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'Transparency, Curiosity' Define Morgan's BOE Campaign

Running for a one-year term against incumbent Bob Hutton, candidate Jim Morgan says the school board needs a new approach to interfacing with public and asking hard questions about curriculum and finances.

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.]

Dorothy Marie March 25, 2012 at 01:02 AM
The teacher's contract expired NINE (9) months ago, not 18. Mr. Hutton did NOT say the boards basic structure should change as stated above. Mr. Morgan, get your facts straight.
James Thomas March 25, 2012 at 01:14 AM
Not duplicate my comments from previous articles, but Mr. Morgan again tries to have it both ways without actually proposing solutions for Ridgewood voters to consider. Simply read through the article. First, he would like the Board to spend less time on ‘ancillary issues’ yet admits that his own activism as a high school neighbor has been a Board distraction. Given the $90 million district budget, I would venture that the science kit purchase would be equally ancillary to the major issues at hand. Second, he says he supported the bond referendum for the high school fields, yet using his own logic about the ‘adequate planning to maintain them,’ he should have been against that investment without seeing such planning. This makes me question how deep that support actually goes. Getting to the major budget issues, Mr. Morgan shows his unwillingness to actually commit to a position. He has time and again spoken out against Mr. Hutton’s position (at least Mr. Hutton has one to criticize), but only says that he would ask the administration to prepare different budgets with different rates of increase or decrease. Well, Mr. Morgan, what is your preference? A 5% decrease or a 2% increase? And given your previous public comments that the Board should consider a spending decrease, what is your proposal to achieve it? Despite your statements that budgets should be examined in more detail, it’s quite easy to view them and make determinations on what should stay or go.
James Thomas March 25, 2012 at 01:14 AM
(continued from above) Simply go to the District’s web site and download the annual budgets and/or annual audit reports. Look at the different spending categories, and let the voters know how you would create a spending decrease. Not only that, does Mr. Morgan support the draft 2012-2013 budget currently under discussion? If not, what would he change, given that if elected, he would be the one making the changes should the budget not pass? Moving to the teacher’s contract, Mr. Morgan states he would ‘focus on the whole range of the contract and not let it boil down to a single issue or two.’ Again, at least Mr. Hutton has a position to criticize – he states the need to focus on salary and benefits given they make up 55% of the District’s operating budget. If Mr. Morgan doesn’t believe those are the critical issues, then what does he believe the Board should focus on? Number of hours teachers must be in the building? Number of professional development days? Yes, he’s not privy to the precise negotiations, but it is very easy to look at the existing contract to see what could be negotiated. Mr. Morgan simply offers platitudes and hopes the voters won’t notice that he doesn’t actually propose solutions.
James Kleimann March 25, 2012 at 03:05 AM
Re the contract: it expired last summer but negotiations began 18 months ago. The point on the board structure changing is my mistake. I meant to say *Morgan* recommended it (as the supporting paragraphs note). Late night editing...
James Kleimann March 25, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Update to last statement: Bob Hutton sent an e-mail to me this morning saying negotiations began in February 2011 (13 months, not 18 months) and "board prep work started way back when." REA president Maria Cannon said in her address to the school board last Monday: "It has been 18 months since we began the bargaining process and thus far, a fair and deserving contract has eluded us." I should also note there have been discussions on contracts for several years. Hutton, in an interview a few weeks back, said the district had asked the teachers to open up the previous contract two out of the last three years. Obviously that never came to fruition.
Laurie Goodman March 25, 2012 at 10:20 PM
Regarding the size of Ridgewood’s BOE: Actually, only in New Jersey -- land of overwrought bureaucracies -- are school boards typically larger. According to a study by the University of Virginia for the National School Boards Association (“School Boards at the Dawn of the 21st Century,” 2002), nationwide 37% of all school boards have 5-6 members, and 82% of all school boards are made up of 5-8 members. So a Board of Ridgewood’s size is not really out of line, and it does operate efficiently, with less dilution of work. Historically, school board elections in Ridgewood tend not to be hotly contested affairs (my own two election experiences notwithstanding). It’s hard enough to get one or two solid candidates to run for an open Ridgewood seat, let alone two people who are committed, educated on the issues and willing to serve for three years. Enlarging the Ridgewood BOE is not the answer to improving communication, transparency or public access to information.
James A Morgan March 26, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Interesting comment Laurie. Unfortunately it misses the mark. I agree that the national numbers may very well be higher, but we live in New Jersey where the norm is much larger Boards. The current Board members are stretched thin. Each serves on several committees and numerous liaison assignments. They spend 15-20 hours a week on an unpaid job. The worry about getting candidates to serve on the Board is belied by the fact we have four candidates for two positions on the April 17 ballot and 6 candidates offered to fill Charlie Reilly when he decided not to quit mid-term. I have always believed that more voices make for a better discussion. Unfortunately our BOE doesn't really want much public discussion. As one current BOE member told me "the 5 member Board is easier for the Superintendent to control." Not a healthy idea. I would immediately push to add members to the BOE.
Joe March 26, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Mr. Morgan, your idea would give Board members less individual accountability, less work to do on fewer committees, fewer hours and the ability to phone it in by letting others handle things.......not my idea of improvement. I'm with Laurie on this: if you looked at all Ridgewood BOE elections over the past, say, 20 years, it would show many uncontested elections where the incumbent is reelected by default or where just one new person runs. Just because in the past few years you've seen a spike in issue-oriented candidates does not make a trend. I’m sure it happens every few years. In this current election it seems there are only 3 candidates for 2 seats: has anyone heard a peep from the woman running? Did she change her mind? And it’s not surprising to see more candidates for a mid-term vacated spot like Charlie Reilly's -- it's easier than going through a campaign. I think a larger Board of Ed is a bad idea. (Side note: It's interesting that you are already throwing BOE members -- whom you hope will be your future colleagues -- under the bus!)
Dominick Nizza March 28, 2012 at 12:36 AM
I agree with Mr James A Morgan a larger board by two more members would be very helpful. Unfortunately Mr Bob Hutton has had his time on the BOE, and always talk down to others. In addition, Mr Morgan would be a refreshing and qualified additional voice to the BOE that is needed.
Ridgewood Voting Member April 10, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Mr. Morgan - I believe this is not the first time that James Thomas has brought up some great questions about your "views." Please answer some of the questions as to what specifically you will do to help teacher negotiations. You tend to quote Mr. Hutton often. He can never quote you because you don't take a stand. You just say we have to look at it differently. What does that mean to a voter? What specifically should the board focus on in teacher negotiations?

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