BOE Supports Transparency, Prohibiting Public Comment on Facebook Page
Board reviews variety of measures during meeting.
The Board of Education moved ahead Tuesday night with a proposal to increase transparency while announcing plans to block public comment on a proposed Facebook site.
The board’s split behavior focused on a decision to study a proposal to rebid professional services contracts every few years and the unveiling of the first draft of the district’s long awaited Facebook page. BOE member David Finn had said he proposed the contract policy in light of the bribery charges against suspended BOE Business Administrator Bob Berman.
“From a transparency standpoint there are a lot of perceptions in town about what the board does,” Finn said in an interview after the meeting regarding the decision.
Berman was charged by the state attorney general in March with accepting $13,000 in windows and doors from the Metropolitan Metal Window Company in return for recommending that the BOE designate the company as the school district’s contractor of record. Berman has pleaded not guilty and is due to appear in court again on May 18.
Finn’s proposal, seconded by BOE member Mitch Slater, directs the board’s policy committee to explore a policy requiring rebidding for the contracts, which cover everything from legal services to the district’s architect. Berman was charged alongside Mountainside architect Ken Disko, who was accused of orchestrating the bid rigging deal. The BOE dismissed Disko as architect following the charges.
The contracts are typically renewed annually unless the school district decides to look into making a change, according to interim BOE Business Administrator Vincent Yaniro. The board voted to renew the contracts Tuesday night.
Yaniro said he does know of districts that rebid the contracts every five to six years as a routine basis, similar to Finn’s proposal. In response to a question from BOE member Ginny Leiz, Yaniro said rebidding the contracts would to draft new RFPs and do due diligence on the bidders.
Less than 15 minutes after the transparency discussion, Leiz presented the Facebook proposal that had been approved by the policy committee she chairs. She said the proposal, which was drafted by Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan and her staff, after the board mandated Dolan to develop a page as part of her annual review process, would make the page a one-way communication tool.
“We had concerns about public comment and the ability to interact with public comment,” Leiz said. “We wanted to limit the interaction of comments and public discourse. The Facebook page would be a mechanism to push information to the public.”
Leiz said the school system staff would develop a pilot page over the summer and limit the friends to the policy committee’s four members. The pilot period would allow school district spokeswoman Lorre Korecky, the page’s temporary administrator, to post information and have the committee see if the information is relevant. Leiz said the committee wants the page to contain primary sources including “authentic or professional writings” for the public and serve as a way to direct traffic back to the school system’s website.
Leiz said the committee also discussed the benefits of a fan page or a profile page, weighing the profile page having a limit of 5000 friends and which pages would allow for public comments to be disabled.
Newly sworn-in board member Mark Friedman, who works in online marketing, took issue with the proposal to prohibit public comments on the Facebook page, saying he would like the district to explore the possibility of redoing the website for one way communication.
“If we have the right website that is the push. The idea with Facebook is a push and a pull,” Friedman said. “To me it’s the comments that drive Facebook.”
BOE member Mitch Slater, who first proposed the Facebook page, said he had had some concerns over the comments section, but agreed with Friedman over the need for two-way communication. Slater said he spoke with the administrator of the Princeton Board of Education’s Facebook page, who said that they allow comments and have 375 fans. Slater said the Princeton employee is willing to speak with the policy committee and school staff.
Slater addressed the concerns of the district reaching the 5000 limit by noting the Princeton fan number and the numbers of other districts that fall under 5000.
Newly sworn-in BOE member Rosanne Kurstedt also addressed the website, saying she agreed with Friedman and have more information on the site. Dolan explained that the website is constantly reviewed and was redesigned last year.
BOE President Julia Walker said that the main concern is the moderating of comments on a Facebook page, saying it would be “overwhelming” for the staff to review comments and delete ones that are unacceptable.
Following a pilot period, Dolan and Korecky would likely run the Facebook page. Korecky runs a one-person public relations office but was assisted by a high school student in drafting the social media program, which also includes the potential of utilizing Twitter. The Twitter policy was not discussed during the meeting.
Walker also suggested having the pilot page be followed by the entire board, instead of the policy committee. During her proposal, Walker realized she would need to create a Facebook account in order to be a part of the program. Walker is the only BOE member not to have an account on the social networking site. Leiz said the expanded pilot could be explored.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, resident Steve Gold lectured the board on transparency issues. Gold said he has found little way to express comments to the board on issues.
“One of the problems with the board is there are little vehicles for we as taxpayers to reach you,” he said, proposing individual email addresses for each board member being published on the website. Currently the public has the option of emailing a generic email address for the entire board.
Gold also touched on the board’s agreement with the Westfield Education Association regarding a 3.9-percent pay increase for teachers annually for three years. Describing the contract as “the elephant in the room” regarding the budget, Gold tied the issue back to his transparency message.
“I don’t know who did it,” he said of the contract. “There is no transparency.”
The board sat silent during Gold’s remarks. Walker did approach him following the meeting with her email address.
Walker did note in the meeting the main part of the goal that had been set for Dolan.
“The goal is to get more information out there,” Walker said.