Plainfield Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon came under direct attack from the Courier Sunday, which demanded in its editorial that he be sacked by the Board of Ed (see here).
In a separate item, associate editor and columnist Jay Jefferson Cooke took on a complaint by Plainfield BOE president Lenny Cathcart that the Courier was publishing information '...designed to cast a negative light upon the district' (see here).
With all these sparks, has the Third Rail been touched?
The controversy was sparked by revelations that two administrators, 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2', were not certified at the time for the positions (and salaries) to which they were appointed in July 2008 after Dr. Gallon had assumed leadership of the District.
The information appears to have been leaked and led both to intensive coverage by the Courier as well as a ruling by County Superintendent of Schools Carmen Centuolo that the contracts for 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2' should be rescinded.
Just about everyone with a soapbox has since chimed in, including moi (here and here), Maria Pellum (who pays special attention to the school district -- see here), Bernice Paglia (here), Dr. Yood (here) and Renata Hernandez (former president of PEP -- see here).
Dr. Gallon's difficulties are somewhat of his own making, to be sure. The rules of crisis communications are to IMMEDIATELY get out ahead of the story, address critical concerns demanding attention, put out all the facts necessary, and outline points to resolve the situation and move forward. On every single one of these, Dr. Gallon could have done better.
While it is true that personnel matters are confidential (not only in the schools, but in government in general), this does NOT mean that communications about personnel issues are stymied altogether.
Personnel QUALIFICATIONS, CERTIFICATIONS, SALARY and NAME are matters of public record. Just like other public records, they can be accessed by ASKING FOR THEM, using the OPRA process. Officials are not required to abrogate privacy concerns with regard to personnel issues.
Much of the distraction here could have been mitigated, I believe, if Dr. Gallon had laid out a simple, direct, unemotional OVERVIEW of the certification process immediately and not in dribs and drabs.
No one who comes from another state to New Jersey's schools will have the needed certification simply upon arriving. Turns out that one must APPLY for certification, and then wait for a review by the state's educational bureacracy. These bureaucrats can deem an individual ELIGIBLE for the certification or NOT, as the case may be. But even if deemed Eligible, an applicant is not home free. One waits for a TEMPORARY CERTIFICATION, which may require further steps to be taken (exams, mentoring) before a PERMANENT CERTIFICATION is issued. Since this is a New Jersey bureaucracy, I hardly need remind readers that the process will take time. Lots of time.
Coming up short at any point in the process DOES NOT MEAN that one is NOT GOING TO BE CERTIFIED. Rather, it means that in the bureaucratic game of chutes-and-ladders, more must be done.
I understand that 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2' now have been certified. You could use OPRA to verify that.
If an OVERVIEW had been put forward of all the steps and stutters in the process at once, and Dr. Gallon had referred folks to where in that process things stood, or how to get the information they wanted, his life could have been much simpler.
What has me stymied is why 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2' were put forward for high-level administrative slots instead of the less objectionable 'coordinator' positions in the first place, with the understanding that once certified, Dr. Gallon would want the Board of Ed to approve higher titles for them, with the commensurate (and then proper) salaries.
The machinations at the November 17 meeting, where a walk-on item resulted in the rescission of the contracts of 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2' and their subsequently immediate rehiring (minus ONE board member's vote) as 'Coordinators' at considerably lower salaries, left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
There is just not enough lipstick to make this pig look like anything but an embarrassing volte-face. But is this sufficient to demand Gallon's head?
Sunday's Courier editorial (here) is a point-by-point bill of particulars, topped off as the Courier sees it, by Gallon's memorandum of last week warning employees about conduct (see here, PDF).
While the Courier's citations are FACTUAL, I do not think they are BALANCED. There is no on'-the-one-hand' and 'on-the-other-hand' that one expects of journalists. And the story about one of the Jane Does' scrape with the law is not relevant to her qualifications or certification. Nor does it play well in Plainfield, where some well-respected members of the community have lived down youthful lapses, and the community as a whole is supportive of 'second chances'. It certainly makes the Courier look less than 'objective'.
To be fair, Dr. Gallon has made a number of good moves since coming to the District: site inspections, trying to cut the Gordian knot of the middle school, establishing a new arts-and-technology-driven, competitve-entry school within the system, to name a few.
The Courier editorial comes off too much like the Red Queen demanding 'Off with their heads!'
