The Hamilton Township Board of Education announced Jan. 11, 2012 that it had appointed James Parla as the district’s next superintendent. Few would have predicted the 12 months that followed Parla’s hiring would wind up being among the most turbulent periods in the history of the school district.
As it happens, Parla came to Hamilton just as the corruption charges against then-mayor John Bencivengo surfaced. Parla fielded calls from the FBI and dealt with government subpoenas in his first weeks on the job this April. The case involved several current and former school board members, the school district’s insurance broker and—it was eventually revealed—the school district business administrator. It was a harsh welcome to Hamilton, a place Parla had no connection to, where everyone was a stranger.
Parla sat down with Hamilton Post senior community editor Rob Anthes Dec. 5 at the Hamilton Township School District’s offices on Park Avenue to discuss his first year on the job, what the district needs to do to recover from the corruption scandal and his hopes for the future of Hamilton’s schools.
Hamilton Post: A lot of the things you read or hear about the school district are negative, or at least shady. Are there any good things going on? Is any progress being made?
James Parla: There are a lot of good things happening. There are the day-to-day things. We’ve got teachers teaching. Students engaged in learning. You see that all the time in our buildings.
We are constantly striving to improve instruction. This year, we are piloting the implementation of the new teacher evaluation process. And that process is a mandate. It’s a state mandate. Actually, it comes down from the federal government to the state to all the school districts. I think, in a number of ways, the timing of it is very good.
We’ve adopted a model called the Charlotte Danielson model. She’s an educator who has been writing about effective instruction for the last 15-20 years. We’ve adopted her model, which consists of four different domains. I’m familiar with the Danielson model because it was implemented in my prior district.
The book that we’re using … really just consists of what every good teacher should do. It talks about effective instruction. It talks about classroom management skills, how children learn, learning activities and classroom experiences you can offer the children, how you deal with your own professional development. As you read that, you see that really what’s outlined there is what it takes to be a really good teacher. That’s what we’re striving for, to ensure that all of our teachers are excellent. That’s what our goal is.
We have that underway. [Michael] Gilbert, director of curriculum instruction, is taking the lead on that. We’ve offered a lot of training so far, training to our administrators, our supervisors, our teachers. We’re going to continue the training throughout the school year. There’s going to be a major focus on that, as there should be. Not just because it’s a state mandate, but because it is the right thing to do.
Where I fall a little bit off the tracks is, I’m not a proponent of using test scores to measure effective instruction. Test scores are important. Testing is important. But we have to keep it in perspective. Should it be part of an overall evaluation of a teacher or administrator? Yes. But it really depends to what degree it plays a role in that.
That’s where I’m a little concerned. In some states, it’s 50, 60, 70 percent test scores. I don’t agree with that. There’s a lot of research that shows that test scores do not reflect effective instruction.
You also have the problem of teachers not having all the same students. Teachers that are teaching students that need additional help, that are lower performing, may be reluctant to teach those students because it’s going to reflect poorly on their evaluation. At the same time, teachers that have the advanced students, when you’re way at the top, it’s hard to show improvement. If you’re already at 100 percent, where do you go from there? They may also be reluctant to put kids in AP classes, for example, because kids might perform better if they’re not in those higher level classes. That’s all in putting too much importance or emphasis on testing.
Another thing we’re taking a good, hard look at is our graduation rate. We have over 90 percent in two of our schools, and under 90 percent in one. We want to improve that. We have new model in New Jersey. They call it the Cohort Model. It’s not new to me because they’ve had it in New York for quite a while. Really, what it does is look at the cohort of kids that start together in 9th grade, what percentage of that cohort graduates? You have to account for the movement in and the movement out. Kids that leave, where do they go? Are they dropouts? We need to account for that.
The new numbers are coming out in a couple days, I think. We did fairly well. But we need to do better. We need to ensure that all of our schools are over 90 percent, 90-95 percent graduation rate. There’s a process to that. We’re going to be getting into taking a look at kids who are more apt to drop out of school. We have them identified, put programs in place to keep them in school and get them to graduate. If you read the statistics about the kids who don’t graduate high school, it’s pretty grim in terms of their stage in life going forward. So, it’s a pretty involved process. I’m hoping that we have a professional learning community focusing on this.
The other thing we need to really pick apart is, New Jersey ranks its high schools every few years. Out of the 328 high schools, Steinert’s at 205, and the other two were a point apart. One’s like 275, and the other’s 276. That’s unacceptable.
If I was looking to buy a house in New Jersey and I had children who would be going to high school and I saw where the high schools were ranked by a reputable agency, I’d be reluctant. I don’t want a high school that’s ranked 275 out of 328. I want a high school that’s ranked in the top 100.
