Tales of Two Boards: In ‘Good’ N.J. District, Board Tries to Find Its Way

By Lynn Olson — April 29, 1992 20 min read

Seated at folding tables at the front of the room, members of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Township Board of Education look out on a sea of empty chairs.

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After 52 Years, ‘Hard Worker’ Is Ousted From Office

It is a Monday night, and the board has scheduled a public hearing to discuss next year’s budget. But of the school district’s 50,000 residents, only 5 are in the audience: a P.T.A. president; a prospective student teacher and her boyfriend; Harold F. Gantert, who is himself running for the board of education; and a stringer for The Star Ledger in Newark.

The pattern is a familiar one. Although citizens sometimes turn out in force to fight school closings or cuts in the sports program, most board meetings attract fewer than a dozen people, including a handful of what the board refers to as “regulars.’'

“I’d like to think people don’t show up, not because they’re apathetic, but because we’re doing such a good job,’' says Leslie E. Silver, a 15-year member of the school board. “But personally, I think the community is apathetic.’'

Of the 23,000 or so registered voters in the district, only 10 percent vote in school-board elections.

“Those parents whose kids have graduated and gone don’t even know the date of the election,’' says Ruth Krawitz, the school system’s superintendent.

Keep Those Taxes Down’

Many of those who do vote are senior citizens who are “not anxious to spend one extra dime on education,’' Ms. Krawitz adds, “despite the fact that many of them probably had children and grandchildren going to our schools.’'

Although the school system has sponsored casino nights, free dinner theaters, and other events to draw the township’s elderly population into the schools, concerns about a possible taxpayer revolt linger.

The experience of David Shaffer, a first-term board member, is typical.

“When I ran last year,’' he says, “I called up the father of one of my old classmates from high school and I said, ‘Mr. Smith, can I put a sign up on your front lawn, I’m running for the board of education.’ And he said, ‘What do you stand for?’ And I said, ‘Neighborhood schools.’ And he said, ‘Well, that doesn’t mean anything to me.’ And I said, ‘Keeping minor sports.’ And he said, ‘Well, that doesn’t mean anything to me either.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think we really ought to keep those taxes down.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can put a sign on my front lawn.’''

“There’s a large group of people in Parsippany,’' Mr. Shaffer adds, “and I can honestly say my father is included, who threaten to vote down the school budget every year.’'

Direction Uncertain

Yet, Parsippany-Troy Hills is what most people would refer to as a “good’’ school system. Its students score well on the state’s standardized tests. About 75 percent of its graduates go on to college.

It is the kind of district that prides itself on offering a little something for everyone: computer and science labs in the elementary schools, a gifted-and-talented program in grades 6-12.

There is a flourishing middle-schools program, an alternative school, an adult high school, and 250 separate course offerings in each of the comprehensive high schools on both sides of town. The central administration is strong; the teachers, experienced.

If there are problems plaguing the board of education, they are not the kind that make headlines. But they are undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has ever followed local education: low voter turnout, an aging population that is resistant to tax increases, a steady stream of state mandates, a preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of running a school system, and a group that is split by age and by its varied definitions of boardsmanship.

This year, the board also faces a special challenge: Ms. Krawitz has announced that she will retire in December. And the board is in the midst of a search for a new superintendent.

It is a board whose members work hard at what they do and who struggle to do what is right. Yet, as Mr. Silver says, “Today, I’m not so sure this board knows where it is going.’'

‘Part of a System’

The board members are a civic-minded lot. They include two engineers, two lawyers, a marketing specialist, a small businessman, a retired nurse, and a teacher and a principal who work in other school districts.

Most of them still have children in the schools.

All share a history of community involvement. As individuals, they helped found the town’s soccer league, its gifted-and-talented association, its special-education program. One of them has served on the town’s energy committee, another presided over the Rotary Club, a third helped defeat the construction of a local jail.

A.C. Gangadharan, the board’s president, is a slight, formal man of Indian descent. An environmental engineer, Mr. Gangadharan comes from a family of educators.

His wife, his mother, his father, and two of his sisters are teachers. Before joining the school board in 1981, he served on the board of trustees for the town library.

Like most other board members, Mr. Gangadharan joined the board ready to accomplish “great things.’'

“When you come on to the board,’' he recalls, “you come with a different perspective: And that is, ‘I want to do a great deal of things. I want to change. I have some great ideas, and I must push them.’''

“But what you find,’' he adds, “is you’re part of a system. And the system has so many parts. Unless you’re able to push the broader group, you cannot accomplish much.’'

A Town Without a Center

Today, despite their individual strengths, members of the Parsippany-Troy Hills school board describe themselves as a group divided, plagued by a lack of cohesion reflecting the broader community.

