What was life as a school board member like 100 years ago?

NJSBA had a unique opportunity to ponder this question recently when it came into temporary possession of a book of minutes from the Haledon school board in Passaic County. The book of minutes, which covers the years 1914 to 1919, is on loan to the Association from the Haledon school district. The loan was arranged by Jeff and Ellen Fischer, local school board members.

Jeff Fischer, a former NJSBA president and current member of the NJSBA Board of Directors, is also a current member of the Manchester Regional School Board in Passaic County. Fischer began his board service as a member of the Haledon school board in 1973. Ellen Fischer, a former member of the Manchester Regional board, is currently a member of the Haledon board. Together they have served for more than 50 years on local school boards.

In the early part of the last century, Haledon was a “trolley suburb” of Paterson, according to Fischer. The trolley enabled workers employed in the silk mills to live in Haledon. “One thing that has carried on is that Haledon has always been an immigrant town,” says Fischer. “It was founded by Dutch immigrants, then home to Italian immigrants and German immigrants. These days we have a large Hispanic population, an Asian population and a Russian population.”

Haledon was incorporated as a borough in 1908, after breaking off from Manchester Township. The school district served students grades K-8, as it still does. (High school students currently go to the Manchester Regional district, although in times past, those students went to high school in Paterson.) Jeff Fischer estimates that the district probably had about 250-300 students in 1914; today it serves about 1000.

“The school board minutes were in a vault in our school that was built in 1932,” says Fischer. “When the NJSBA centennial celebration was being planned, I asked the business administrator if he knew where the minutes book was, and he knew exactly where it was. There are minute books that go back even further—that are handwritten and go back to the 1880s and 1890s.”

The document, a slightly battered leather-bound book with meticulously typed notes on yellowing paper, looks every bit of 100 years old.

“In Haledon, the board secretaries and superintendents have made sure this type of thing is kept for history,” says Ellen Fischer. “Many districts don’t have these old records. I have talked to board members in other towns who tell me they think things have just gotten lost over the years.”

Some of the business transacted by the 1914 Haledon board is a hallmark of those long-ago times.

The minutes of the January 2, 1914 meeting note, “A permit for the use of electric current in the Haledon school had been issued Oct. 6, 1913; requesting that policies for fire insurance be sent to the office to have the electric clause attached.”

“I believe there were gas lanterns in the classrooms and hallways before, “ says Jeff Fischer, who is a history enthusiast. “In the fall of 1913 they electrified the school.”

At a May 1914 meeting, the Committee on Fuel, Janitor and Repairs was authorized to purchase one new national flag. While there was no mention of why a new flag was needed, it is worth noting that just two years earlier, New Mexico and Arizona both joined the U.S. Perhaps a flag with 48 stars was needed to reflect those additions.

Even the board’s standing committees in 1914 reflect the needs and concerns of the time: the standing committees included the Committee on Fuel, Janitor and Repairs, the Committee on Books and Supplies, the Committee on Teachers, and the Committee on Finance. Not surprisingly, there was no mention of a negotiations committee.

Keeping an Eye on School Costs

The board’s frugality was reflected in how carefully it supervised expenditures. One vote taken authorized a clerk to purchase “one loose-leaf notebook.” Minutes from a June meeting noted that the chairman of the board’s Book and Supply Committee had sent for a 10-day free trial of a “Boston Pencil Pointer model B and F,” and that “Principal Absalom Grundy reported that the sharpeners were very good.” The board voted to accept and pay for the pencil sharpeners.

The prices on the invoices that the district paid show the value of the 1914 dollar.

For instance, the telephone bill for September 1914 was $2.50, the Public Service Electric Co. bill for October was $4 and the janitor’s salary for 1914-1915 was $850. Other expenses that appear in the minutes include an invoice for 46 copies of “The Merchant of Venice,” for $8.35, and a bill to Silver Burdett & Co, for 10 books for $3.72.

However, it is worth noting that back in 1914 a gallon of milk cost $.32, a new car cost $500 and gas was $.12 per gallon.

“One of the things I think is remarkable is the names on the bill list,” says Jeff Fischer. “There are textbook publisher names, like Silver Burdett and Macmillan, that they were paying bills to. Today I am seeing vouchers to pay those same companies. That isn’t true of most industries.”

Contemporary board members would feel right at home with some of the other business described in the minutes.

