Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Thursday, April 7, 2016

(BOE Race) As opponents hold her feet to the fire, Wilma blows smoke

BOE Candidates appeared at a PEA-sponsored forum
Wednesday evening at Hubbard School.

Apologies for this post being so late. You will figure out why as you read it. Thanks for your patience, and remember -- as Bernice rightly points out -- it is a blog post, not a transcript. -- Dan

Kudos to the Plainfield Education Association (PEA) for a well-organized and excellently run Board of Ed candidate forum last night at Hubbard Middle School

As opponents of incumbent Board President Wilma Campbell held her feet to the fire on a range of issues -- from lack of textbooks to falling graduation rates to frivolous spending -- Wilma showed her two basic modes of response: "blowing smoke" and "throwing people under the bus". Hardly the kind of stuff one expects from true leaders.

While the other candidates' opening statements focused primarily on their backgrounds and reasons for running, Wilma kicked off her remarks by telling the audience she came "with quite a bit of hesitation . . . I heard disparaging information about the parent board [was this a reference to the PEA's board?]".

Throughout the evening, Wilma's opponents kept hitting on the District's lack of vision, lack of transparency, and poor governance practices -- including the perennial problem of last-minute "walk-on" resolutions.

Here's a breakdown of the questions addressed --

Candidates were asked about their experience with budgets and their process for determining whether a budget is "good for the District".

Lynn Anderson outlined her extensive experience managing $1M-plus budgets and said the budget process needed to be responsive to the District's vision of how to move forward. In her opinion, that vision seems lacking.

Wilma Campbell made the mistake of referring to the "small amount of money" the District had to work with, which caused Dorien Hurtt (also a former Board member) to retort: "just what IS a small amount of money? $189 million? He then pointed out that when he left the Board in 2014, the District had a surplus of approximately $20 million; now it is using $1M to plug the current budget gap, leaving the fund running almost on empty.

Carmencita Pile cited the thousands of dollars the District is spending on a vanity billboard (with Wilma's campaign billboard next to it) and asked how that poor judgment affected the students. Not only that, she challenged Wilma Campbell to explain how she could put the Board and the District in such an ethical spot. Later in the evening, Wilma's response was that billboards "are a business" and they [the owners] put them where they want -- failing to note that she would only have gotten this particular placement by asking for it in her purchase order.

James Plummer tended, despite the experience he says he has, to offer rather anemic "above the fray" answers throughout the evening.

Alice Horton-Mays, an accountant who is running solo offered concise and pointed statements throughout the evening, sometimes drawing chuckles and nods from the audience.

Candidates were asked their thoughts on the influx of Charter Schools and the Board's "role in this crisis" (Plainfield has more charters than any other community in New Jersey).

Hurtt was blunt: in his view, charters have "flourished" under Wilma's leadership, icily noting that he has not heard of any planning by the District to address the situation.

Pile pointed out it was important to find out the reasons parents are choosing charters.

On the defensive, Wilma Campbell tried to throw Mayor Mapp under the bus by saying he supported College Achieve, the latest charter (while failing to mention her lack of vocal opposition to any of charters we now have). Her fallback was "it's a national trend" and "it's the [state] legislators". Oh, woe is me! Hurtt was having none of it.

Candidates were asked if they supported spending $300,000 on legal fees and what they would do to rein in the costs.

Anderson asked whether Plainfield was out of line with other similarly sized districts. Horton-Mays slammed Campbell on the $115,00 expense associated with changing the election date from November to April. Pile drilled down on Wilma's walk-on resolution to hire an unnamed attorney at $150/hour to stop a blogger's criticism, saying "that is failed leadership".

For her part, Wilma Campbell asserted that legal costs have actually been reduced by half overall.

Hurtt mentioned that the NJ Comptroller had singled Plainfield out for criticism (under Wilma's leadership) for excessive legal costs.

Readers may want to refresh their memories with the 2013 lawyer mess (see my post here), in which I point out that Wilma both made the motion to hire the law firm of Pickett & Craig and failed to disclose the firm's business relations with her husband John, a direct conflict of interest. Not only that, the contract that was executed did not match the requirements specified in the RFP.

Back in 2013 (the last time Wilma ran), challengers brought up her unsavory record on the number of schools under state supervision, abysmal test results and ethical lapses in awarding legal contracts (see here). The situation has only gotten worse over time.

PEA also asked candidates their views on both the CURRENT and IDEAL relationships between the Board and the Superintendent.

Dorien Hurtt cut right to the chase, saying the "lines have been blurred", with individual Board members involving themselves in the day-to-day running of the district. Incumbent Moore said he concurred with Hurtt, which struck me as strange since Hurtt's remarks were a direct challenge to Moore and Campbell's leadership. Maybe he was having a bad night.

Plummer said the "adversarial tone at the Board meetings has to end". This puzzled me, because while one Board member has raised questions about how things are done (Mrs. Morgan), most of the critical comments have come from the community and frustrated teachers. Why would anybody want their voices shut up?

Horton-Mays said the only person who can really answer this question is the Superintendent. She then added "intimidation seems to run pretty high at the [Board] meetings".

The PEA question on walk-ons and transparency drew varied responses.

All the candidates decried "walk-ons" (resolutions that are walked-on to the agenda at the last moment) -- including Wilma -- but that's where the similarity ended.

Anderson targeted what she considered the Board president's "stand-offish, cold, and unapproachable" attitude, noting that the public takes away the message: "and don't come back".

