Thursday, April 14, 2011

Superintendent's Report April 12th- Ohaus, Adult Ed, Partnership and Rules Oh My!

Mark Toback issued this Superintendent’s Report Tuesday April 12, 2011 at the last Hoboken BOE meeting. It sheds some light on the Paula Ohaus issues (yes numerous) as well as some of the other positive developments for the school. Here is his full report:

Closed Session/Open Session Comments Regardimg Mrs. Ohaus:

Tonight many of you are here because you are concerned about the resignation of a highly regarded teacher.

In case you are not aware, Mrs. Ohaus sent me an e-mail at 11:13 PM on Monday night indicating her desire to rescind her resignation. Out of respect for her wishes, I would like to pull item #40 from the agenda which is the resolution regarding her resignation.

At the same time, Mrs. Ohaus received what is commonly referred to as a RICE notice. The RICE notice allows employees to determine if any discussion with the BOE regarding her employment is public or private. Her written request is to make any discussion public. I am glad that she has taken this approach to include the public because there are many harmful rumors out there that can be put to rest.

Normally, I would ask the BOE to go to closed session to discuss a meeting that I had with Mrs. Ohaus on April 5 because I planned on discussing this with the BOE because there are many questions about this meeting. I met with Mrs. Ohaus on April 5 and a few hours after the meeting, Mrs. Ohaus resigned her position. I can certainly understand why many of you would be interested in knowing about this meeting.

As I am new to the district, I have been learning as much as I can about the district from a variety of sources. With regard to the high school theatre program, I have a collection of e-mails between Mr. Carter and Mrs. Ohaus regarding a variety of issues. I also have a meeting summary that Mr. Rusak provided to me following an athletics and cultural arts committee meeting of the Board of Education. Mr. Davis has also expressed to me some concerns about the approval of employees who worked on the play based on NJ School Contract Law, administrative code, statute, IRS regulations, and of course, Hoboken BOE policies. My interest in having the meeting on April 5 was to accomplish a number of objectives.

The first objective was to share these concerns with Mrs. Ohaus and to hear for myself what her opinion was on each of the matters. It would not be fair to not hear her point of view regarding these concerns. It would not be proper for an employer to not provide an employee and opportunity to speak about these matters.

Another objective was to clarify expectations. If there are problems that can be resolved, it makes sense to provide clear direction to employees regarding what is expected in the future. Failure to do so would be a failure on my part to do my job as Superintendent of Schools.

Based on discussion with Mr. Davis, I became concerned about the financial practices associated with the play. I found that Mr. Davis had addressed some of the contracting and purchasing issues directly with Mrs. Ohaus. He also has expressed concerns about insurance and IRS problems related to payroll. At the same time, I found that one areas that has not been addressed was the accounting of cash. As a former School Business Administrator, I am aware that the most common way where school district employees end up in a bind is when cash is not properly accounted for within the student activities account. Mrs. Ohaus brought along two employees to the meeting who demonstrated adequately that they are in fact accounting for cash in a proper manner and that they had back up documentation to support the bank deposits in general although I did find there was a surplus of $41. The point is that the general practices for handling cash seem to be adequate to prevent fraud from taking place thereby protecting the district employees.

Another topic of discussion about why Mrs. Ohaus requested that the next play, Alice in Wonderland, be held on June 17. The play was approved on the district calendar to take place in late May. Mrs. Ohaus was interested in holding Alice in Wonderland on June 17 which is the last few days of school. I did not think that was a good idea considering the academic focus students need to have at the end of the school year. I still do not believe that having a school play on the final days of school is a good idea.

After resigning, Mrs. Ohaus notified me that she could not produce Alice in Wonderland within the previously established timeline. However, I will be meeting with Mrs. Ohaus on Wednesday to further our discussion and to perhaps redefine what we can do for a spring theatre event.

Much has been made about the issue of charter school students taking part in Hairspray. Other than to create other questions and tension between the oboken School District and and the three Charter Schools, I see no purpose for the focus on Charter School students in the play. This is not an issue with charter schools but rather a general issue related to supervision of students and liability for the school district. There were a handful of students from a number of different schools involved in the play including a student who I have been told live in Hoboken, an exchange student, and a student who supposedly lives in Hoboken but also supposedly attends an out of state school.

