A newsletter written by a West Morris Regional school board member should clearly differentiate between board action and personal thoughts while presenting all relevant information, according to the board’s vice president.
Board Vice President Jacke Schram addressed concerns during the board’s last meeting about the monthly newsletter published by member Marcia Asdal, who represents Chester residents.
Schram, who brought up the newsletter during the meeting’s new business portion, picked apart various aspects of Asdal’s most recent edition, which covers the board’s Aug. 20 and Sept. 10 meetings.
The majority of Schram’s critiques dealt with differentiating the opinions Asdal expresses in her newsletters from board decisions.
In particular, Schram took issue with Asdal’s name and relationship to the board as a Chester representative being bolded and larger than the disclaimer below stating the newsletter is “an informal dissemination of information by a private citizen” and any views are “mine alone and not necessarily those of any other Board member.”
“I’m hoping that somebody who looks at this quickly catches that part because it’s so small,” Schram said.
In addition to the disclaimer at the top of the newsletters, which Asdal houses on her blog, the board member also sends an accompanying note to everybody on her mailing list stating it “is not an official document.”
Schram also disagreed with the inclusion of an article from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute about special education, which discusses special needs classifications and states that special education spending should have limits.
“This could mislead people to think the school board can put limits on special education with no consequences,” she said. “There could be lawsuits or loss of federal funds, and that’s not discussed in here. To me, this is a misrepresentation of what you can do with special education costs.”
Asdal said she does not think her readers would confuse the article’s statements with those of the school board, especially since she always devotes the last page to an external article she pulls from one of many education blogs she reads.
Though noting that he was not singling out Asdal, board President James Johnston cautioned that, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association, communicating personal opinions as they relate to board actions is a sensitive issue.
“That can be, for lack of better words, misleading to the public and disruptive to the function of the board and the administration of the schools,” Johnston said.
Asdal said she is aware of the sensitivity but also reiterated a statement saying that board members don’t give up their rights to free speech.
Schram’ also expressed dismay regarding the efficiency of the information presented, including the articles about the board establishing qualitative and quantitative criteria for Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast’s annual merit pay.
“What’s not specified here is this is the first year this has been implemented by the state,” she said. “Someone not knowing that and reading this would think this is something our board just initiatied ourselves when all board are subject to this.”
Schram also mentioned she thought there was as much space given to explaining the board action as feedback from Chester residents and how Asdal and member Jamie Button voted against the resolution.
After this and almost every point Schram brought up, Asdal responded that the vice president – or the whole board, for that matter – should start her own newsletter. Asdal also suggested that Schram submit a rebuttal or opinion piece for consideration in her newsletter.
“You are not my spokesperson,” Schram said. “I’m a member of the board of education. My spokesperson is Mackey [Pendergrast] or Jim [Johnston]. We should have one cohesive voice coming from the board.”
Button, who frequently votes similarly to Asdal on board decisions, told Schram that the contents of the newsletter are “the direct result of you and the prior president of this board [Cristen Forrester] collaborating to quash dissenting opinions.”
“Our opinions will not be quashed by you and the majority,” Button said. “We’re going to express our opinions and let them be known.”
In response to Asdal’s assertion that it is her responsibility to inform her constituents, Schram reminded that Chester residents can come to the meetings to hear for themselves or read the minutes from the meetings.
“I’m done talking about my newsletter,” Asdal said. “I stand by my right to send it.”