Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Deck Tonight: Paula Ohaus' Tenure and Mark Toback's Credibility

Update: Paula Ohaus and her counterpart Hillenbrand were denied tenure in a 7 hour Donaldson Hearing at the BOE last night. The vote went 5-4 with the Kids First contingent backing the Superintendent.

If Kids First was playing politics they would have acquiesced to mob rule and granted Ohaus tenure. They didn't and while it was not an easy decision for them it was the right one if you consider the morale of all the other teachers who do their best to follow school policy and not flaunt it publicly when they don't.

Original Post:

Here is a note from a supporter of Public Schools that is getting around the cybersphere:

"The next meeting of the Hoboken Board of Education is Tuesday, June 28th at 7pm in the Board Meeting room on Clinton Street [which is tonight]!

The new Superintendent, Dr. Mark Toback has been incredibly busy his first few months moving the District forward. He has already partnered with local colleges to provide dual credit classes for our High School students, hired a new Principal for the high school, begun the process of hiring a new Principal for Wallace, established a plan for a new communication effort for parents and community, created a new, more inclusive Gifted and Talented Program for grades K-7 and completed the process to bring AP courses to the high school.

He is also attempting to create an environment where staff members are supported equally and rules and policies are applied fairly. Recently, Dr. Toback made the decision to not offer tenure to six teachers. Two
teachers have appealed this decision and requested that their employment discussion be held in public. It was during these recent open discussions that the public heard of the many concerns that led to Dr. Toback's decision. These concerns include driving students in private cars, sleep overs in a teacher's home, having academically ineligible students in extra curricular activities, and not possessing the required teaching certification.

There are many who plan to attend Tuesday's meeting to request the Board overturn Dr. Toback's decision and, therefore grant tenure over his objections. The Board majority respects and supports Dr. Toback's decision and they need your support!

If you agree that the community needs to support the new Superintendent in administering our district for the benefit of all the students and guiding them toward achieving academic excellence, please attend Tuesday's meeting!

You do not have to speak...your presence will speak volumes."

Hoboken BoE Superintendent's Report on Ohaus Contract Decision:

No that is not his report! Link and excerpt are below!:)

Here is the Section of the Report on Ohaus filed April 12, 2011 as it relates to Paula 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.

The real tragedy in this is Paula Ohaus
puts on some great plays that truly
energize the students. It is a shame that
she can't seem to follow some simple
rules to protect the district. I have been to her
plays and think they are great.
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.

My Comment: The core issue is whether talented teacher's like Paula Ohaus get special treatment when it comes to the rules or not. Whether or not you like the rules involving teacher and student activities outside of school, they were devised to protect the student and the school from liabilities in this increasingly litigious society we live in. No one ever fired Paula Ohaus. She resigned twice in the last two years and then rescinded. In lieu of a teaching tenureship she was offered a non-teaching position instead to stay on and continue the program. To date she has refused and is rumored to already have another job lined up. Her minor trangressions certainly don't warrant a firing in my humble opinion but the accumulation over the years of such violations and the public display of disrgearding school rules certainly rule out tenure, at least until she can demonstrate a willingness to follow the guidelines that all teachers are expected to follow. If not then should she be afforded special privledges that other teachers do not get? That is one hell of a slippery slope and a moral hazzard. Superintendents have to make tough calls. We need the drama on the stage and not in the BOE meetings. We should support the Superintendent. ◦