Out of District Students

A topic that was as pertinent in 1914 as it is in 2014 is the attendance of out-of-district students, an issue for the Haledon board in the early part of the 20th century. In February 1914, there was a request from a family that moved out of town to allow their daughter to continue attending the Haledon school until the end of the school term. It was granted, provided the father, Mr. John Lee, pay the regular tuition fee of $2 per month. In other months, there were discussions of looking into the matter of a student attending the Haledon school who was reported to be living outside of the district.

“One tuition case was between Haledon and the Wayne Board of Education,” says Jeff Fischer. “It turns out that there were three children of the caretaker who lived on what was the estate of Garret Hobart, who was vice president of the United States under President McKinley. The children transferred to Haledon from Wayne.” Discussion of the matter stretched over more than a year, with Wayne agreeing to pay one year’s tuition for the students, but nothing for the current year. An attorney for the estate pointed out that a large portion of the estate was in the Haledon district, and that since the Hobart estate paid “a very large amount of taxes in the Borough,” the children were entitled to attend school there. After a vote of the Haledon board, the children were allowed to remain in the school.

Student Safety and Privacy

In another discussion that would be entirely familiar to today’s board members, there was worry about student safety from reckless drivers. One resolution determined that “the F.J. & R. (Fuel, Janitor and Repair) Committee be and is hereby authorized and directed to have four signs made up and put up on Belmont and Haledon Avenues, for the purpose of calling the attention to drivers of vehicles to slacken speed on account of public school being in the vicinity.”

At another meeting, a Mr. James Walton appeared before the board and requested to know why his children had been sent home with notes in regards to their scalps. The board minutes, perhaps observing the spirit of the student privacy laws that came decades later, simply noted, “Principal Mr. Grundy furnished the necessary information.”

Teacher Pay

Salaries have long been a point of contention between boards and school staff. At the June 19 meeting, a letter was submitted from Miss Carrie M. Morton, eighth grade teacher:

The board’s immediate response was to direct the district clerk to communicate with other districts to find out what other districts paid for an eighth grade teacher.

Use of School Buildings by Outside Groups

Then, as now, schools were the center of a community, and community groups used them for meetings.

A notation from the Sept. 4, 1914 meeting noted “if the Socialist Party cannot secure the use of St. Mary’s Parish House on Oct. 23, they may have the use of the Assembly room by paying the necessary fees.” The resolution was passed, 7-1.

Jeff Fischer explains that the first mayor of Haledon, from 1908 to 1913, was a socialist who gave permission for the organizers of the 1913 Paterson silk mills strike to hold meetings and demonstrations in Haledon. After serving as mayor, he became a school board member.

A women’s group, while also permitted to use the Assembly room, gained approval by a more narrow margin than the Socialist Party. The Nov. 6, 1914 minutes note that “Misses Alice R. Emmel and Maud McQuillan appeared before the Board and requested the use of the Assembly room for a womens’ political meeting.” The measure passed by a vote of 5-3. This, of course, was five years before the constitutional amendment was passed permitting women to vote.

NJSBA Established

In late spring 1914, news of the founding of a state association of local boards of education reached the Haledon board, and was noted by action at the May 18 board meeting. “A communication was received and read from the State Federation of District Boards of Education, informing the board that it is now mandatory for each district board to elect a member of such board as a delegate to the State Federation, and that the next meeting of the Federation will be May 23 at 10:30 a.m. at the State House.”

After an election between two candidates in the Haledon district, Mr. William J. Foster was voted as Haledon’s delegate (a third nominee declined to stand for election). “It was a contested election,” notes Jeff Fischer, “unlike today, when some boards just send the brand new board member.”

The minutes from the next meeting noted that Mr. Foster’s expenses for attending the State Federation meeting in Trenton were $7.84, presumably for transportation.

“I once saw notes of actual testimony of NJSBA’s first president, who testified before the Legislature that first year on the funding formula,” says Fischer. “It was a concern because at that point all of the state money that went to education came from the Railroad Tax, and there was a debate as to whether it would produce enough money, and whether it was too volatile a source of revenue.”

“But the important thing is that local board members were talking about this, and prior to 1914, they did not have that kind of information available to them, and no representation in Trenton.”

Perhaps that is the biggest new development documented in Haledon’s 1914 school board minutes – that school board members in New Jersey now had an association to advocate for their interests, to act as a resource for them, and to provide them with opportunities to gather with colleagues on other local school boards to share information and advice. That, too, is as true in 2014 as it was in 1914.