Secaucus Board of Ed meetings rarely attract more than a handful of parents and teachers each month. But the September meeting, held Wednesday night before a standing room-only crowd at Huber Street School, drew so many people that it had to be moved to the gymnasium. More than 500 people were in attendance.
This meeting was the first of the new school year, and the first since three of the four principals in the district were reassigned and a number of curriculum changes were made.
“The class sizes in the elementary school have skyrocketed.” – Robert Anderson
After running through its regular agenda, the board opened the meeting to public comments.
Robert Anderson, a math teacher at Clarendon School and president of the local teachers union, read a lengthy statement outlining many of the teachers’ concerns about the direction of the school system.
“One board member told me he didn’t believe morale was a problem,” Anderson said. “I think you can see, based on what you see here tonight, that teacher morale is a problem…The problems that the Secaucus Education Association [SEA] sees not only affect the Association, but hamper everyone in this district.”
Anderson said problems included the board’s spending priorities, class size, online lesson plans, and lack of communication between Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina, the board members, and the teachers.
Anderson said Randina has pulled several teachers out of the classroom to be facilitators, supervisors, directors, and department chairs. “Spending in the wrong areas,” he said, has inflated the district’s costs.
“Since Mrs. Randina’s appointment as superintendent, we now have three directors – two of them making $132,000 – supervisors, facilitators, plus department chairs. That’s an added cost, on top of having to find people to cover those classes,” said Anderson.
But School Administrator Ed Walkiewicz explained, as he has in the past, that these positions are being paid for with salary money that lest year went to teachers who have left the school system. In every case, Walkiewicz added, the new hires are making less than the people who they replaced.
Anderson also complained that the board has approved stipends for teachers who are serving as education coaches throughout the system. In the past, such bonus pay was negotiated by the superintendent and the SEA.
“We all here agree that small class size results in better student performance, behavior, and better social skills,” Anderson said. “This board has seen fit to remove four teachers and make them coaches. The class sizes in the elementary school have skyrocketed.”
He said money used to hire a new director of humanities Wednesday would have been better spent on hiring new teachers to replace the coaches.
Some teachers are now spending two hours or more trying to input their plans online.
Randina said this was an unusual, temporary situation that has been addressed. The class size has dropped to 25 students. However, parents at the meeting said a number of other classes still have between 25 and 29 students in them. Randina responded that paraprofessionals have been assigned to these classrooms to provide better instruction and to lower the student-teacher ratio.
Though the district tries to keep classes between 18 and 22 students, the school population is growing and class size is a problem, Randina acknowledged. This year, more than 55 new students enrolled in the Secaucus school district.
Online lesson plans
This year, the district is introducing new software that lets teachers prepare online lesson plans that can be seen and accessed by other teachers, parents, and students. Such plans are considered the wave of the future, since they help state monitors gauge whether educators are meeting state-mandated curriculum standards.
A state monitor will evaluate Secaucus next in 2011. Randina hopes to be able to show the monitor online lesson plans from district teachers.
But according to statements made at the meeting, there have been compatibility glitches between the lesson plan software and the district’s current computer system. Some teachers are now spending two hours or more trying to input their plans online.
“When online plan books were being discussed by Mrs. Randina, she told me any person who wants to continue the traditional practice of lesson plans, they may,” Anderson said, adding this message was reiterated several times by Randina. “In the latest e-mail, she said no teacher would be penalized for turning in a lesson plan on paper, but that everyone is expected to learn the [online lesson plan] system. A total contradiction.”
But on Wednesday, Randina emphasized that teachers can still draft lesson plans in a Word document and ease their transition to the online system. She said the system will improve once the glitches are corrected.
Board member Charles Krajewski, who teaches technology in a Union City school that has already implemented online plans, said at the meeting, “As a parent, I love online plans, because I can see the work that’s expected of my children. I know what homework they have. I know when they have a test. As a teacher, I hate it, because it’s not easy to learn and it does take time to get comfortable with the technology.”
But Krajewski encouraged Secaucus teachers to stick with the online plan system and to keep working at it until they feel more confident.
Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that communication could be improved.
Teachers and parents raised concerns, particularly about student-teacher ratios, that the board seemed unaware of. And the board had to dispel rumors, particularly about new hires and spending, that seemed to be news to parents and staff.
Randina said she would welcome “direct’ communication with teachers. “We don’t have to speak through the Association. I’d rather hear from you directly,” she said, although she later added that she would also be willing to talk to Anderson and other representatives from the union.
“I think there needs to be better dialogue and communication. We don’t know what’s going on if parents and teachers don’t come and tell us,” said board member Dora Mara. “It’s great to see so many people here tonight, because most of the time only a handful of people show up.”
Mara, Randina, and several members encouraged teachers and parents to continue to attend the board’s monthly meetings.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.