South Orange–Maplewood BOE attends second retreat to address operational dysfunction

Charlene Peterson runs a board retreat with the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education on Aug. 5.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education has held two board retreats in the last three weeks in an effort to find its footing after a tumultuous spring and summer that began with the resignation of member Kamaljit Kaur Zubieta in May because of what she called “cliquish behavior” on the board and her conscience. Two staff members from the New Jersey School Boards Association joined both meetings; Charlene Peterson is the field service representative for the organization, and Ray Pinney is the member engagement director.

The first retreat was held on July 22 and the second on Aug. 5; between the two meetings, Village Green published emails between the members of the board that were sent in the two weeks leading up to Zubieta’s resignation. In the emails, which Village Green received via Open Public Records Act request, Zubieta questioned whether BOE President Thair Joshua was following Robert’s Rules of Order while running meetings. BOE members then accused one another of bullying and silencing other board members. All nine members of the board were copied on the emails, making it an unnoticed public meeting; Peterson warned against this at the July 22 retreat.

The board members completed a self-evaluation that Peterson presented at the retreat on July 22. Categories in which they scored themselves included planning, policy, student achievement, finance, board operations, board performance, board interactions with the superintendent, board interactions with staff and board interactions with the community. Each member gave the board a score out of 4.0 in each category. Board performance and planning both scored an average of 1.7, the lowest score of all categories. The highest average score was a 2.4 in the board interaction with staff category. Individual board members scored themselves higher than they scored the board as a whole.

“I felt the results were kind of in-line with what I anticipated,” BOE Second Vice President Erin Siders said at the July 22 retreat. “Individually, I think we are effective, but when we come together that’s where things seem to fall apart. I’m not sure how we can at least be able to respect each other’s opinions and accept it, and understand that we’re not all going to agree but that doesn’t change the work that we need to do. We don’t seem to do that at the moment.”

BOE member Courtney Winkfield said a theme that stood out to her in the self-evaluation was trust between board members.

“I think part of the issue is trusting that we hold collectively good intentions, that we assume the best about one another when we show up to a conversation and share our perspective,” she said at the July 22 meeting. “But also trust in a literal way. There was a theme throughout the comments about trusting in confidentiality and trusting that conversations that we have that are of a sensitive nature, whether through writing or through executive session, remain private. That certainly hampers our ability to communicate honestly and openly.”

Pinney said the board would have to create a system of communicating with one another where the members can find common ground — something that the members said in the self-evaluation was difficult to find.

“How do you disagree with someone but not be disagreeable?” Pinney asked at the July 22 meeting. “I think that’s something that you’re each going to have to do individually. Maybe if you start trying to find something that you can all agree on and work towards, start with that. Don’t start with the things you know you’re going to disagree on, because it starts to get personal after a while, and if it becomes personal it’s hard to govern. You shouldn’t be making decisions based on personalities.”

At the Aug. 5 retreat, which was a continuation of the July 22 meeting, Pinney said it is good for the board to go through the normal process of rehashing a problem, as this lays the groundwork for them then to be able to solve the problem.

“It won’t be easy,” Pinney said. “But I think you need to take that first step.”

Peterson pointed out at the Aug. 5 retreat that the BOE members need to look at themselves as a unit, with the board functioning when working as a team, rather than looking at themselves as individuals.

“You are one team,” she said. “You succeed on this team; you accomplish things based on the strength of this team. All of our conversations should be focused on your board team. As we talk about things you do well, the focus needs to be on the board.”