Board and ACLU Reach Agreement
The Montclair Board Of Education continued to deal with fallout from the assessment leaks from late October at their final meeting for 2013 on December 16. The board’s ongoing investigation into the leak , though, was given a slight boost when their investigator, attorney Mark Tabakin, presented a resolution to settle a dispute with the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over its anonymous client “Assessmentgate” who the board served a subpoena. The school board and the ACLU amicably reconciled their differences to maintain the anonymity of “Assessmentgate,” who will then in turn provide the board with meaningful information under oath regarding unauthorized released of the interim assessments. The board voted 6-1 to approve the agreement, which the ACLU signed, with board member Anne Mernin voting against it.
Mernin offered a couple of comments on the issue before the vote. “When the board launched this investigation, I think that all of us believed that we were doing something necessary and prudent for the interests of the schools,” she said. She noted, though, that when the subpoena for “Assessmentgate” was issued, she thought it raised reasonable doubts in the public’s mind about the investigation.
“The evidence that I personally have seen does not rise to a level where we should compromise the trust that we have with the public on the need to speak freely to us as a board and the need to engage criticism even if it is passionate criticism of what is being done,” she said. She still did not believe that it was in the interest of the board or the public discourse to accept the agreement as presented.
Board member Norman Rosenblum had a different take. He said he saw no good reason to subpoena critics. With regard to the settlement before the board, he said, “The issue of the person’s identity is dealt with. The person does not to have give up [his or her] identity, but [he or she is] agreeing to answer some questions.” He said it was better to have a particular reason in going after someone with a subpoena.
The group Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS) concluded that there was no “leak.” In a prepared statement handed out to meeting attendees, the group opined that scavenger site likely linked to the tests by searching the school disticts Web portals and put the affected tests on a public site. GoBookee was thought to be the likely scavenger site.
“We believe that there is no person who ‘leaked’ the assessments,” MCAS said. “There are individuals who may not have been as careful as possible when they placed the tests on a website, but given the rush and lack of care in this entire process, this is not surprising.”
Like the test leak investigation , the school board’s actions on both the test leak investigation and the implementation of the Common Core standards continued to energize critics in the public comment sections of the meeting. Resident Beth Rubin, a tenured Rutgers education professor, said she couldn’t understand why the board was using the new standards as a means of more testing rather than using them to improve instruction in the classroom. Resident Regina Jaffe-Walter expressed confidence in the teachers’ ability to adapt to the tests, but she was displeased with the district going beyond the testing required by the state.
Board Talks Council Resolution to Deny Board Access it its Server
The Township Council’s December 10 vote to deny the Board of Education access to its own server was also, predictably, a source of contention.
The Council voted 5-2 with Deputy Mayor Russo, Councilman-at-Large McMahon, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Schlager, 3rd Ward Councilman Spiller and 4th Ward Councilwoman Baskerville voting to deny the Board access and Mayor Jackson and 1st Ward Councilman Bill Hurlock voting in the Board’s favor.
Though Anne Mernin saw it as the council’s way of encouraging the board to let another entity take over the investigation so the board doesn’t cause divisions in the township, board members Leslie Larson and David Deutsch both saw the council’s actions as preventing the board from exercising its own mandated responsibilities, a move they found contemptuous.
“On Tuesday, by voting to deny the Board of Education access to its own databases, five members of the Township Council prevented the Board of Education from performing its mandatory duties, thereby interfering with basic fiduciary obligations of the Board to the taxpayers and children of Montclair (N.J.S.A.18A:11-1(d)), Deutsch stated. “It’s important to look past all the heated rhetoric and focus on two key facts. First, the District has experienced a breach of computer security. Second, it’s now been seven weeks since the discovery of the assessments on a public site, and the Board of Education has been continuously blocked from any forensic investigation of its own systems. This situation concerns me greatly,” he added.
Deutsch went on to emphasize the need to investigate the security of the server and his feelings on the vote:
The district is responsible for massive amounts of student data and Federal and State laws requires the Board keep the information secure, confidential and accessible for years. We have clear evidence of some type of security flaw. We also know the Township and the Board of Education share certain computer hardware and software systems. Given these facts, I’m incredulous as to why five members of the Township Council would undertake the improper and unwise course of action of preventing the Board from examining its own property. I believe by doing so, the Township has now opened itself up to significant liability if there is another recurrence of a security breach, whether regards to the district’s systems or the Township’s. Since no expert has yet to investigate the Board of Education’s server and archives, how can the five members of the Township Council be so confident that our system is secure? Why are they so confident that all the student information the Board has and which must be kept confidential – such as grades, 504’s, IEP’s, and discipline histories — remains secure?
Finally, the five members of the council who voted “yes” have led the township to take an action for which it has no authority. The Montclair Board of Education spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for its portion of the computer systems. Those systems and the data which they contain belong to the Montclair Board of Education. By prohibiting the Board’s access, the Township has simply converted the Board’s property, improperly, while interfering with the Board’s legal and fiduciary obligations.
For these reasons, I request the Town Council reverse its decision with the utmost speed.
Agreeing with the board was MSNBC commentator and Montclair resident Jonathan Alter, an increasingly familiar presence at public meetings regarding education. He called the council’s actions a “power grab,” and he encouraged the board to respond strongly.
“What the council did was completely out of bounds,” he said. “They have no right to tell you whether you can access their own server.” Alter also urged fellow residents to stop dismissing the school board as a corporatist, conservative body trying to privatize public education, noting that the Obama administration has followed the same educational policies.
“Our board is in almost perfect alignment with the Obama administration on almost every educational issue,” he said. He added that critics must also stop sabotaging efforts to investigate the leak. “If you are defending the suppression of a good-faith effort to get to the bottom of this unauthorized and possibly criminal violation in intellectual property,” he said, “you are tacitly supporting sabotage. Who wants to do that?”
About a third of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting was devoted to the superintendent’s report, which was not given by Dr. MacCormack herself but by teachers and other administration. Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell and parent/volunteer coordinator Sylvia Bryant reported progress in accommodating parents to the new Common Core standards through various workshops held with parents over the past couple of months, which they said went very well. Chief Academic Officer Gail Clarke went over one of three draft handbook of the Common Core standards being readied to distribute to parents, this one for English language arts in kindergarten. A draft of all three handbooks was made available for meting attendees.
Bradford School Teacher’s Report
Also, the teaching staff at Bradford Elementary School reported that partnerships with the PTA and partnerships between teachers were improving school performance but units of study and an increased emphasis on testing was not working. The teachers said that too much time was spent on tests, and that the school was being run like a business. They advocated returning to trimester schedules rather than quarterly assessments and replacing units with “carefully developed” instructional programs, among other things.
Board Vice President Shelly Lombard said she understood how overwhelming the change was, and that the district was trying to catch up. “We just really were behind,” she said. “It’s a sea change in terms of standards. I think it would be unrealistic for us to expect for it to all go absolutely, totally smoothly.”