We want to pick that apart and see where we are not in the running. What’s wrong? Is it the student-teacher ratio? Are we not offering enough AP courses? What is it that we need to improve? We should address those things, and we should improve.
All of this is tied into the strategic planning initiative I launched. We’re beginning to set up meetings now. I will admit I slowed down a little bit on that. I didn’t push as hard to get things going because I didn’t think it was a good idea to start having community input meetings while [John Bencivengo’s] trial was going on. I thought, with the holidays coming and the fallout of the trial, it wasn’t exactly the best environment.
When you do something like this, it’s like a pep rally almost. You need to bring people on board and get everyone to a common agreement on a vision. Where are we now, where do we want to be and how do we want to get there? That’s got to get done in a real positive environment. It probably would be better to back off a little bit, let some of this settle down and now we’re starting to put together the first meeting of our steering committee. When we get back from the holidays and launch into the new year, that probably would be a better time to get things going. I just couldn’t imagine, while the trial was going on, having a community forum. We probably wouldn’t be addressing the kinds of things we need to address.
HP: It would be a distraction?
JP: It definitely would be a distraction. That’s part of the issue … The politics in the township are distracting. We really need to get focused on why we’re here in the school district. That’s to provide a quality education to our children. All of this smoke and dagger stuff is horrible. It’s disheartening. And it’s got to stop. It just has to end.
We need people as public servants who are here for the right reasons, people who are here to serve children, want to improve their community, not to engage in all this political nonsense. It’s got to end. It’s disheartening. It just seems like politics in Hamilton are like a fabric. It’s all woven together.
In New York State, in every district I’ve been in, and I’ve been around 16 years as a superintendent, there are no partisan politics. The municipalities are separate, not involved with school districts. I was a board member myself for 14 years, so I’m aware of it from both sides. I could be the superintendent and not even know who the mayor is, not be able to recall the mayor’s name. It’s different here.
We have to weed out the politics and let the educators educate the children. Let’s come to an agreement about why we’re here and do what’s best for our kids. Let’s do what’s best for our community. That’s important.
HP: The initiatives you described earlier are things a school district and a community are supposed to talk about and do. But that’s not always the focus in Hamilton. How do you shift the focus? How are you going to steer the discussion?
JP: We steer the discussion back to education with something like the strategic planning initiative because I think the strategic planning initiative really brings all constituents together. It’s a shared common vision of where are we now and where do we want to be. We need to measure it. It just can’t be thoughts. It just can’t be words. It just can’t be Powerpoint presentations. It has to be actions.
Once we get rolling and we better define our goals and establish very specific strategies to reach those objectives, then you have the whole community jelling together and doing what’s right for kids. Faculty, staff, parents, community members, everyone will be involved in this process. That’s how you do it. That’s how you get people focused on it.
Sometimes with the politics, it is hard to go through it. You have to go over it. Push it to the side. Quite frankly, as far as any of these partisan politics, don’t knock on my door. I’m not getting involved in any of that. I’m here as the lead educator for the district, and that’s my job. I’m not going to play politics with the Democrats, the Republicans, the Independents. They have no place here. Period.
HP: Do you think it’s important to start hitting those goals soon and very publicly?
JP: Absolutely. We need to rebuild trust and confidence, and the only way we’re going to do that is we have to increase transparency. No more backrooms filled with smoke. We need to make sure the public gets the information it requires. We need to do that through the budget process.
Tonight [Dec. 5], we’re having training on BoardDocs. BoardDocs is a system that will allow our agendas to go online.
We’re debating right now because there are some laws in New Jersey regarding the HR portion of the budget. There is a law that says you can’t really disclose that until a board approves. However, if you are hiring John Q. Public as a chemistry teacher on step five of the salary scale and a school board is going to vote on it, shouldn’t people know? It’s public money.
But there are some laws that protect the privacy of people who are applying for jobs. Many school districts in New Jersey do have those recommendations in their school board agenda. The way I think they do that is any candidate for a job signs off.
So, we have to work that part out. But that doesn’t mean all of the other sections of the budget, all of that should be online. People should be able to look at it, and they should be able to see what board members are doing. That’s one of the biggest complaints not only here, but in other school districts. That people in the public don’t know the substance of what the board is discussing. We need to be more transparent. That’s a step in the right direction.
I’ve used BoardDocs before. It really takes away the transparency issue. We certainly need to be transparent. The budget. The agenda. Trying to get information out there.
I think if we keep at that we’ll get to the point where the public will begin to trust because they’ll have confidence in us.
What’s also helpful is, I came from the outside. When I first came here, it was a very odd feeling not knowing anyone in the entire state. Forget about the township or the county. I didn’t know anyone in the entire state of New Jersey. I didn’t know anyone.