Parsippany-Troy Hills is a sprawling, 25-square-mile township in northern New Jersey, about a half-hour’s drive northwest of Newark. It is bisected by Route 46--a jumble of gas stations, convenience stores, motels, and fast-food restaurants--and a six-lane expanse of Interstate 80.

There is no main street, no center of town. “There is nothing to bring it together,’' Superintendent Krawitz says, “so that each community sees itself as a neighborhood, in which the school has a central focus.’'

In the past decade, the area has become one of the major corporate headquarters in northern New Jersey. It also houses a large immigrant population from some 50 countries. And at least a quarter of its residents are senior citizens living on fixed incomes.

With such scant participation in board elections, individuals are able to win their seats based primarily on the turnout in their local neighborhoods. And there, school officials and others say, begins a problem.

While board members are elected districtwide, the perception is that at least some of them are beholden to the neighborhoods from which they come--a tension fueled by the different notions of boardsmanship that separate the newer from the older members.

Parents ‘Want a Say’

Older board members, such as Frank A. Calabria, have children who have already graduated or who are attending one of the district’s two high schools. They see themselves as trustees in the most traditional sense of the word: nonintrusive, politely inquisitive, extremely supportive of the school system and its administration.

The voluble Mr. Calabria describes parents as “another pressure group,’' and warns about the dangers of being swayed too much by individual constituencies.

In contrast, many of the newer board members have children in elementary school. They ran for the board, in part, to prevent the closing of their neighborhood schools. And they are adamantly pro-parent.

Stephen J. Sanders has been on the board for nearly four years. “When I ran, there was only one other board member with children in the elementary school,’' he recalls. “I felt like parents my age, with my inclinations, deserved more representation.’'

“This new group of parents,’' he adds, “are very active, tend to be more educated, more involved, and they want to have a say in how the schools are run.... They are interested in being involved in everything from the curriculum to the calendar.’'

‘A Narrow Vision’

In the past five years, the election of a contingent of individuals like Mr. Sanders has led to a more responsive and accessible board, according to members of the local parent-teacher associations.

But the proclivity of these board members to go to bat for parents’ concerns and to second-guess some of the administration’s own decisions has also led to charges of meddling and myopia.

“The board members who came in three or four years ago, for the most part, have young children in our schools,’' Ms. Krawitz says. “They use what happens with their kids in their schools as a barometer, as reflective of what goes on all over. That’s a narrow vision.’'

In general, these board members get more calls from parents and other people in the community. They like to visit schools more often. And they are more willing to cross the line into what some consider administration.

“Every once in a while, I’ll hear of something going on at a school, and I will contact the principal directly,’' Mr. Shaffer, who has served on the board for less than a year, says. “In that case, probably, the administration would think we should lay off a little bit. But as far as I’m concerned, if I’m simply asking a question, the principal is an extension of the administration. And as a board member and a parent, I think it’s within my right to ask.’'

So far, such disagreements have not hamstrung the board. There is usually the majority needed to pass any proposal. But especially in the committee sessions, away from the public eye, board members say the tensions are evident.

“We’ll get into a closed session and talk about a particular teacher, or a particular principal,’' Mr. Silver says, “and you realize what’s going on is this parent has a child, or has a constituent with a child in that school, who has complained directly to the board member. And this board member is making a big deal about it, because it’s from his school.’'

Although all nine board members acknowledge such tensions, they have made little effort to deal with them directly. The board does not engage in any formal self-evaluation. And it has not had the time or money for board retreats to focus on its differences.

Bogged Down in ‘Administrivia’

Instead, board members find themselves barraged with a steady stream of decisions about everything from roofing repairs to teacher stipends.

At least twice a week, board members receive a stack of papers at home from the school administration, keeping them apprised of district developments.

The full board meets twice a month. In addition, board members serve on nine separate committees, and a temporary search committee to locate a new superintendent has been created.

Because each committee includes three board members, the nine-member board doubles and triples up on assignments. According to Ms. Krawitz, “there’s a meeting practically every night of the week.’'

Most board members put in at least 5 hours a week on board-related activities, with some of the younger board members clocking as many as 15 or 20 hours.

As a result of state requirements, the board votes on a mind-numbing list of details related to educational oversight. Every personnel shift, appointment, raise, stipend, retirement, or leave comes before the board. Any budget expenditure or grant application necessitates a vote.

Which doctors should provide medical coverage at football games? Should a school accept a $1,000 donation for a flagpole, or a computer table and tripod from a parent-teacher association? Can the high schools create a course on college note-taking for seniors?

The list is endless. Although such detailed items rarely get discussed, they do take up time.

