New Jersey’s 21 county school boards associations play a critical role in developing sound educational leadership. They can be a valuable source of training and information, as well as a forum for sharing ideas and concerns across district lines. Throughout my 32 years as a district superintendent and four-plus years as an executive county superintendent, that was always the case. No matter how full my calendar was, I made a point of never missing a county meeting.
Today, as NJSBA executive director, I’ve made a point of focusing our efforts on improving county association meetings. Nothing is more critical to our mission of advancing effective school governance than the quality of county association and Board Member Academy programs. These are the points at which we touch our members by delivering knowledge and expertise. So, it’s obvious that the county SBAs will play a key role in transforming our association from a good organization to a great one.
Longtime board members will recall a time when they went to a county association meeting and more than 100 people were in attendance. In recent years, we have not seen that level of attendance very often. I firmly believe that, thanks to a combination of interesting and timely topics, informative speakers and effective training, we are on our way back.
For the seven months from this past September through March, attendance at county meetings exceeded the total participation for all of last year (2011-2012) by more than 35 percent. Even more significant has been the programming: current issues ranging from school security to the new teacher and principal evaluation systems; outreach to new school board members; training on topics such as student achievement, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and board leadership; and the opportunity to draw on the knowledge of NJSBA experts in school law, labor relations, policy and board governance during “county meet-up” roundtables.
A number of improvements were already in the works when I arrived at NJSBA. And I would like to commend our county activities coordinators, Marcia Lavigne and Kurt Rebovich, and our director of training and membership engagement, Ray Pinney, for their work.
County meetings are evening events. Expecting board members to fit them into their schedules requires not only worthwhile programming, but also adequate repast. That means decent food. Let’s face it: after a long day on the job, people cannot be expected to extend their day to 9 p.m. or later fueled only by cookies and coffee. So, with the assistance of business sponsors, we’ve been able to restore an important element to the county meetings—namely, dinner. My commendations to Patty Maillet, NJSBA business development specialist, for her work in this regard.
From my vantage point as executive director, the county SBA meetings have another benefit: They provide valuable feedback from the membership. Last fall, I committed myself to ensuring that our members’ concerns are being heard. I identified two projects: one was a member needs assessment; the other is what I termed my county “listening tour.” During my first year, I have made a personal goal of visiting each and every county association. There is no better place to hear the concerns and the needs of our members than up front and in person. And at each of the 16 county associations I have visited to date, our members have shared their thoughts about NJSBA’s programs and services.
The continuing improvement of our county programs is due in no small part to the efforts of the County Association Leadership. This group consists of the local school board members who serve as officers of the county associations and who play a critical role in identifying and implementing their programs. Their contributions result in topics and programs that are unique to individual associations or groups of counties.
For example, last night at the Cumberland County School Boards Association, I witnessed for the first time a program that is popular among the South Jersey counties: the “8th grade dialogue.” Top students about to enter high school spoke about their experiences in school, their hopes and aspirations, and how schools can be improved. As board members, our focus first and always must be the advancement of student achievement. Hearing from the young people whose education is affected by the work of local school boards can be eye-opening, gratifying and certainly worthwhile.
That’s important information for NJSBA, an organization that represents all of New Jersey’s local boards of education, which oversee the education of our state’s 1.4 million public schoolchildren.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected]