For more than a quarter-century, Hamilton Township residents could turn on their TV—or, later, their computers—and watch the latest Board of Education meeting.
That came to end March 21, when the school board voted, 7-2, to stop video recording its meetings. The board acted on a recommendation by interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who said the cameras created an atmosphere that invited political grandstanding and personal attacks at the expense of school business. The recordings did not accurately portray Hamilton and discouraged potential hires from coming to the district, Ficarra said.
“Part of what we do is to portray the district in a positive light,” he said in an interview. “The face I see in the videotapes is not the real face of Hamilton.”
At the time of the vote, concerned residents—including Sue Ferrara and Chris Scales, the two school board members who voted against the measure—said the new filming policy is just part of a larger communication problem plaguing the Hamilton School District. Reverberations were still being felt months later, as the consequences of turning the cameras off became clear.
Under the amended Bylaw 0168, all Board of Education meetings will be audio recorded and then transcribed. The audio tape will not be released to the public, and will be kept for 45 days or until either summary or verbatim transcripts have been approved by the board as minutes, whichever is longer.
Video equipment still is installed in the meeting chambers at the Board of Education office on Park Avenue, and plays, presentations and anything the superintendent deems worthy will continued to be video recorded, school board president Tony Celentano said. Ficarra said budget, curriculum and student presentations, as well as awards, will be videoed.
The cameras are shut off for anything not in those categories, including public comment and any votes or motions the board makes. Members of the public still may record entire meetings with their own equipment, but only after giving the board secretary five days notice.
Anything video recorded by the district is available on the district’s website, as well as broadcast on its television station, HTV.
The new policy has proven problematic for residents like Kerri Kane, a mother of two who likes to stay informed but often can’t make it to meetings. Kane’s husband is on the road frequently for his job as a truck driver, and her youngest son, 6-year-old Jared, has spina bifida, which makes bringing him along to board meetings difficult.
Kane became an active observer of school board business in 2012, when she was fighting for the installation of accommodations Jared needed to attend University Heights Elementary School. Kane said she has been relying on the video to stay informed. She attended the March 21 board meeting to lobby in favor of the recordings.
With two school board meetings having occurred now in the video-free era, Kane said her fears have been confirmed. Transcripts from the meetings are not released, and neither are minutes until the board approves them at the next month’s meeting. Someone not attending a school board meeting would have to wait weeks for the minutes to be released in order to find out what happened.
“It’s worse [than I expected],” she said. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
Board member Ferrara agreed with Kane, saying school staff who live out of town and senior citizens depend on the videos to stay informed. She said the district’s greater responsibility is to communicate with its stakeholders, not to impress potential hires. Ficarra, the interim superintendent, has said that two candidates for employment in Hamilton have backed out of the job after viewing township school board meetings online.
“You can’t stop a 25-year tradition of transparency because two or three people didn’t take a job because of the videotape,” Ferrara said.
Videotaping wasn’t board policy until 2008. There was no record of an official filming policy on the books before that, Celentano said, meaning that boards prior to 2008 recorded just because they thought it was a good idea.
Celentano said he supports ceasing the recordings because it is time to rein in the “lunacy” occurring at school board meetings. The September 28, 2015 board meeting, in particular, soured Celentano and Ficarra on recording. At that meeting, residents—some of whom were running for municipal office that fall—questioned the board about the closure of playgrounds at the township’s elementary schools. The school district has been responsible for the care and upkeep of the playgrounds since 2012.
Ficarra said he thinks the residents were using the meeting and the subsequent video as a de facto campaign commercial. The thinking goes that by removing the video, the audience is limited to those at the meeting, which in turn makes grandstanding less attractive.
Celentano also said there is a culture of blaming the school board for problems, including scandals that happened before many of the current members served on the board. Richard Kanka, for example, is the only school board member remaining from 2012, when federal charges were brought against then-mayor John Bencivengo for accepting bribes from the school district’s health insurance broker. During the November 2012 trial, federal prosecutors painted several members of the school district staff and school board as corrupt. Kanka was not one of those members.
Those days are gone, Celentano said, and without the video, it will be easier to change the culture of suspicion.
“We are there to do board business, and we are being asked about things we had no control over,” he said. “We have no control over playgrounds. We have no control over the ceiling collapsing [at Steinert High School].”
But Ferrara said she doesn’t see how removing the video and limiting the audience for meetings changes things for the better.
“If there is a culture of blaming the board, don’t you think there’s a reason?” Ferrara said. “The board lost $1-million. The board got caught up in the insurance broker scandal. If there’s a culture of blaming the board, why would you end transparency? Wouldn’t you want more?”
The outcry about the video has occurred as much for how the policy was introduced and passed as for the bylaw change itself. In order for the school board to consider a policy, it must first put it on the agenda for a school board meeting. The proposed change is introduced at that month’s meeting. Then, a month later, the school board will conduct a second reading of the proposed change before voting on the matter.
The school board releases agendas the Friday prior to each month’s meeting. The filming policy—Bylaw 0168—was not on the Feb. 24 agenda at that point, Kane said. But the item was on the agenda once the meeting started, stating that Ficarra recommended the board approve “the revisions to Board Bylaw #0168, Recording Board Meetings.”
Online, agendas have attachments that explain in greater depth the agenda items in question and any potential changes to policy. At school board meetings, attendees are only provided with agendas. Without attachments, agendas often are a series of policy numbers without explanations. People at the Feb. 24 meeting later said they had no idea they had sat through the first reading of a policy that would do away with filming board meetings.
By the March 21 meeting, word had spread to residents that filming was on the chopping block. Several residents, including Kane, addressed the board in March to plead it to vote against the changes.
But it seemed most board members already had made up their minds, Kane said, and there was little discussion of the policy. Ferrara and Scales were the only board members to address the policy before the vote. When Ferrara shared information about the history of broadcasting in Hamilton Township at the meeting, she received a scolding from Celentano about how she should have shared that information with the board before the meeting via telephone. Ferrara later said, in an interview, she does not take phone calls from the superintendent or do board business by phone.
“We’re supposed to be doing the public’s business in public,” Ferrara said. “We’re not supposed to be doing business over the phone because nothing would get to the board floor.”
After the vote, several other board members used time during the March 21 meeting to explain their decision. One member, Susan Lombardo, said she voted to cease filming because it seemed like only a small number of people belonging to a Facebook group called “Hamilton Township Community Supporting Education” cared about the issue. Another board member, Jennifer Kraemer, said she didn’t want her children to stumble across the recordings and see their mother being called names by the public. Lombardo, Kraemer and board vice president Dina Thornton did not respond to the Hamilton Post’s requests for comment on their votes.
The move to eliminate recordings of school board meetings comes months after the board stopped meeting in public to determine its monthly agenda. Before this school year, the Hamilton Board of Education would have two public meetings: an agenda meeting on the third Wednesday of the month and a regular session on the fourth Wednesday of the month. At Ficarra’s suggestion, the board now holds private “committee agenda meetings,” where three board members and school district administrators will meet to set the agenda for a specific portion of the meeting. There are three committees, each with three different board members.
This now gives the public only one chance per month to address issues with the school board, which gives some the feeling that the district is trying to operate without the public’s input.
“The message that seems to be coming though is, ‘Just give us your tax dollars, and go away,’” Ferrara said.
But Ficarra, the interim superintendent, defended the committees, saying that they allow board members to discuss things, such as personnel issues, that could not be brought up in a public meeting. And since the board members don’t constitute a quorum, no official action can be taken, which means the meetings do not have to be public.
“They can’t do anything in groups of three, but it allows them to have a candid discussion,” Ficarra said.
Ficarra said he was merely aligning Hamilton with what today’s standard practices are. In New Jersey, 86 percent of school boards have agenda committees, he said.
“We were not moving toward something strange,” Ficarra said.
Ficarra also defended the decision to stop filming by pointing out that Hamilton Township council, Mercer County freeholders and most of the surrounding school districts do not record meetings. Currently, the boards for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and Princeton Public Schools are the only Mercer County school boards that video record their meetings.
The trend holds statewide. The New Jersey School Board Association surveyed its members in June 2011 on the topic of taping board meetings. Just 20 percent of respondents said their district videotapes meetings for broadcast. However, in a separate survey taken at the same time, 45.5 percent of board members said they thought taping or broadcasting meetings was a good idea. Twenty-nine percent disapproved, and 25.5 percent had mixed reactions.
At a time Hamilton is dropping out, another district in Mercer County may join the ranks of those who record Board of Education meetings. The West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional school board has formed a committee to explore the possibility to begin filming its meetings. It conducted a trial filming during its March meeting.
WW-P board member Michele Kaish leads the district’s filming exploration committee, and said the board decided to take a look at taping after a handful of residents kept pushing the issue. A petition to start videoing WW-P school board meetings received 35 signatures. The board members themselves have been fairly indifferent to the idea, Kaish said.
“We never talked about it,” she said. “The general feeling was no one on the board wanted it, so we never discussed it.”
WW-P’s board has run into similar pros and cons as Hamilton’s has, as it weighs the benefit of creating an accessible public record of the board’s work with the potential for grandstanding and decorum issues at the meeting itself. Just because a recording of a meeting does not exist, though, does not mean a school board is not transparent, Kaish said.
“I take exception to people who say there’s a lack of transparency,” she said. “We’re transparent. We do our votes in public. All of our votes are online. We’re out in the open. We’re not hiding anything. But it is a question of communication. How accessible do you want to make your meetings?”
Kaish anticipates the WW-P board will put the filming policy up for a vote in the fall, and took interest in the turn of events in Hamilton.
“It is curious to me,” she said. “I’d love to know why they decided to stop recording.”
But the shift in policy could be more of a moratorium than a lasting departure.
The board has extended Ficarra’s contract until Jan. 31, 2017, at which a point a permanent superintendent would take over. Ficarra has indicated his preference on videoing meetings, meaning the new policy will endure until February 2017. But Ferrara and Scales said they will work with whoever the new superintendent is to get the cameras back on, and Celentano—who is up for re-election this November—hinted he would take his cues from the superintendent if he is still on the board.
Ficarra acknowledged there is nothing stopping the board from resuming taping. The policy doesn’t even need to be changed for recording to start again.
Ficarra said his lone goal is to make Hamilton’s schools an attractive place to work.
“I am passing through,” he said. “I’m trying to set the district up so it stabilizes because there has been a tremendous amount of conflict in the last five years. I want to set it up so the district can find a superintendent who wants to be here. I want people to be fighting for the job, not running away from it.”