“I think the board is bogged down a great deal with ‘administrivia,’'' says Ellen Decker, an 8th-grade teacher in Paterson, N.J., who has served on the board for three years. “We’re piled down with an agenda that is necessary, must be approved, and that is all the legal way of doing things. But sometimes I wonder, what am I doing here?’'

“Ninety-five percent of everything we vote on is just pro forma,’' Mr. Silver agrees. “It’s ‘yes, yes, yes,’ because there’s nothing really to discuss.’'

“Many of the items that you see us voting on, many of the people in town couldn’t care less about,’' he adds. “That’s why we have a board of education. It’s something we have to do. Somebody has to do it. And the board of education does it.’'

‘Rudely Awakened’

But others worry that the result means little time to talk about educational issues or to think about long-range planning.

“When one thinks that they’re going to be on a school board and talk education, they’re rudely awakened,’' Mr. Calabria says. “You’re talking budget, and the parking lot needs to be repaired.’'

While the country’s leaders debate such heady topics as national standards and assessments, members of the Parsippany-Troy Hills school board find themselves engaged in sorting through a much more standard set of policy issues:

Should the school district have a February vacation? Can it maintain its vocational program, despite declining enrollments? Can it afford to keep open its adult high school? Should it add a ninth period to the school day?

One of the most controversial issues in recent years has been the fight about all-day kindergarten, which the school system still does not have. Although a number of board members strongly support the idea, it faced substantial community opposition.

“People were passionate,’' Mr. Sanders recalls. “There was one group of parents who went so far as to say, ‘If you put in all-day kindergarten, [we will] vote against the budget.’'' The board backed off.

Although the school system has a mission statement, it was developed by the administration, not the board. State-mandated five-year plans in individual curriculum areas are also approved by the board, but developed by the administration.

And most initiatives--ranging from the school district’s use of whole-language methods to its experiment with cooperative learning--are administration-born and -bred.

Ideally, board members say, they would like to have more time for work sessions devoted to education issues. It would be nice, too, they say, to have more interplay between the board and members of the public.

But unless something else in their schedule gives, they say, such options are impossible.

‘Usurping’ the Board’s Power

Yet, ask board members which decisions they would be willing to give up, and a problem becomes apparent.

“There is nothing that we do that I wish we didn’t do,’' says Alan Gordon, who has served on the board for two years, “not really.’'

The most telling example arose a few years ago, when the state selected Parsippany-Troy Hills Township to participate in its “cooperative relationship’’ project.

The effort, launched in 1987, was designed to help nine school districts involve teachers more in decisions that directly affect the classroom.

In Parsippany-Troy Hills, site councils were set up at individual schools. In addition, a districtwide committee that included board members, parents, teachers, principals, and others met for more than a year.

But the school board vetoed many of the committee’s recommendations. And when the project lost its state funding, the effort quietly folded.

According to Ms. Krawitz, some board members “could not think of giving up any of the responsibilities for which boards have been endowed.’'

Mr. Silver, for instance, described the project as a “farce.’' He complained that the board was expected to endorse any idea the committee devised. “I saw it usurping the power of the board,’' he recalls.

‘Tainted’ the Project

Other participants blamed the teachers’ union for casting every decision as a win-or-lose situation for either the board or the teachers.

John Capsouras, the union’s president in the district, says: “The minute board members realized empowerment meant giving up some of their authority, the word changed to cooperation. And once it became cooperation, if we did what they wanted, we were cooperating. If we didn’t, we weren’t cooperating.’'

In general, nobody was able to agree on the goals for the project or on the roles for individual players.

Many of the decisions that teachers, administrators, and board members wanted to make--about such issues as testing, graduation requirements, attendance requirements, and class size--were out of their hands anyway, already mandated by state laws and regulations.

“As we approached these decisions, that sense of not being in control tainted the entire project,’' recalls Angelo Guiliana, the principal at Central Middle School.

Agreed Ms. Decker: “It’s hard to share when you have just a few important powers’’ to begin with.

A ‘Dead’ Initiative

Although some school-based councils created during the project still exist, their role has been limited to issues that do not require board approval, such as dress codes.

“I think it’s rather dead,’' Mr. Calabria says of the initiative. “I haven’t heard one statement regarding it in at least a year.’'

Today, Parsippany-Troy Hills is a highly centralized school system. Attempts to ensure equity across schools during the 1970’s have resulted in a marked degree of uniformity and a pressure for all schools to look roughly the same.

The curriculum is standardized, with approximately the same course offerings in each high school. There are learning outcomes for every grade. Budget decisions and personnel changes are made from above. Textbook selections and expenditures are also made districtwide. At a recent board meeting that included a review of the school district’s middle schools, principals from the schools tried to reassure board members that any differences between their programs were “superficial.’'

