Schundler and the Reinvented DOE

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Assembled school board members and administrators main-lining caffeine early Saturday morning in Harrison, NJ got their wake-up call, especially if they thought they’d be drowsing through a rerun of the Lucille Davy show, NJ’s former Commissioner of Education. Bottom line at NJSBA’s “State of the Schools” forum: Schundler’s approach to public schools is diametrically opposed to Davy’s. While Corzine’s education deputy was all about restoring efficiency and equity through rigorous local oversight (think the thousands of pages of regulations and requirements in QSAC and the efficiency regulations dictating every aspect of school district operations), Christie’s designee is all about restoring efficiency and equity through – what did he call it? – “fixing Trenton” and “those certain engines pushing costs”; “people on both sides of the aisle not willing to take political pressure to empower you”; “those fundamental things driving [unsustainable] costs.” Welcome to your new DOE, which aims to repair legislation and politics that confound school districts’ attempts to achieve efficiency and academic improvement. According to Schundler, the responsibility for NJ’s unsustainable and inequitable public school system lies in the laps of wimpy state officials unwilling to face down that “engine,” not in the laps of hapless and beleaguered school board members.

He never mentioned “NJEA” –not once – but its lepidopterous/raptorial wings (depending on your druthers) hovered over the proceedings.

Schundler was joined at the forum by Senator Teresa Ruiz (Chair of the Education Committee), Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, and various NJSBA reps, but he was the star attraction. Here’s the highlights from his remarks:

On Education Reform:
“Public education is a fundamental element of social justice.”
“My vision of education is pretty much in line with President Obama’s vision.”
We need “standards-based reform,” “sophisticated methods of assessment,” and “greater freedom at the local level.” “If you can do that well, you can attract the very best people. If you attract those people, then the very best thing you can do is to give them freedom.”

On Finance:
There’s a $1 billion shortfall. We’re making “extremely deep cuts in every other part of the state” – cutting out waste and government – to spare cuts to schools. “The state does not have enough money to fulfill its obligations.”
We wanted to keep school aid flat but “we’re not as close as we had hoped.” Districts under the adequacy formula (35% of districts) will get more aid than districts above adequacy.
“We will be cutting debt service aid.”
“Our system is not sustainable.” That’s why we need to deal with pension costs, unrealistic salary hikes, etc.
We need to address the “fundamental drivers of costs.” But “there are limited opportunities to address challenges” because “payroll costs are non-reducible. This is not right and not helpful.” We need incentives for retirement. “We will support legislation that employees must cover part of their health plan.”

On Oversight:
The problems are not at the local level; the problems are in Trenton. “People on both sides of the aisle are not willing to take political pressure to empower you…but we have people who are willing to do the right thing.”
“You need greater freedom at the local level.”

Greek Chorus:
Assemblywoman Jasey: “There is very little boards can do unless we address it systematically,” specifically health care costs and special education.
Senator Ruiz: “Things that have never been discussed before have to be on the table.”

The meeting concluded with words of wisdom from Curt Wary, NJSBA’s guru on board/union negotiations. School boards, be patient. Settlements are trending downward. While unions once said, “we’ll never go below 4.75% salary increase per year, 42 recent settlements have been in the 3’s and “they will continue to fall.” “There’s a new reality at the bargaining table.”

NJSBA is pushing hard on two fronts: 1) to restore the “last, best offer,” an integral part of negotiations that was eliminated in 2003. While only 11 boards in 35 years resorted to this legislative option, its presence dramatically changed dynamics at the negotiating table: “the union had to get real.” He reiterated, “the status quo is not our friend,” and disparaged state-appointed mediators who focus on “chasing some silly county average.” 2) NJSBA is seeking a deterrent to job actions, which allow local unions to refuse to decorate bulletin boards, assign homework, or write college recommendations. “We need legislation to protect children from that.”

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