Wilma said she didn't like walk-ons, and in regard to transparency that "often-times [the Board] has a fiduciary right to maintain confidentiality in respect to personnel and contract matters".

Dorien Hurtt found Wilma to be blowing smoke. As Hurtt pointed out, executive session items "are not confidential forever", they must be disclosed once the item is presented to the Board for action. Both he and Pile claimed Wilma was throwing the Superintendent under the bus (at another point in the forum, she criticized Wilma's walk-on hiring an unnamed lawyer at $150/hour to defend her from a blogger's possible comments.

I will note that Wilma has seen fit to use walk-ons to obscure actions that would be questioned if taken up as regular agenda items -- with advance notice on the agenda, full disclosure of the resolution in advance, and opportunity for public comment before action is taken.

Two instances that come to mind are the appointment of a "human resources consultant" for $70,000 for six months at a time -- of a person who has no HR background or certification. And the hiring of three politically-connected individuals, including a "clerk of the works" and a basketball coach, who then turned around and signed Wilma's petition for re-election.

So, Wilma benefits from walk-ons when she chooses, and throws the Super under the bus when it suits her.

Though sometimes arguably necessary, they seem to be far to frequently used in Plainfield and give the impression either that the Superintendent cannot execute her responsibilities in a timely fashion or that Wilma prefers to avoid public scrutiny of certain actions.

(A related issue is the Board taking action at its Work/Study sessions -- a highly unusual move that also discourages public awareness of and comment on decisions being made. The prime example for this is the vote to return the BOE elections to April, taken at a Work/Study session.

Candidate Horton-Mays zeroes in on the policy issue involved and said the Board should consider only true emergenzies for walk-ons, and should revisit the policy, more closely defining what is an "emergency".

The question raised by Anderson, Hurtt and Pile was why the Board doesn't seem to hold the Superintendent accountable for matters that are not true emergencies but just a result of her not getting things done in a timely fashion.

What do the candidates see as the District's most pressing issues?
  • Hurtt cited a lack of student resources, to which Moore agreed.
  • Pile pointed to fiscal mismanagement as an issue.
  • Plummer insisted Plainfield wasn't getting its fair share of state money.
  • Anderson believed that focusing on a direct vision would help it once again become a "premier District".
  • Wilma used her time to defend her holding Board meetings in the PHS Auditorium "because the members need to be able to see what they are reading". (She totally ignored that the Board has met in other, more friendly settings under previous administrations.)
  • Coley thought charter schools and overcrowding were the main issues.
  • Horton-Mays also focused on class sizes.

The PEA question on textbooks -- particularly for English language learners (ELL) generated lively discussion.

Anderson found it unacceptable that students don't have textbooks this far into the year.

Wilma placed the blame on the Superintendent, but deftly avoided taking responsibility for hold the Superintendent accountable. She even had the nerve to ask, rhetorically, "why has this become such a well-kept secret?" Her comment made no sense to me, since, if anything, the lack of textbooks is DEFINITELY NOT a "well-kept secret". It is more like an open scandal.

Pile chided Campbell, saying she would be more willing to spend thousands on billboards that to see that students have textbooks, saying "if you feel nothing is broken, you will not fix it".

With more than half the District's pupils now being primarily Spanish-speakers, i would think that the Board would be concerned about the potential liability of a civil rights case arguing that Spanish-speaking students are being purposely deprived of an adequate and efficient education.

With the clock running out, PEA President Eric Jones cut to one final question, drawn from the audience: What is your vision for the District?

Suggestions ranged from a forensic audit (Hurtt) to developing a District-wide vision (Anderson), from more science and technology (Coley) to focusing on serving the ESL population (Horton-Mays).

Wilma, blowing smoke again, pleaded for "more research and data" and said she wanted to develop a "Port of Entry" program for ESL students. This might have sounded fine for a candidate on her first trot around the ring, but Wilma has been on the Board for more than a decade. She is hardly a starry-eyed newcomer.

Too bad we never got to examine some of her previous "hits" -- for instance, persuading the Board that Steve Gallon was the best thing since sliced bread and twisting the Board's arms to hire his gaggle of "lady friends" as administrators -- unqualified and uncertified, as it turns out. A chapter I am sure Wilma would rather forget.

I was impressed with the PEA format -- quite a change from the League of Women Voters routine to which we are all accustomed.

In the first place, a PEA committee prepared a number of thoughtful questions in three areas -- Governance/Finance/Operations, Candidate Thoughts on Key Issues, and Performance/Outcomes/Equity. These were printed up and provided to the public, along with blue slips of paper on which they could write up their own questions.

For the conduct of the forum, the eight candidates were divided into two groups of four. Each group alternated in being able to be the first to answer the questions, with the other group allotted a slightly lesser amount of time to respond or rebut.

Though this seemed an awkward provess at first, it quickly became obvious that it worked very well, and kept the forum moving along. While participants had an opportunity to rebut each others' statements, there was no back-and-forth, which kept the whole process moving forward.

File this away as another manner in which to conduct a well-run and informative forum

There will be a League of Women Voters candidate forum on Wednesday, April 13, at 6:30 PM in the Anne Louise Davis Meeting Room of the Plainfield Public Library, 8th Street and Park Avenue.

The school board election is Tuesday, April 19, from 2:00 to 9:00 PM. Be sure to vote.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Allen Ashby said...

I deeply appreciate your comments on this blog. I couldn't make this meeting and this helps me a great in understanding the problems and in deciding who I want to vote for.