Local school boards had barely been formed in New Jersey when school board members began to network with their counterparts in neighboring districts. As the famous American observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted, associations “are necessary.”

So more than one hundred years ago, school board members began to come together at a regional level so that they could become better informed and to advocate for the children of their community. These organizations predate the formation of even the state association.

Today the county school boards associations are thriving entities, holding frequent training programs and providing board members with the opportunity to talk with board members in other nearby districts. We took a look back at the history of the county associations, reviewing meeting minutes and programs, bylaws, and newspaper clippings dating back as far as 1901.

It feels a little like watching an old movie. Details like the hairstyles, clothes, technology, and cars all reveal when the movie was made and make it look dated. But after you get past those little clues, if it is a good movie, you can observe story lines that are timeless and events that represent a sea change.

When I first read through the minutes, I was distracted by the little things, such as a dinner that cost only $1. There was no such thing as a rubber chicken dinner, because all the meals I could find in the 1950s and 1960s featured beef. Celery, radishes, and olives were a popular side dish. Soups were almost exclusively cream of mushroom or French onion. Green beans were the vegetable of choice, and sometimes they really enjoyed a good fruit shrub. (I am still unsure of what a fruit shrub is, but I believe it is a variation of a fruit cocktail with vinegar. In researching recipes for fruit shrub I could see why it is no longer a popular dish.) I was shocked to see meetings ending at 11 p.m., when today, it is rare to go past 9 p.m.

After getting past those differences, it was clear that some of the issues that concerned members haven’t changed much, and that the need for state and county schools boards associations was an important then as it is now. It is also evident that local school boards have constantly been dealing with the national and international issues of the day, including World War II, Sputnik, the advent of a new technology like television, Watergate and the events of 9/11. Those events didn’t just dominate national news; they changed the discussion and the delivery of public education at the local level, as well.

In many ways, the challenge of local school boards has always involved addressing the concerns of the day, as well as preparing our children for an uncertain future.

Sometimes we all act as if we’re the first to address a particular education issue. But history tells us many of these subjects are not new at all.

So here’s a question: Which Commissioner of Education said, “Our main objective is to see that all children receive a thorough and effective education, no matter where they reside.” Was it Christopher Cerf? Possibly Lucille Davy? Maybe it was David Hespe, our current commissioner? Does the name Dr. John Bosshart ring a bell? Probably not, but Commissioner Bosshart made those remarks at a meeting of the Bergen County School Boards Association on May 3, 1944. (Actually, it was called the Bergen County Federation of Boards of Education then.) Switch the words “zip code” for “where they reside” and that statement could probably be attributed to almost any recent New Jersey Commissioner of Education.

There were many other examples in the Bergen County minutes of issues that seem timeless. Do school districts today believe that there seems to be an organized effort to undermine them? That is not new, since the Bergen County board members asked to have Commissioner Bosshart return in the fall to speak about the “Organized Propaganda Against Public Schools and What Can be Done to Turn the Tide?”

School districts have come under criticism for not merging or sharing services, even though there may not be a school district in the state that does not engage in some form of shared service or cooperative buying agreement. But you may be interested to know that in March 1940, another topic for a meeting of board members was “the advisability of cooperative buying by the various school districts.”

It should not come as a surprise that school funding has long been a common concern of boards of education. The minutes and meeting topics often deal with efforts to increase state funding, including building coalitions with the education groups.

Today, public education in this nation is grappling with the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes testing, in part because private industry is demanding that our public schools prepare our students better for the workplace. An economic system that calls for employees who don’t need higher education has largely disappeared. Yet, did you know that it was once again private industry which had pushed hard for the creation of the vocational schools beginning in the 1930s, for almost the same exact reason we are pushing new standards today –that is, to have more capable employees. Once again the minutes from 1939 reveal this when Commissioner of Education Dr. Charles Elliott discussed with members the “definite need for a vocational school,” and that “industry was in favor of the plan and would hire boys and girls trained in such a school.”

Elite Colleges? Back when there were more daily newspapers, and more daily newspaper reporters, the media covered county school boards association meetings. An article from Nov. 29, 1961, “School Chief Warns Parents On Overdone College Status-Raubinger Says Too Many Put Prestige Ahead Of Sound Judgment” quoted education commissioner Dr. Frederick Raubinger, who warned parents that too many suburban communities are placing too much emphasis on getting their high-school graduates into too few colleges. “Dr. Raubinger charged that many high schools feel their graduates should be prepared for a handful of “so-called” elite colleges. This frenzy rubs off on parents and children, he said, and if a student can’t be admitted to a particular college there is great concern,” the article stated. “Who is to say one college is better than another? What counts is what’s good for the individual youth or girl,” Raubinger was quoted as saying. While the sentiment – that families should choose a college by deciding what is best for a child – is one that resonates with educators today, it is likely that in some circles, parents today could use the same reminder given in 1961.

