Transparency & Better Communications Needed for Jersey City Public Schools

The Board of Education (BOE) nearly shut down “remote” public comment last week and it’s worth explaining what happened, simply to highlight how important it is for the district and board to improve transparency and communication – both internally but also with the public.

“Remote” public comment is calling into a public meeting and sharing public comment – on the record – via Zoom or phone.  In March 2020, district admin and the board trustees pivoted, as we all did, to all-virtual operations. Since then, parents, advocates, teachers, staff, and taxpayers at large have been able to call their comments in. This has been an incredible bright spot amidst so much darkness, that members of the public who previously could not attend a meeting – due to childcare, work, transport, or other constraints – could now attend, albeit virtually.

Removing remote public comment sent a bad signal about the quality of transparency and communications in Jersey City Public Schools. It’s worth understanding what happened, how it unfolded, and how to avoid it going forward.

May 27th – Remote public speaking is discussed, with a concern for audio quality for remote public speakers

On May 27, at the very end of the regular monthly meeting (at hour:minute 2:33), BOE President Ali broached the idea of modifying the public speaker format to have speakers speak via Zoom instead by phone. The concern, he explained, was to improve audio quality for the BOE trustees, who had a difficult time hearing speakers on the phone. This is a legitimate technology and acoustical hurdle.

But then something interesting happened.

Trustee Hamilton countered Mr. Ali’s “Zoom instead of Phone” idea with: let’s just get rid of remote public comment altogether. Here is how the dialog played out (with video below):

BOE Trustee Ali: “We want speakers to call in on Zoom, versus the BOE having to call speakers.” (2:34)

Trustee Hamilton: “I would like to get back to the stage of having public speakers present. And I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t do that…I think we should get away from Zoom and calls because that’s the real way that we govern. If you want to say something, then you come down and say something…we’re talking about a controlled group. It think it would make our meetings flow better, and it would be easier for us, and it would give us a sense of normalcy again.” (2:37)

Trustee Shaw: “I totally support that.” (2:38)

BOE President Ali then confirmed with BOE attorney Michael Gross if a policy would need to be adjusted. Mr. Gross said it was not a policy item, that the board could simply make a decision. At the 2:40 hour:minute mark, BOE President Ali shared the idea of having Monday caucus meetings allow for virtual public comment and Thursday regular meetings require in-person public comment, but said “we’ll continue to discuss it.”  The board then went into closed session. Upon returning from closed session, the board did not take the topic up again.

You can see all of this in Facebook Live video below from May 27th:

June 21st: Remote public comment is shut down…then reopened

Between the May 27th meeting and the June 21st caucus meeting, the rule was changed limiting remote public comment.

This past Monday (June 21), I was alerted by another parent that the policy had been changed such that Monday’s caucus would allow call-in public comment but starting Thursday June 24th, only speakers who showed up at the actual meeting would be allowed. I called the BOE office and directly confirmed that information.

I signed up to speak on Monday to (a) find out how this new rule, or policy, came about and (b) register disappointment with the idea. That meeting’s video is also available below.  The meeting is relatively short, but it seems there was no agreement – and among some board trustees not even any awareness – of the removal of remote public comment.

Superintendent Walker characterized public speaking as a “survey” for the administration, naming it as important feedback (21:00). Then Trustee Lyons named support for remote comment (50:30). Trustee Terrell-Paige voiced “concern” about the change in the public speaker format and said she wasn’t aware of any of the changes made (53:20). Trustee Richardson agreed and suggested holding meetings at Central Office which has better equipment (54:00). Trustee Ali shared the logistical constraint the BOE is dealing with: the phone-in audio quality is very poor and board trustees can understand “maybe 60% to 70%” of what speakers are saying. (51:30)

June 21, 2021 Caucus Meeting, Part 1:

Then the trustees went into closed session; upon return, they sort of finalized a way forward…but not really.  Trustee Ali said that all caucus meetings would be virtual (5:00) and then asked: would the board like for the public to be allowed to communicate with zoom or by phone call or both. The board agreed on “both.”  Then Trustee Verdibello asked the decision to limit remote public comment even came about. She then stated that “everybody wants to hear everyone in any capacity” (6:35).

But herein lies the rub: Trustees Hamilton and Shaw comments from the May 27th meeting revealed that they explicitly did not want to hear from everyone in every capacity; they expressed a preference for in-person public speakers only.

Ultimately, the board backed away from the decision to limit access to public speaking and committed to figuring out a way to allow remote public comment to continue at both meetings.

June 21, 2021 Caucus Meeting, Part 2:

The limiting of public access, then opening it back up again, sends a bad signal about transparency

A few things jump out at me here:

  1. The BOE nearly – and in my view too easily – clawed back remote access to its meetings. Trustees Hamilton and Shaw set off a still-unexplained chain reaction in the administration. So it’s reasonable to ask:
    • How was this decision was arrived at, such that the district staff were telling callers that they could no longer call in to Thursday’s meeting to speak?  
  2. The district administration needs to commit resources to helping improve transparency and communications. If you watch the caucus, you’ll see volunteer trustees – in full public view – try to puzzle out technology logistics. I would argue that should be happening within the admin, with tech and process experts. The district does have a tech team; so it’s reasonable to ask:
    • Does the district’s tech team need more staff, more resources, more expertise?
    • Does the board need to focus on meeting in person at particular buildings that offer better broadband, router access, internet access, better acoustics for listening to speakers on the phone?
    • The board has a concern for varying its meeting locations to ensure fair physical access to the meetings; what can the board to ensure fair remote access, too?
  3. We need to agree on what “participating in the public forum” looks like in this post-COVID paradigm. At the May 27th meeting, Trustee Hamilton indicated that a person must be “in-person” to participate in public speaking. Yet I would argue otherwise, given what we’ve all borne witness to over the past 15 months: government continued remotely with the public engaging in public process because they were granted access to do so. To claw back that access now would reflect a choice, not an actual constraint. But we all know: the genie is out of the bottle, and remote access works…for the public. And, to the credit of the board trustees gathered on June 21st, remote access is a priority for them, too.

The JC BOE must improve communication and ensure maximum transparency to gain support for its initiatives with a fully funded budget 

I listen to most BOE meetings and a consistent theme I hear – month after month – is that we need more transparency and more proactive, effective communication. Even board trustees cite this as a concern.

The BOE recently approved a fully funded budget that invests more local funding than ever before into our public schools. This was a needed, courageous, and critical investment and I applaud the trustees who voted for it. But with this increase in investment comes an increase in expectation, for everything from how well classrooms are outfitted to how many teachers and staff are hired. Transparency and proactive communication will be critical to ensuring the public has insight into these efforts, such that the investment is supported not just this year, but in future years too.

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