This is my point. It is not good when a School Superintendent is not able to easily access information about students who are involved in school activities or school programs and their information is not readily available should there be a problem. Information is not on the centralized computer system. Medical records are not
available. Another key question for consideration...Who would be financially responsible for the non-Hoboken High School students if they were injured as a direct result of their participation in the play? How could we justify this to an insurance carrier, especially because the participation of students from other schools is specifically prohibited under BOE policy 6145 Eligibility Standards For Participation in All Extra Curricular Activities. The relevant part of the policy reads as follows and was approved in November of 2010....

1. To be eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities, a student must be enrolled in the district. Hoboken residents enrolled in a school that is not operated by the Hoboken Board of Education (charter schools or private schools) shall not be eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities. However, pursuant to NJSIAA guidelines, if a charter school does not offer a particular sport that is offered by the district, resident students attending that charter school may participate in that sport upon the agreement of the Hoboken High School principal and the principal of the Charter School.

This is a direct violation of the school district policy. Mrs. Ohaus stated that she was not aware of this policy and that she has included students in her plays for a number of years and has been allowed to do so without issue. I also want to bring up another point...even though there is a violation of policy and a variety of other no time during our meeting was Mrs. Ohaus asked to resign, told she would be fired, or any other variation you can think of. This is why I was truly surprised when she resigned.

Even though I have to be concerned about the financial and insurance concerns, I am also deeply concerned about how all students are identified to partake in the play. In other words, Are there students from Hoboken High School who were unable to participate and what provisions are made for students from the Connors, Wallace, and Callabro Schools to participate? Mrs. Ohaus claimed that Hoboken High School students were not denied a part in the play in favor of students who attended other schools. I was relieved to hear about this.

Mrs. Ohaus also noted that there were three students from Hoboken High School were originally removed from the play for eligibility reasons related to grades but that those students were later reinstated. I later found from Ms. Piccapietra that there were five Hoboken High School students who participated in the play that were ineligible to participate based on the standard applied previously--failure in two or more subjects the previous marking period. This practice of allowing students to participate in plays who are failing two or more subjects is a violation of district policy 6145. Naturally, as the academic leader of the district, I should be concerned that students who are failing two or more subjects should also be allowed to partake in the Hairspray. If five students on the soccer team were found to be ineligible after the season, there would be serious consequences for the school, any victories would become losses in the record book, and the NJSIAA would get involved.

There are adults involved in the production of the play. I asked Mrs. Ohaus about this practice because I was concerned about how these individuals are approved and how they are involved with the students. Some of the volunteers are not directly supervised by a certificated teacher as we would other volunteers and this is an issue. For example, we discussed the role of volunteers who help backstage with makeup and hair. We then had a discussion about alumni being involved in plays and she said that when there is a shortage of actors alumni are involved. What type of background checks and other procedures for involving these adults in plays still remains unclear to me.

I spoke with Mrs. Ohaus about transporting students in her car, in particular after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year. She told me that she could not remember if she transported students on that day. However, I have read parent accounts of how she has transported students to colleges and to the doctor’s office which is a very nice thing to do but also in violation of BOE policy.

We then discussed another practice of hers where students are sleeping over at her house. As a new person in the district, I think it is more than reasonable to discuss this practice. I am not aware of any other situations during my career where students are invited to a sleepover at the house of a teacher.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Ohaus discussed the fact that students did sleep over at her house and the most recent sleepover was during President’s Day recess. I also asked about transportation arrangements. Mrs. Ohaus stated that students are most commonly transported to her house by car and that students have written permission from their parents to sleep over. She also stated that other students traveled to her house by train. In any event, I see the potential for liability for the school district and it is therefore justifiable to question this practice based on the many possible ways that a staff member could be held liable for a variety of problems.

Another topic of discussion was the official Facebook Page that is identified in the program. Because of the many issues related to liability for teachers using Facebook, Mr. Carter provided very clear direction to employees about using Facebook. Mrs. Ohaus said she was not aware of any of the content of the page and she did not create the page. For the record, there is no official Facebook page or any other board sanctioned web presence for the theatre program.

In addition to Mrs. Ohaus and I, the meeting was attended by Mr. Enrico who served as Mrs. Ohaus’ union representative and Mr. Rusak. Mr. Ramos and Mrs. Lisa from HHS also attended the first fifteen minutes of the meeting because they were responsible for accounting for the cash from the play.

On Wednesday, I will have another meeting where we will continue our discussion about the Theatre program. I look forward to meeting with her tomorrow to further discuss her work with the district.

