If there is anything tamer than a Morris School District board meeting, it’s a League of Women Voters candidates forum.
So it was startling on Tuesday to see one board candidate rip into another, near the end of a polite 90-minute session where contestants mostly agreed the regional district runs pretty well.
“Don’t you dare question my integrity,” Vij Pawar told John Creamer, his opponent for a Morristown seat on the board. “I have skin in the game.”
Creamer had suggested Pawar’s job as Morristown municipal attorney raised the specter of political interference from town hall that could “derail” the board.
“As town attorney / school board member, will he advocate for town business or for the needs of our schools and our students?” Creamer said, before a small audience at the Thomas Jefferson School in Morristown.
Declaring “I’m not a politician,” Pawar said he is running for the sake of his two children in elementary school, and “for all our children.”
A passion for education enabled him to succeed as a teenaged immigrant from India, he said, pledging to help others achieve success.
“Morristown is a very diverse community. We need a school board that reflects that diversity. I’m running to provide that diversity. I’m running to provide a perspective of an immigrant,” and of a young parent, said Pawar, who works closely with Mayor Tim Dougherty.
Video: Skin in the Game, candidates clash in closing statements:
Contested races used to be rare for this district. Tuesday’s forum featured two of them.
In addition to Pawar vs. Creamer, two Morris Township seats are in play on Nov. 6, 2018, and three people are competing for them: Incumbent Ann Rhines, Linda Murphy and Alan Smith.
The unpaid terms are for three years. The Morristown candidates are running for the seat of Jeannette Thomas, stepping down after two terms. Prim Minchello of Morris Township is leaving the board after one term.
‘A LACK OF RIGOR’
Established by court order in 1971, the K-12 Morris School District serves 5,200 students from Morristown, Morris Township and (high school only) Morris Plains. Its $117 million budget is about the size of the sending towns’ combined budgets.
Hailed as a beacon of diversity by the Century Foundation, the district has integrated waves of immigrants–many undocumented and speaking little or no English–while winning awards and sending graduates to top universities. Fresh off a multi-million dollar expansion of Morristown High School, the district is on track to become debt-free next year.
“That’s just remarkable,” said Rhines, a retired teacher in the district.
Indeed, the candidates all found much to like. The district should do more to promote itself, they agreed. Pawar promised to visit Morristown neighborhoods to bring board news to busy parents and taxpayers without children.
Smith, who works in human resources for a startup, said he plans to host town hall meetings to “demystify” the board and solicit feedback.
Showing up at community gatherings is important, acknowledged Creamer, who works in communications for a healthcare company. His son attends Morristown High School and his daughter goes to Frelinghuysen Middle School.
Rhines, whose children and grandchildren were educated in the district, said she attends many Home and School Association events. “We can’t walk into any school. We have to be invited,” she said. “If I’m invited, I go.”
“I believe that the board needs to create a new initiative all around communication…that lets people understand exactly where the district is focusing on improvement, and allows it to be easy to understand, not a dense slide deck,” said Murphy, a retired consultant for AT&T and Township resident for 30 years.
Murphy decided to run after observing “a lack of rigor in homework” assigned to her two granddaughters in gradeschool.
“The work seemed rather simplistic, unchallenging and unrelated to any learning objectives,” she said.
Everyone spoke highly of Superintendent Mackey Pendergast, though some differed over the board’s role.
Members should not serve as rubber stamps, Pawar asserted.
“If you’re not allowed to ask questions, you’re not allowed to get into the details of what is happening, then you shouldn’t be on the board,” the lawyer said.
Praising Pendergrast’s “remarkable vision,” Creamer said the board should continue its “strong, supportive relationship.”
Smith likened the relationship to that of a CEO, who sets policy, and a corporate board, which represents shareholders— in this case, students and taxpayers.
“We’re supposed to help him shape his programs for the best interest of our community. But the daily running of the schools is really the task of the superintendent,” said Smith, whose daughter is a 5th grader at Thomas Jefferson.
Hired in 2015, Pendergrast attends every committee meeting, explains things to members, and proposes policies and budgets for board approval, said Rhines, who regards her fellow board members as partners with the superintendent.
“In the past three years we’ve come a long way,” she said.
NO PEEPS OVER PILOTS
Spectators submitted questions to League moderator Marlene Sincaglia. Responding to one of the queries, Creamer criticized Morristown for allowing redevelopers to skip paying school taxes, via a PILOT, short for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes to the town.
“I have to believe that our schools are suffering because there is money there that is not getting to the schools because it’s going to developers,” said Creamer, a town resident for 15 years.
Morristown’s PILOT projects are a sore spot in the Township, which contributes 63 percent of the district’s cost, Murphy said.
“If we’re going to be a unified school district, the towns have to have an equal share” of the tax burden, Smith said.
Pawar countered that the district gets $1 million a year from a landmark tax settlement Morristown negotiated with Atlantic Health, the parent of Morristown Medical Center.
PILOTs, he said, are incentives to develop blighted properties that otherwise would pay hardly any taxes at all. Morristown’s projects are “small condos that do not produce any schoolchildren,” he said.
Nor has the district made a peep about this practice for the last nine years, Pawar contended.
“Why hasn’t the school board or the superintendent sat down with the administration of the town and asked them, ‘How can we share, how can you provide us with additional funding?’ Why hasn’t that leadership taken place?” Pawar said.
Creamer, who has a master’s degree in education and has taught English as a second language, said he is running to keep the board “independent and free of town politics.”
No state law prohibits a town attorney from serving on a local board of education, according to Janet Bamford of the the New Jersey School Boards Association.
School board members, on the other hand, are barred from serving as mayors or council members.
Here’s where candidates stand on other topics.
All opposed evaluating teachers solely from students’ scores on standardized tests.
Views varied on the controversial PARCC tests. Linda Murphy said PARCC data is useful for decision-making. Smith contended class time could be better spent.
“I’ve seen the push for high PARCC scores. I get a child who comes home exhausted and it feels like a waste of learning for a week,” Smith said.
The district paid $625,000 to a family that claimed bullies drove their son, Morristown High School freshman Lennon Baldwin, to kill himself in 2012.
Rhines said the board devotes half of every closed session discussing HIB cases (harassment, intimidation and bullying). More guidance counselors have been added, she said, and the district deems students’ social and emotional development “almost as important as academics.”
Smith said the district has made a “phenomenal start” tackling a problem that plagues the nation.
“I feel that bullying is perhaps the number one security issue facing all students. It is more prevalent and more pervasive than any number of the mass shootings that have taken place across the country,” Smith said.
Many shootings might have been prevented if schools were more proactive in confronting bullies, he said.
Pawar questioned if statistics accurately reflect the extent of bullying. “How many incidents are being reported” to police, he asked.
IF THEY COULD MAKE ONE CHANGE?
Smith said he would boost STEM programs in early grades. He’d like to see Mandarin taught in 1st grade; that’s when his daughter started learning the language at an international school in Shanghai, where the family spent three years.
Pawar, a trustee of New Jersey City University, would concentrate on improving board communication with the public.
Murphy, a trustee of Morris Arts, would integrate the arts into other disciplines; she said studies show this boosts overall academic performance. Creamer would emphasize student involvement in extracurricular activities.
Rhines, a trustee of the Morris Educational Foundation and member of the Literacy Volunteers of Morris County, said she and the school board already have introduced extracurricular policies meant to foster a sense of belonging.
At Frelinghuysen Middle School, where she tutors, Rhines said all 6th graders participate in school activities beyond the classroom. Some 700 pupils are involved in music programs, she said.