Jim Morgan envisions something of a board shakeup at the . The 20-year resident is running for a one-year seat on the Ridgewood Board of Education largely on a platform of transparency, a new approach to budgeting, and curiosity.
Morgan, who has 40 years of experience in finance including a stint as the CFO of a publicly traded media company, is one of the community's most visible critics of the school board.
Over the last two years, the Beverly Road resident and former president of the Ridgewood Education Foundation (REF) has , called for more disclosure on information, and exclaimed that there's not enough scrutiny affixed to the .
Unlike most, the now-retired Morgan decided to take action by running against .
Morgan: Board needs to open up to public
"I've become increasingly concerned the board is a closed loop," Morgan said in an interview Monday. "A lack of is the key thing in the board of education's modus operandi. The community has a need for people on the board of education who are interested in education and will ask the tough questions that need to be asked."
Morgan said among his wish list of new public disclosures, he'd prefer agendas and meeting minutes for curriculum committees – where he said a good deal of decisions are made behind closed doors, like the science kit purchase – be published. As a board member, Morgan would also advocate for the release of the 5-year capital plan, he said.
In a similar vein, Morgan said the district needs to shore up its technology plan. The current 5-year plan, in his estimation, is heavily contigent on hardware.
"If the curriculum side isn't driving it, we're missing opportunities left and right," Morgan said, noting that with HSA funding the elementary schools are well-fitted but as students age, the technology level erodes.
"That needs to change," he said.
Good schools can improve
Ultimately, the school system in Ridgewood is a quality education, Morgan said, though there remain imperfections.
He noted test scores for middle school and high school students – while above national and state averages – are below that of similar high-achieving districts. More discussions on why similar Factor-J districts are outperforming Ridgewood on tests should be had, as opposed to the board getting "hung up" on more ancillary issues.
Morgan admitted some of the hangups can be partly attributed to back-and-forth spats between neighbors of the high school – he included – and the board, but said the board should have addressed the far before neighbors made arguments.
I'm not an opponent of fields, Morgan says
Asked if he was concerned he might be cast into a public light of naysayer, Morgan admitted some worry as the issues became the topic that aroused his initial interest in board affairs.
"I hope that the people will look beyond that and understand that I was never opposed to the fields," he said. "What I was questioning was the management decision to put worth of facilities in a flood plain without adequately planning how to maintain it."
Morgan remains steadfast that the issues are far, far bigger than fields and lights.
More questions need to be asked on budget, according to Morgan
"The biggest is to manage a $90 million school budget more like a business," he said. "How are we spending those dollars?" he asked. Morgan said if elected, he'd require that the annual budget be prepared assuming a range of property tax changes from a 5 percent decrease to a 2 percent increase.
"In the end, the board of ed's decisions affect every child's education, how they're going to progress in life and every taxpayer's single biggest hard asset in most cases – their homes," he said. "The village's education and reputation is the underlying value for most of the homes in this community and the reason why voter and every resident should be very concerned in how we're delivering education."
"I don't think the board is nearly aggressive as they should be" in critically analyzing what administrators say, Morgan exclaimed. "The board should be always asking the hard questions, not accepting the 'we did it last year' justifications."
Teacher contracts/battle against Hutton
In what's quickly emerged as the top election issue, Morgan says he objects to Hutton's appeal to voters that he be given the chance to solve the issue when no facts can be disclosed publicly.
The tension between the board and teachers reached a boiling point Monday night, when .
"It's unfair Bob continues to refer to the teacher contract as his reasons for being re-elected and the issues he's standing firm on when he's not supposed to be discussing any of the issues," Morgan said. "They're supposed to be confidential. He shouldn't go on to say it's generally assumed it's benefits and salary. To me, he's using his position to further his election campaign."
Morgan requested allow him to be briefed on the matter and sign a confidentiality waiver. He says he was denied.
Still, prefacing that he's not privy to what's been on the table, Morgan said he thinks the teachers and district have made some missteps in the 18 months of stalled talks now in the fact-finder stage.
"If I were looking at the contract, I'd focus on the whole range of the contract and not let it boil down to a single issue or two. That's the way to hang up a contract, which they have," he said.
Morgan believes providing the 3.8 percent raise to administrators just before the teacher contract expired wasn't a bright idea in setting precedent. "They've hung it up for nine months past it expired, we have teachers who are unhappy. It's not a healthy situation in the classroom with teachers grumpy about their not having a contract."
Happy or not, Morgan said you can't give away the farm. There are economic realities, after all, he emphasized. Still, Morgan remarked, as the management, the board needs to be more proactive in reaching a settlement instead of waiting to coordinate with layers of lawyers and representatives for both parties.
"I doubt new facts are going to emerge," he said. "I think both sides should sit down now and hard bargain, do what's called for."
More board members needed, Morgan says
Elected or not, Morgan said the board's basic structure should change.
Pointing to the (a candidate he felt was qualified and effective in the role) up, Morgan said having the smallest legally-allowed board size for one of the state's largest districts was a poor idea.
"You need more voices at the table than the five," he said, adding dissenting opinions can spur good ideas. The board as currently constructed rarely casts votes without unanimous consensus.
"I'm running against Bob because I think I can make a positive change and bring some fresh ideas, ask the hard questions," said Morgan.
take place on April 17. Voters will choose two school board seats, one between Morgan and Hutton, the other between challenger Gina Damasco and Vince Loncto, who was appointed by the board in November. Residents will also get to vote for the $90 million budget.
[Editor's note: Correction – An earlier version noted Hutton would endorse the board's membership expanding; Morgan suggested it, not Hutton.]