Unfortunately, much of the good news I have to share with the BOE is overshadowed this month with other issues. Board Members you will be happy to know that significant progress has been made in a number of areas. One part of my monthly report will always be some information about how the district is moving forward academically. This month there is much to report.

Partnerships are very important in public education today. Partnerships with other institutions allow the district to accomplish things on behalf of students that could not be accomplished otherwise. I am happy to report that we are fostering a number of partnerships that will only help our students and our parents.

You have asked me to work to continue the groundwork established by Mr. Carter to develop some adult education programs. I completed a survey where 75 residents responded to a request for input. Mr. Fitzgibbons and I met with officials at the Technical School to discuss some possible options and the results of the survey. You have a copy of the draft for the Hudson Technical School Flyer for Adult education and you will see that Hoboken is a location for a number of classes including financial planning, digital photography, web design, intro to personal computers, Latin Dance Mix and Zumba.

As an added bonus, we have worked together to re-establish a Saturday Children’s Academy for our younger students from ages 7 to 14. The program is open to students from other communities as well. You can see there is a wide range of classes including classes about renewable energy, eating healthy, dance, business, and mandarin Chinese. You can see there are many exciting programs. The technical school must go through the normal processes required to use the facilities.

A note for all of our residents interested in any of these programs... these are opportunities that exist that will go away without adequate enrollment. The technical school has requirements that they not lose money on their programs so they will establish minimum class sizes. Likewise, they have maximum class sizes and so if you wait to register, you may not be able to to participate once the maximum class size is reached. Once the Technical School finalizes its offerings, the information will be shared with the community through our web site and also with the flyer the technical school mails throughout the county.

A quick report on another developing partnership- Hudson County Community College representatives have another meeting in district on Tuesday to evaluate how some of our elective classes like accounting and psychology can earn dual credit—meaning students who will receive their five high school credits as well as three college credits from the community college. We are also looking at some other options after school to allow students to take classes once the school day is over.

You will note that there is a revision to the graduation policy and regulations related to advanced options for high school graduation. This revision has been put together with the NJSBA policy service that the district uses and enables a variety of new learning opportunities for high school students. There are many ways to be a successful high school student and this policy allows students to pursue unique learning opportunities provided their educational interests are approved.

Hudson County Community College is also a partner identified for our adult school program. At this point, there are interested in offering four to six college course at Hoboken High School this fall. Those plans will also be further reviewed next Tuesday. We have something very nice this month that will enhance learning opportunities for middle school students and this could not be happening at a better time. You will see on the agenda the request for you to approve item #24 which involves the adoption of instructional new science materials for all students in grades k through 7 at a cost of approximately $91,000. This is significant because the NJDOE will be implementing new CCCS science standards for the next school year. The Foss science materials have already been used by the NJDOE in their development of model lessons to support teaching of the new CCCS for science. The materials are supported and were developed through the National Science Foundation. The students of the Hoboken Schools have not received new science textbooks and learning materials at the elementary level for at least ten years and the new standards as well as the need to update materials due to age make this resolution very important for our science program. I like the lessons because they are hands on discovery based learning modules.

In other partnership news related to the new science curriculum, I am happy to report that I was able to meet officials at Stevens Institute of Technology to learn about their outreach program and possible ways to partner with them. As a result of a significant grant Stevens received, it appears they will be able to help us with training our staff to utilize the new science materials to the greatest potential. I wanted to take a moment to speak about both discipline and attendance at the high school. I am happy to report that the suspension rate at the high school has decreased by from 29 suspensions in February to 14 suspensions in March. This represents a 52 percent decrease and is attributable to changes in approach in terms of accountability and fuller implementation of the in-school suspension program. This is the lowest number of suspensions for the entire school year.

I am also happy to report that our recent efforts to improve student attendance have also been very successful. Since our implementation of the existing BOE policy for student attendance, we have seen a 41% improvement in reduction in the number of students absent.

RETREAT-the open date that we have is May 23.
In closing my report, I would like to take a moment to recognize the retirements of eight long time district employees.
Veronica Scappatori-Teacher at Wallace School
Bart Reilly-Principal of Wallace School
Irene LaBruzza-School Nurse at Hoboken High School
Kenneth Turso-Sixth Grade Social Studies Teacher at Connors
Anne Marie DeMaio-Fifth Grade Teacher at Calabro School
Pasqua Cioci-Transportation Aide/Security Guard
Michael Jacobson-Teacher at Wallace School
Michael Craven--Transportation Coordinator and 39 year veteran in the transportation department ◦