I think the fact that I’m not an insider, I’m not involved in the politics, I’m hoping people see it as a fresh perspective. I’m hoping.
HP: On that note, a year ago—Jan. 11, 2012—the board announced you had been selected as the next superintendent. I can’t imagine your first year has gone as you thought it would. Could you reflect a bit on your first year on the job?
JP: This whole thing broke, I think, my second week or toward the end of my first week. So we’ve been dealing with it.
But one thing that is interesting is, while the politics rage and so on, you get the opportunity to go into the schools, and you see that I think we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to shield it from the day-to-day school operations. So I don’t think it has that much of an impact once kids enter the school and go into a classroom. The teachers are teaching. The principals and administrators are focused on what they need to be focused on. We’ve kind of shielded them from this.
Overall, though … you have to have everybody engaged. The more time we have to deal with cloak and dagger, the less time we have to do the kinds of things we need to do for our schools. That’s difficult.
That’s the only complaint I really have. I’d rather be sitting at a table discussing how we increase third grade reading scores, as opposed to sitting around a table talking about the latest fallout for a corruption scandal and how we deal with that. Or, the FBI is here to talk to you. We cooperated fully. We did all that. But it takes time, and you wind up using a lot of your energy on those kinds of things, when you should really be using your energy for the children.
That’s a little disappointing, but it’s part of the landscape. You have to be able to accept, when you start a new job, that things can happen. These situations are not totally unusual, unfortunately, in this day and age. They happen across the country. You just got to be able to deal with it.
My feeling is that, in order to really work through something like this, the most important thing is to maintain your integrity, be honest and be forthcoming. Just tell it like it is. That’s always been the way I’ve conducted myself, and it always will be.
HP: So, we’ve talked about the past. What about the future? What are your plans for 2013?
JP: Next year, I want to have a dynamic strategic plan in place. I want to see a professional learning community coming together to address specific issues, really focused on improving student achievement.
Dr. Gilbert gave a report regarding our test scores, our student achievement. It’s not where it should be. Our students should be performing at a much higher level. My goal is to get everyone focused on improving student achievement, and bringing Hamilton—in terms of student achievement—to a higher level. That’s what we need to be doing. So, we need to make sure our kids get the services they need to be successful, that we implement the Common Core Standards, and also the teacher and administrator evaluation systems and that we have systems in place to measure our progress.
We need to make progress. We need to make sure our kids are performing at a much higher level than they are performing now. That is why we’re here. That’s what I’m focusing on in the future.
I’m hoping that the politics, that this becomes a wake-up call. Stop! Stop with the politics. If you want to be in politics, don’t do them in the school district. [I’m hoping] that all of our board meetings and all of our discussions are focused on running our schools so that they’re serving the community and, first and foremost, serving our students.
We’re inching our way there. Once we get through this cloud, I think we should be able to take off.
HP: Is there anything you wanted to talk about?
JP: I think there are a lot of good things happening at our schools, and we need to get that information out there. Thank you for helping get that out there.
That’s really the most critical thing right now for the school district, to rebuild the trust and the confidence in the district and to weed the politics and the nonsense. It’s crystal clear. We have so much to address.
We also have to take a look at our infrastructure. We have buildings that are in dire need of repair. We need to start to put processes in place.
I also need to get positions filled. Right now, I have an interim director of administration. I need to get that finalized. We don’t have a director of facilities right now. We’re doing that with one of our maintenance people. He’s very, very good filling that gap, but eventually we’ll need a director of facilities in place. There are a number of things that need to get done to help us solidify the central office and get us to where we need to go. That’s going to be a priority for me.
Another main focus going for is the budget. We’re working very diligently on that. I know there was some concern because our business administrator is still on administrative leave, but I think the saving grace is, No. 1, for the majority of his career Dr. Swirsky was a BA. And I was a BA … School finance is one of my fortes … With all of us coming together, we’ve got it covered.
HP: Business administrator Joe Tramontana was put on leave in November after testimony from the Bencivengo trial suggested he, at the very least, knew insurance broker and government witness Marliese Ljuba was doing illegal things in the township. Do you have any news regarding his situation?
JP: Right now, he’s on administrative leave. Where we go from now, I don’t know. If I did know, I couldn’t tell you anyway. But I don’t … That’s obviously going to be a legal issue. We’re going to have to make that determination, though, as we go forward. I don’t really know at this point.
HP: Is that something the school board has power over?
JP: Yes, it’s a combination between the superintendent and the board.
Editor’s note: Several minutes after this interview, Parla left a voicemail saying he believed the current Board of Education has the best interest of children at heart and that the school board wants to work so it can move on from the scandal surrounding it.