“I’m in favor of site-based management generally,’' says Harold Hayes, a board member in his fifth year, “but I don’t see anybody moving toward that at all.’'

Budget Woes Frustrating

In recent months, board members’ most pressing concern has been passing the school district’s budget.

Under the Quality Education Act, passed by state lawmakers two years ago, Parsippany-Troy Hills was categorized as a “transition district’’ that will eventually lose much of its state funding to poorer communities.

The controversial school-finance law, which Democratic Gov. James J. Florio rammed through the legislature in response to a state supreme-court ruling, increased state aid for education and redistributed it to New Jersey’s low-wealth urban school districts.

The massive tax increases that accompanied the bill set off a voter rebellion that cost the Democrats their majority in both houses of the legislature.

As a result of the law, predominantly middle-class districts like Parsippany-Troy Hills have been forced to cut programs or raise local property taxes to compensate for the loss in state funding. The law also imposes a spending ceiling on local school districts.

Meanwhile, the state continues to issue mandates about everything from asbestos removal to the amount of space required in a classroom.

The Q.E.A., “coupled with state mandates and the economic downturn, really has us terribly concerned,’' Ms. Krawitz says.

The district’s $64.6-million budget, approved by the voters this month, represents a 1.8 percent reduction from 1991-92, or more than $1 million in savings. But even with the reduction, the loss of state aid and a decrease in the total value of taxable property in the district necessitated a minor tax increase.

So far, the school board has managed to make cutbacks while keeping all of its programs intact. But several board members caution that the district cannot keep evading tough decisions about priorities.

At least half of the board members’ year is devoted to devising and passing the budget. “In the last two years, we haven’t had a chance to focus on education at all,’' Mr. Hayes complains. “It’s frustrating that you spend all your time struggling to maintain a program that you believe is good, and all you can focus on is finding the dollars to keep things alive. There’s no time to find new programs, improve programs.’'

Board members also express frustration that the school budget is subject to direct voter approval. At the polls, citizens vote up or down on whether to raise the money for both the school system’s current expenses and its capital outlays for land, buildings, and maintenance.

“It’s not a very good procedure,’' Mr. Sanders says, “because it’s so hard for us to understand the budget, let alone the public.’'

“If they’re going to elect school-board members,’' he adds, “they should just let board members make those decisions.’'

‘Neutral at Best’

The budget is also a perennial source of tension with the town council, whose relationship with the school board is described as “neutral at best.’' In the event that a school budget fails to pass, it is the council that determines where to make the necessary cuts.

“The town is responsible for collecting taxes, but the school board probably has a budget that’s twice what the town budget is,’' explains Joseph S. Weisberg, one of three council members who used to sit on the school board. “So, to some extent, the town fathers take the heat for the taxes, but the school board spends a good deal of the money.’'

The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Parsippany-Troy Hills, where the student population has dropped from a high of nearly 12,000 in the late 1960’s to slightly less than 5,800 today, but the school budget has not decreased proportionately.

When Ms. Krawitz announced her decision to retire in December, Mayor Frank Priore said, “I’m not sorry to see her go.’' The Mayor, who was criticized by Ms. Krawitz for endorsing several board candidates in last year’s nonpartisan election, faulted her for not working hard enough to fight state education reforms that would lead to a loss of state funding for the district.

‘Let’s Talk About Us’

Ms. Krawitz announced her retirement last summer, after eight years at the helm.

Two months ago, the school board finally put together a search committee and began soliciting input from teachers and citizens through the use of questionnaires and communitywide meetings.

“Nobody really wanted to dig in and get started,’' says Ms. Krawitz, whose relationship with the board has been a relatively peaceful one.

To some extent, the search for a new superintendent could give the school board an opportunity to step back and reassess where it is headed. After all, selecting a chief executive officer is one of the most important decisions school boards are called on to make.

But, while some board members say they are doing just that, others disagree.

“I don’t think we’ve sat down and really said, ‘What are we about?’'' Mr. Calabria says. “Let’s talk about us.’'

When board members talk about their future superintendent, they describe him or her in the most general terms: someone who can cope with a multicultural population, who has spent time in schools, who knows a lot about teacher evaluation.

But their vision of where the school district is going is largely confined to maintaining and preserving the status quo.

“If you ask me the sum total of it, where I would like to see the district go is to continue to do the things that we have done, but perhaps more efficiently,’' Mr. Gangadharan says in a statement that reflects the views of many of his colleagues.

“But I’m not looking for a radical change in the operation of this district,’' he adds, “because we have a good district.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Tales of Two Boards