Parents and community members who are unhappy with the Jersey City Board of Education’s selection process for a new superintendent of schools are gearing up for a fight and may call for federal intervention from the U.S. Department of Education.
Two marathon public meetings held by the school board within the last two weeks have done little to quell anger over the exclusion of Interim School Superintendent Franklin Walker as a finalist for the permanent position. A long-time administrator in the Jersey City school district, many parents publicly supported Walker for the position, which was vacated in December by former superintendent Dr. Charles Epps.
A six-month search led by two consulting firms – West Hudson Associates and Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates – instead produced two out-of-state candidates as finalists. While some parents are giving the two candidates, Dr. Debra Brathwaite and Dr. Marcia Lyles, high marks, others believe Walker should have made it further in the selection process. Walker’s supporters are now questioning whether the selection process was fair, and whether the school board violated its own procedures or federal law.
“This is a blatant violation of Title I. Blatant violation.” – Susan Curry
Worse, some former school board members believe the superintendent search process may have even violated Title 1 of the No Child Left Behind Act.
After publicly advertising the school superintendent position, which pays a salary of $235,000, the consulting firms received 48 applications. From this pool of 48 candidates, West Hudson Associates and Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates passed along the names and applications of eight candidates, six of whom had first-round interviews with the school board members.
The field of candidates was narrowed down to three people who went through a second round of interviews.
According to a public statement from school trustees, the board conducted both formal and informal reference checks on candidates from mid-May until June 1. This is the process that led to Brathwaite and Lyles as the top two candidates.
Much of the controversy surrounding their selection, however, has to do with the development of the criteria used to field candidates. Beginning in December 2011, the school board held a series of eight public meetings during which parents and other members of the community discussed what kind of experience, skills, and qualifications they wanted to see in the next school superintendent.
During these meetings most parents said they wanted a superintendent who had prior experience working in an urban school district, working with a diverse student body and community, managing a large budget, and a measurable track record of improving student achievement.
It was also during these meetings that many parents specifically endorsed Walker for the position. The fact that he was not included among the list of finalists stunned his supporters.
A violation of ‘parental involvement?’
“The process used to come down to these two candidates was flawed,” said parent Arnold Williams. “I question how the criteria that was generated by the community at those meeting led to the selection of Lyles and Brathwaite, but didn’t involve Franklin Walker.”
Walker’s supporters say they now plan to collect video footage taken of the eight community meetings and other information to determine whether the school board violated its own procedures or federal law.
Under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, the notion of “parental involvement” is now defined by statute and places new requirements on Title I schools to involve parents in their local school and children’s education.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, “For the first time … [parental involvement] has a specific statutory definition. The statute defines parental involvement as the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities, including ensuring…that parents are full partners in their child’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making and on advisory committees to assist in the education of their child.”
The U.S. Department of Education web site has a 55-page public document that outlines how state departments of education, school districts, and individual schools are now required to communicate and work with parents.
“This is a blatant violation of Title I. Blatant violation,” said Susan Curry, president of the Jersey City chapter of the Statewide Education Organizing Committee.
Pro-Walker resolution struck down
Despite the lingering controversy and calls to re-open the candidate search, the Board of Education is prepared to move forward.
A resolution introduced by Trustee Angel Valentin on June 19 to add Walker to the pool of finalists failed by a 2-7 vote. Only Valentin and fellow trustee Sterling Waterman voted in Walker’s favor.
Board Trustee Sangeeta Ranade and fellow Trustee Carol Harrison-Arnold each said they would be willing to share with the public their reasons for not supporting Walker for the superintendent job after they had an opportunity to discuss the matter with Walker directly.
Some parents are meanwhile expressing support for Brathwaite and Lyles.
In surveys that were distributed to the community at a recent Q&A forum with the two women, Lyles rated well in her “leadership and skills,” “knowledge of what is necessary to improve student achievement,” and “skill in engaging the community and supporting all children.”
“The board members were elected…to bring in a new superintendent charged with changing the culture of the system,” said Ellen Simon, a founder of Parents for Progress. “That speaks to a great hunger for change. I hope whoever they choose will be prepared and qualified to do right by the children in this city and tackle problems such as the 58 percent drop-out rate.”
Only a fraction of the people at the June 15 forum turned in the questionnaire. An estimated 325 community members attended the meeting, yet the school board received fewer than 100 questionnaires for each candidate.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.