Never intended to become a parent advocate until I watched the great schools in my little town come under attack. The more I learned about what was happening the more I read. The more I read the more I saw how what is happening here is tied to towns across not only New Jersey, but the country. And now I'm in the thick of it, and I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Highland Park Senior Faces Controversy In His Schools And Community Head On
The below article is cross posted, with permission, from the Tumbler of Highland Park High School student Gabriel Trevor. I had the pleasure of presenting alongside Gabriel last weekend at an event sponsored by the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War. Gabriel did a fantastic job at the event, despite his exhaustion -- he had just returned from Model UN where he was recognized with an "Outstanding Delegate" award and the Highland Park students as a whole were named the "Best Large Delegation." Not too shabby for a small high school with around 400 students. Without further ado, here's Gabriel.
Despite vast communityconcern about recent Highland Park Board of Education policies under new Superintendent Timothy Capone, a small contingent of residents remains dedicated to discouraging our efforts to gather information and question the Board’s policies and decisions. Concerned citizens like myself have been called misguided, aggressive, and irrational. The Board has openly classified our concerns as “emotional,” despite specific policy, budgetary, and legal questions. We are asked “Why weren’t you at any Board meetings before November 4?” The loyalists overlook substantive concerns about Board of Education policy and activities.
The Board of Education and Mr. Capone have failed to explain the logic of the November 4 Reductions in Force as they relate to the purchase of textbooks and laptops. The audit presented at theDecember 9 Board of Education meeting did show that the district has significant financial challenges, but failed to explain the recent policy changes. Although these RIFs are just one of many issues, they were the catalyst for the current public scrutiny. It has been more than a month since the RIFs, and the public has not been shown the Board of Education’s line of reasoning.
If Mr. Capone is taking a “data-driven approach,” where is the data? If we did have a shortage of textbooks and technology, where is the evidence? Some parents may have complained about a shortage of textbooks, but is this a new problem? Was the BoE justified in RIFing nine people to purchase textbooks?
Beyond pictures of old computers in a hastily-made slideshow, where is the inventory list of relevant devices and books the BoE consulted before making these decisions? The public can appreciate that “hard decisions had to be made,” but Board members need to have rational reasoning behind these decisions. Education policy is important, and Reductions in Force are bound to be controversial. The Board needs to take great care and it has had at least three separate public forums to prove it took care.
The Board of Education is a publicly elected body which controls the vast majority of property tax revenue. Volunteer or not, neighbor or not, friend or not, members of the Board of Education have a duty to represent the views of those who elected them. The public’s concern is obvious. Hundreds of residents attended the special Board of Education meeting on November 18, and the regularly scheduled one on December 9. The vast majority of speakers at each meeting took a less-than-positive stance on the Board’s recent actions. At the December 9 meeting’s conclusion at nearly 1am, at least 25 residents remained (noted by Board member Adam Sherman as more than an average meeting), still demanding answers.
Despite the public outcry, the Board of Education has chosen to ignore the specific concerns of the public and move forward, hosting a“Strategic Planning Meeting” on November 25, in which attendees were broken into groups and told to write down their aspirations for the district in the coming years. These aspirations range from the installation of a swimming pool to the extension of the school day to 5pm. Every single aspiration was categorized and put into a PowerPoint presentation. The Board of Education attempted to show the entire 31 slide presentation at the December 9 meeting, but the public’s vocal discontent with the lengthy presentation caused it to be ended prematurely, and the meeting moved to the public comment portion.
While a representative form of government is not direct democracy, the Board should seriously take the community’s concerns into consideration if it cares about its own political survival. At the December 9 meeting, the Board explored forming a “Communications Task Force” to create dialogue between the Board, Administration, and the community. While there is a communications deficit in Highland Park, communications is far from the largest problem at hand.
