decried the existence of a conspiratorial "machine" at work behind the scenes. Given the diversity of members voting in favor of Romano this accusation is clearly nonsense; and so it raises the question: what is Sullivan's real motivation in making all this noise?

Sullivan is publicly declaring herself as the only reformer Board member which is quite an assertion considering the make-up of the current Board. What does Sullivan hope to gain by vilifying all her fellow Board members who have worked so hard over the past year to improve the schools and rein in the budget?

My first impression is that Sullivan opportunistically rode the coattails of Kids First to victory last year after a failed run as an independent and now that members of her former slate have decided to vote differently from her she's thrown a very big, public tantrum. But perhaps there's more to it than that.

The Board of Education elections are only a month and a half away and, while Sullivan is not up for re-election, perhaps she's angling to back her own slate of candidates who would be more willing to vote the way she votes: a "Maureen First" ticket. So how does Sullivan vote anyhow? Interestingly, she tends to vote the same way as everyone else on board. As a regular School Board meeting attendee one thing that has struck me is how unified the Board has been in making their decisions of late. Admittedly, until the decision to hire Dr. Romano was brought to a vote there haven't been a lot of "big ticket" items on the agenda. So perhaps Sullivan intends to wrap herself in the "slash and burn the budget" flag. This would be consistent with her stated reason for rejecting Dr. Romano and, with the annual budget to be voted on soon the picture will be clearer.

Everyone knows that the Board's annual budget is bloated and I've applauded the Board's actions this year to both expose the budgetary shenanigans from years past and significantly reduce the budget going forward. However, as a parent with a child in the public school system I recognize that slashing the budget shouldn't be a goal in itself. Reducing the budget has to be performed so that it doesn't adversely affect students' educations - after all, this is what it's all about. Given the size of the budget I'm certain there are many more places where the budget can be reduced but let's remember that it's taken decades for the Hoboken School system budget to get to its current state. It's reasonable to expect that it's going to take more than 9 months to get it back under control. More importantly, I'm confident the Board is working to achieve this goal in a sensible way that takes into account how the students will be affected. Now that Sullivan's children have moved to schools outside the Hoboken public school system she doesn't have the same personal stake in improving the system that she used to have. It's easy to make "slash and burn the budget" pronouncements when you're not concerned about the consequences for your child's education.

Reform will not come from one person or the loudest person. Sullivan is free to disagree with the majority in this or any decision but that doesn't mean reform is dead or that she is the vanguard of reform. The record is clear: for the past year reform has been happening in the Hoboken School district and the reason why is because the majority of the Board has been voting in favor of reform, not just Sullivan. Sullivan's clearly decided to redefine "reform" to mean something that suits her better although it's not entirely clear what that is yet. My suspicion is when Sullivan says reform she really means "conform", as in: conform to my way or the highway. We should bear this in mind during the upcoming School Board elections when Sullivan anoints her chosen candidates as "reformers."