Then there is the matter of Jay Jefferson Cooke's column taking on BOE president Lenny Cathcart's criticism of the Courier (see here). While he does list ten 'GOOD NEWS' stories about the District from 2009, if I were Dr. Gallon I would not draw much comfort from the list.
Eight of the ten are really about INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENTS (one is actually a class activity). One of the ten is of the district-wide achievement of having been taken off the 'persistently dangerous' list by the state, and the other is on the establishment of the new school mentioned above.
That there were not more stories reflecting district-wide initiatives, struggles and achievements point to something lacking in the District's communications strategy. Dr. Gallon and his staff would be well-advised to take up the Courier's managing editor, Paul Grzella, on the opportunity to post its own items directly to the Courier's online edition.
[ASIDE: If the Courier is ever invited to participate in a charity fundraiser, it probably could generate loads of cash for the designated charity by persuading Cooke to be a sport and sit on the seat in the booth where you throw balls at a lever that, when hit, dunks the volunteer in a tank of water.]
One of the reasons editorial writers' advice is so seldom followed is that it often lacks the depth of understanding of those intimately involved in the situation being prescribed for.
As plenty of folks may be asking: 'If Gallon goes, what then?'
What then, indeed.
Plainfield has experience of having to buy out a Superintendent's contract. It cost a lot. Plus there is no guarantee there is anyone out there who will do better than the Superintendent already in place.
So, if Gallon is not to be ousted, what is to be done?
There are things that both Dr. Gallon and the Board of Ed can do that will help the community to move forward.
Dr. Gallon can be charming and loquacious. What the District needs at this point, though, is simple, direct, unemotional communications concerning the District and its initiatives.
It would be well for Dr. Gallon to entrust someone to blue-pencil his statements to help separate the strands of fact and feeling in his communications. This could have the advantage of making Dr. Gallon appear less defensive, which he needs to do. (This is not a put-down, everyone from Obama to my old boss Mayor McWilliams, gets someone to 'look over their shoulder'.)
Secondly, he must have a pro-active communications strategy. If much of the heat and smoke developed around this certifications issue has to do with a guerrilla war waged by one of the unions as part of its negotiations strategy, Gallon has been outfoxed. To date. But he can fix that.
Besides a better communications strategy, Dr. Gallon should relentlessly pursue the one piece of good luck he has gotten out of this whole mess -- the question of PERSONNEL and CERTIFICATIONS ACROSS THE BOARD.
As Maria Pellum wrote on her blog Sunday (see here, ... and as others have commented on my posts) --
... If we are ready to judge Dr. Gallon for what some think it is the truth, then let's go and judge all those who have brought their "personal cabinet" to the table, from friends to relatives and from the top to the bottom, let's be fair and do examine one and each employee's background and see where they came from and with whom, and if they had, or have, the correct certifications and, please, let's make sure to check for title modifications on each and all employees, after all, this is one of the main complains we have. Let's also call for past administrators and past BOE members that have contributed to the many ills that have been affecting the school district. If we are not going to this, then, sorry, but we are holding double standards here and contributing to the ill state of the district for don't believe that everyone that works in the school district is doing what they were hired for, and this pre-dates Dr. Gallon.Someone has pointed out that 'Jane Doe 1' and 'Jane Doe 2' were hardly the only ones performing jobs without certifications. Time to go after this mess, from top to bottom and let the chips fall where they may. (Hint: first publicly outline the process; then announce starting the review; and finally, let it be known findings have been presented and actions recommended to the Board.)
With an effective communications plan in place and the pursuit of a thorough review of certifications, Dr. Gallon would be poised to move ahead.
Can he get a handle on his propensity for gold-plating his language and demanding unconditional respect for his positions? Only he can answer that question, but more fact-based, direct and less emotionally vested language can dial back the heat, and be the key to his success.
Dr. Gallon should be aware that in Plainfield, no one's voice is regarded as coming from within a Burning Bush, and no one is prepared to remove their sandals in fear and awe.
As for the Board of Education, saddled as it is with the many demands of the state's educational bureaucracy, its own stupefying agendas, and the push-and-pull of parents, unions, politicians and taxpayers, it could certainly do worse than to adopt an attitude of CRITICAL SUPPORT of the Superintendent. Supportive yes, but with eyes wide open and challenging as necessary.
There are a lot of things to be done to move Plainfield's educational enterprise forward, but throwing the baby out with the bath water is not among them.
For my money, Gallon stays.
- Courier --
-- Dan Damon [follow]