A school is part of a community’s heart. Children grow up and learn at school, and a school’s activities can frequently involve the community. One way for community members to get involved in school is to attend a school board meeting. Various things are discussed, including finances, employment and social aspects.
I went and attended a school board meeting on January 23 at Benjamin Franklin School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When I attended the meeting, board members was greeting a lot of people, give them flyers to vote for them as well s discussing topics such as school bullying. The board president, Tony Monteiro, welcomed everyone and said that they will be holding board meetings in different schools in the community, in order to foster more access by parents and community members, instead of just having it in one location.
There was considerable ceremony in the beginning of the meeting. There was an invocation, a flag ceremony, The Pledge of Allegiance, The Star Spangled Banner, sung by a music teacher, a Pledge of Ethics from school staff members, a video presentation of ethics, a choir performance of “God Bless the USA”, the singing of another folk song, and recitations by two students of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Frankly, I wondered if I was at a school board meeting or a pep rally.
After all the pomp, some real business was discussed. There was a water main break at one school due to a deep freeze, causing over 3,000 students that needed to be relocated in order for them to continue to attend class. Afterward, the superintendent of schools made a presentation about how well the district is doing compared to other large urban districts in New Jersey. This led into a presentation with slides by a consultant from the Panasonic Foundation, which gives advice to the school on strategies for improvement.
After two hours of the ceremony and presentations, a ten-minute break ensued, after which, public comment was allowed. Two people expressed concern over bullying, with one citing a possible violation of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law.
After a long discussion on bullying, a discussion over personnel for the Department of Transportation, with some votes on reports and leaves of absence. Other votes ensued, mostly on routine business, until nearly 11 p.m. Then they went into executive session to discuss personnel, a special education matter, harassment and bullying results, and worker’s compensation cases. They came back into session at 1 a.m., followed by the creation of an anti-bullying committee, a drop-out committee, and a special education issues and funding committee. The meeting continued until 1:20 a.m.
All in all, while the meeting was very informative, I thought that there was too many things discussed and to be processed in this one meeting. For one thing, while many meetings may start with the Pledge of Allegiance, the rest of the performances, I thought, were excessive. There also seemed to be considerable scenes of officials patting themselves on the backs. I found the superintendent Hugelmeyer’s speech on Equity, Expectation, and Excellence to be long on buzzwords and short on actual solutions to the districts’ problems. Likewise, the Panasonic Foundation consultant talked a lot about “commitment” and “partnership”, and “working with staff”, but very little on what they were actually doing.
Finally, while I appreciate that they shift meetings around to make it more accessible to the public, having meetings run until the wee hours of the morning isn’t conducive to keeping the public engaged. Many people have to go to work the next day, and cannot stay awake until 1:20 a.m. because the board wants everyone to be entertained for the first two hours.