Ignoring policy and communications issues, various legal and ethical concerns exist. Among the nine individuals RIFed on November 4 were Sarah Vacca and Keisha Ingram, who serve, respectively, as President and Vice President of the Highland Park Education Association, the local union of faculty and staff.
One of the statements made in the Board of Education’s November 22 FAQ is that the Literacy Coaches involved in the November 4 RIF were “not hired to work with students … the district did not eliminate reading specialists who work with children”. However, at the December 9 Board of Education meeting, Francesca Bardes, the Literacy Coach at Irving Primary School, testified that, in fact, she had been working in class with at-risk students, beginning in September 2013, and that Mr. Capone had never met with her to discuss her position.
If the Board of Education is making such decisions on behalf of Mr. Capone, shouldn’t he understand what duties those positions RIFed involve on a day-to-day basis? Shouldn’t the Board of Education verify before releasing a public document that the statements made would not be refuted in a public meeting by the very employee to whom those statements refer?
Mr. Capone’s history as a principal in Delaware raises red flags. On January 24, 2011, he was hired by the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District Board of Education as the Principal of Howard High School of Technology, a vocational-technical high school in Wilmington, Delaware. According toFebruary 28 minutes, he started at Howard High School between January 24 and February 28. April 26, 2011 minutes show that Mr. Capone had taken a leave of absence from March 28 to April 5. None of this is particularly interesting.
Then, something unusual happens. On December 21, 2011, the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District Board of Education held a special meeting at 3:30 pm on a Friday. Yes, 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. At this meeting, the Board voted - unanimously after 50 minutes of closed discussion - to not renew the contract of Mr. Capone, meaning his employment with the district would end on June 20, 2012. For a Board of Education to hold a meeting at this time is highly unusual.
Assume he had been scheduled to only serve one year as Principal, why was a meeting held in the middle of the school year, right before Winter Break, to terminate his contract? Why, following the termination proceedings, according to February 27, 2012 minutes,was Mr. Capone transferred from his position as Principal of Howard High School to Principal of Marshallton Education Center, an adult high school within the New Castle Vo-Tech District? August 27, 2012 minutes show Mr. Capone resigned from the district - as a Social Studies Instructor.
Mr. Capone’s resume, obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, indicates that he listed his position in the New Castle School District as simply “Turnaround Principal/Principal on Special Assignment” at Howard High School of Technology, and never listed any of his moves out of the building and within the New Castle Vo-Tech District. These discrepancies could indicate Mr. Capone misrepresented himself on his resume.
At the December 9 Board of Education meeting, Trenton Education Association President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur testified that Mr. Capone, in his position from 2012 to 2013 as Executive Director of a New Jersey Department of Education Regional Achievement Center, refused to cooperate with union leaders or allow his employees to work with them. It is important to note that at the April 22, 2013 Trenton Board of Education meeting, Ms. Johnson-Lafleur had similar concerns, stating “Someone forgot to tell Tim Capone what collaboration means because, of the other six RACs, there has been collaboration with unions. Tim Capone has refused to meet with the associations within his area.”
Given his non cooperative attitude as a Regional Achievement Center Executive Director in Trenton, and his bumpy ride in Delaware, the public must ask the Board of Education: “In hiring a new superintendent, did you take every precaution in ensuring you had found the best candidate for the job? Did you clarify his stated employment history by reviewing Board minutes from the district he worked in? Did you contact school administrators, Board of Education members, and union leaders at the districts he worked in and with? If you were aware of these issues, did they concern you?”
I want to be able to believe in my borough’s schools. I want to believe in the Board of Education and my local government. But at this point, I cannot. Too many issues with how the district functions have become uncovered. The Board allowed these issues to develop. Now that they are being questioned by the public about these issues, they are trying to make the conversation about poor communication and not the substantive issues they were elected to discuss.
If you’re interested in more information, check outThe Highland Fling, a student-run newspaper based out of Highland Park High School. They have a greatroundup of recent Board of Education activity with informational links and articles.