What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

My favorite sentiment found in the old records is the eternal concern shared by every succeeding generation of adults: The younger generation is less respectful and more rebellious than their generation. In a discussion of high school students, the minutes noted, “The importance of making a careful check on the immorality of teenage children by careful chaperoning at school functions was discussed.” Those teens who needed to be chaperoned lest they fall into immorality were the same kids that later became known as America’s “greatest generation.”

Responding to World Events

While it is fun to look back and see how some things barely change, it is fascinating to see how events can change forever how we look at and administer our schools. While some issues are timeless, school districts are also forced to meet the unique needs of their era.

One of those moments that changed public education was World War II. War-related discussions understandably dominated meetings. On April 22, 1942, not six months after Pearl Harbor, the Bergen County speaker was Dr. John Norton of Teachers College, Columbia University. He discussed the role of public education in time of war, and, according to the minutes, warned that schools might be threatened. “He warned that with conscription of teachers for military service, and the resigning and withdrawing of many for war industries continuing, we may in time not have sufficient personnel and schools will close… Great Britain closed schools – that was Germany’s first victory.”

World War II also changed the family dynamics. Since so many men were away at war, the women began to enter the workforce. This placed new demands on school districts. Schools did not provide hot lunches and most students went home for lunch. Yet in 1943 this became an issue in Bergen County and was discussed at a meeting. “The Committee examined the returns on the questionnaire sent out to determine the need for the care of children whose parents are working. It was thought advisable to encourage boards of education to make provision in the schools for hot lunches if 20 or more pupils remained in school at noon,” the minutes noted.

One month later the topic was still being discussed. “The matter of nursery schools, school breakfasts, school lunches and after-school programs for children was discussed. It was the consensus of opinion in the group that a mother of a 2-year-old child or a mother of several small children, should not be permitted to work in industry.” Yet despite this reluctance to acknowledge the changing role of women, the county association elected a woman as president.

Years later, in 1974, one could see the impact that Watergate had on local school districts. The board of directors of the Morris County School Boards Association felt it necessary to address the issue in a press release that said, “The Board of Directors is concerned about two fairly prevalent practices which tend to undermine public confidence in school boards: one is the employment of immediate relatives of school board members in the same school system; the other is the election of teachers to school boards.” Their reasoning was influenced by Watergate as they indicated that “Public confidence in the integrity and independence of elected officials reached an all-time low in 1974, resulting in voter apathy and cynicism over the workings of our democratic institutions.” The group believed that in order to restore confidence, these issues should be addressed.

You do not have to be involved in education very long to see how events can quickly change the focus of our schools. Our county school boards associations have met the challenge by hosting meetings to address these concerns. You only have to look at events like the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and in Newtown, Connecticut, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to see how the county associations have served their members by providing programs on topics like bullying and school security.

The overarching theme is apparent in historical documents, and at county meetings today. Over the years, I estimate I have attended between 700 and 800 county school boards association meetings, and have visited every county. At times past and present, and in every county, school board members find it important to form an association to help improve the education they provide. This effort means more nights out and requires a greater commitment. Yet through the years, school board members have consistently showed that commitment.

The Mercer County School Boards Association was founded in 1901, and the preamble to its constitution, while using verbiage that sounds dated, expresses a timeless intent.

Preamble to the Constitution of Mercer County School Board Association –1901

We, the members of the respective Boards of Education in Mercer County, desiring to promote the efficiency of the public schools, do hereby agree to form ourselves into an association for the purpose of a free inter-change of views upon educational matters, believing that such inter-change of views will lead to a united and harmonious action in all questions pertaining to the welfare of the schools. We further agree that our Association shall be governed by the following Constitution.

There is another characteristic that has also been consistent through the years. The county associations, while being attuned to their local issues, have also been consistent partners with their state association, the New Jersey School Boards Association. Representatives from NJSBA have been frequent guests and presenters at the county meetings. This should be of no surprise to anyone since the core mission is the same.

While it was interesting and sometimes even funny to read what our predecessors said and did 50 years ago, I can’t help but wonder what some future researcher 50 years from now might think and say about us? Though I am sure that they will laugh chuckle, they will also see that, as de Toqueville said, “associations” are necessary.

Ray Pinney is NJSBA director of county activities and member engagement.