Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sept. 17th, Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day...a day when Americans celebrate their rights and freedoms. A perfect day to launch my blog and to post an op-ed piece I wrote. It was published in the Morris County Daily Record on March 11, 2007.



03/11/07 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

School board members should 'mightily' speak out

BY MAUREEN CASTRIOTTA

It's that time of year again when candidates are running for seats on their local school boards. As in all elections, the school board race is democracy in action. It is a cacophony of opposing voices pontificating on the state of public education and their local schools. Voters elect those most convincing in their promise to hold the sacred office of school board in the name of the people and to remain accountable to them.

So have you ever wondered why, when the race is over, the votes are counted, and the oaths of office are taken, so many new board members quickly forget this very promise and instead, take a vow of silence and easily relinquish their voice to one board designee who perfunctorily communicates to the public a remarkable concordance of board opinion?

Well, as one of the lucky ones who crossed the finished line a winner in last year's school board race, I'd like to share my views on this perturbing and vexing phenomenon, but first a little disclaimer: Only the board president shall authorize or make statements of official board positions and since I'm not a board president, that leaves me out. And therefore, the opinions expressed here within are solely and unequivocally my own and I can just about guarantee they in no way, shape, or form represent the position or opinions of the Roxbury Board of Education or any other school board for that matter.

Okay, okay, that may not be the exact wording of the New Jersey School Board Association's recommended school board policy on public statements, but close enough. I don't think anyone would be surprised if I tell you this policy has come to be viewed by many school board members as the "gag rule." Why? Because school board members are given continuous and relentless warning that a school board's authority and power emanate from a unified body and its members, when not sitting in on a legally constituted meeting with other board members, are nothing but appendages who do not possess any more authority or powers than the average Joe citizen.

Therefore, and here's the kicker, one unauthorized word as a board member or a misspoken word made while you are wearing the cloak of plain citizen can result in a censure. No doubt about it, the message here is clear: this policy is for your own protection and the protection of a school board governing as a united front. So, just let the talking heads take the worry off your shoulders and stifle yourself.

Amazingly, this "gag rule" has managed to strike fear in the hearts of hundreds of school board members in New Jersey, while still others embrace it as a welcomed opportunity to hide behind a policy that liberates them from their duty to state opinions that would make them accountable to their constituents. In any event, the outcome is a deafening silence on the part of those who are supposed to be the voice of the public. Although some of you might consider it a blessing and are grateful that there's a policy in existence helping to eliminate the number of politicians filling the room with hot air, the upshot of this "gag rule" has not-so-funny ramifications on our school system as a representative governing body.

While it's the NJSBA's position that there is a need for a "one spokesperson only" policy to ensure the sanctity of the authoritative unity of the board and prevent it from being defiled by the varying opinions of individual board members, I believe this is just one more method being used by elite reformers of the educational establishment in a disturbingly intentional and consistent movement to take educational decision-making out of the hands of citizens.The "gag rule" plucks democracy right out of education by pushing school boards towards Tocqueville's vision of an American democracy dissolving into a "tyranny of the majority" where the minority rights are trampled on by the majority.

In effect, the "gag rule" is being used to enable school boards to compromise the fundamental right of the minority to speak out about the issues at hand and virtually eliminates discussion and debate without which there can be no transparency and accountability of our elected school board members or our schools. Not only is this not effective government, it's downright un-American!

The bottom line is, like any other elected official, school board members are the public's representatives. They have a duty to fulfill their oath of office and remain true to the democratic principles they promised to promote, which assuredly are not found in NJSBA's "gag rule."
Unquestionably, the time has come for all school board members to rise up against this policy by raising their voices loud ,clear, and mightily on behalf of the residents in their school community. Otherwise, the democracy in the public education we've so come to value and cherish will be a mere illusion.

8 comments:

Erika said...

It is about time somone had the courage to call out those who would silence the dialogue, discontinue the debate, and "gag" those who believe in change! We need more women like you on the Board!

SweetJustice said...

By invoking this policy, the Board President has an unchecked power over his or her members. It surprises me why no other Board Members seem to take issue to that power, especially considering the circumstances that go into "electing" the president. Oh wait--he or she is not elected! It seems very arbitrary, or worse--calculated! We need to open our eyes as a culture, maybe BLINK a few times, and consider the ramifications of a political entity vulnerable to such tyranny.

jawalsh said...

I think there should be more school board members like you.I can't imagine taking the time out of your life to run for a school board like this.But you have and that is what sets you apart from the other six or eight members.I can see you at a meeting trying to make a point of an agenda item and when it comes to a vote, being voted against by a member(s) who hasn't read the packet or isn't involved in the discussion and votes with the administration all the time.There must be some involvement by parents,but not enough, because they re-elected you again.Keep up the good work you're doing,I want to be a school board member like you if I get elected.

Chris Rogers said...

Maureen,

Those who look to restrict free speech only have something of their own to hide!

The residents of Roxbury, NJ are lucky and thankful to have one public official who speaks, acts and votes on behalf of the public. That school board member is and always has been you!

We hope there are many more blog posts to come!

Chris Rogers

Greg said...

Well said. I'm glad we have at least one person on the board who is not afraid to question authority.

PBriddy said...

Clearly everyone here shares your high opinion of yourself, and how all wisdom on the board resides with you. This despite the fact that you totally mischaracterize what you call the "gag rule." But hey, it serves your self-promoting purposes.

If progress were measured by the the number of sole "no" votes you cast, the Roxbury schools would no doubt be in a much better condition. But with all your wisdom, how many times have you been able to persuade at least a majority of the board to see a significant issue your way?

If your only role on the board is to bring attention to yourself by grandstanding, then you are just a noisemaker with nothing to offer toward long-term improvement. It is incumbent on the "wise" board members to lead the misguided ones to a better vision of the future. Unfortunately, for all your bluster, when your days on the BOE come to an end you will have contributed nothing worth remembering or honoring.

Chris Rogers said...

Pbiddy,

I must say that I totally disagree with your opinion of her. I know that you have her all wrong. I have always viewed her of one of the few with no promises of pay backs or pockets to line.

I do feel that all public bodies will become over-run with self serving politicians and corruption when there is no one in the public watching them. I have to say that this has been my experience with the Roxbury School Board from day one.

I urge you to re-examine Ms Castriotta and her record.

Anonymous said...

I think that Maureen has captured this exactly as it is. I have been on township boards and this is certainly not the way they run. It is ridiculous that each member cannot express their own views. There is still freedom of speech, as far as I know, and this "gag order" goes against this. Maureen, have you ever asked Rodney Frelingheysen if there is anything that can be done to try to rally people to attack this? Maybe it is time to take action as I watch what goes on and I know that you are the only one who questions anything (publically anyway)! :) I realize that unions and boards have a loud voice but so does the regular person if everyone joins together. I do not think people realizes this and I think that if you do run for council (rumor I heard!) that you need to talk about these kinds of things when you run. Changing current legislation is a good thing sometimes and you know how everyone likes that word "Change!"