Long Beach Island School Board President Talks Animosity, Working to Move Past It

Jan 31, 2018

For months now, LBI Board of Education President James Donahower has kept his head about him while taking the brunt of verbal criticism from the public regarding a failed $18.4 million referendum. That ended earlier this month when he let loose on members of the public and their taunting questioning of the district's transparency, as well as the unrelenting condemnation of school officials.

“I blew my fuse because I am sick of people attacking our administration and the board,” Donahower later said of the Jan. 16 meeting. “Yes, I understand there is a legacy of bad blood both within the board and between the board and various members of the community. It is an old problem in need of new solutions. But in that moment at the meeting, I took it personally. I thought: Why am I being barked at about trust and transparency again? Has anyone noticed that I’ve been working on those issues? Do people think a decades-long history of distrust and antipathy can be erased in a couple of months?”

The tipping point for the otherwise easy-going Donahower was a question about district buses that failed an unexpected state inspection earlier this month, and the line of questioning, he felt, was an attempt to show Superintendent Peter Kopack in a bad light.

“Dr. Kopack did not lie,” Donahower said; a review of the Jan. 2 reorganization meeting where the issue first surfaced punctuates that. “Is it fun for them to try and catch our district superintendent in a lie? What is their endgame? Our job is to make sure our kids get the best education possible – work with us.

The recent acrimony seems to stem from the $18.4 million referendum voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City overwhelmingly rejected last fall. It was built around the expansion and renovation of the Ethel A. Jacobsen School so the district could consolidate nearly 230 students beginning with the 2018-19 school year. The referendum passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars.

“In my view, the referendum is ancient history. Dead. I am not sure what people are worried about,” he said. “Do they think that, after a 2-to-1 defeat, we would go out again with the same proposal?”

Where the board goes now is partly reliant on the structural review findings at the LBI Grade School, as well as the EJ School and two new board members. William Fenimore was sworn in to represent Ship Bottom Jan. 2, while John McMenamin won a special runoff election against Allyn Kain for the Surf City seat just last week. He is expected to be sworn in at the board’s February meeting.

“Allyn Kain is a thoughtful person and a dedicated board member. I’ll miss having her around,” Donahower said after the election results were announced, but added it was reasonable to say the board could benefit from a fresh perspective. He doesn’t know enough about either new member to make an assessment, but said they both had big shoes to fill.

His best advice for both members is to listen, and to do a lot of it.

“Personally, I abstained from a lot of things the first few meetings I was on the board,” he said. “I just didn’t know enough to make a sound decision.”

With new board members, though, there are likely things that could change this year, he acknowledged. If there are no insurmountable obstacles, one of those things could be to alternate meetings between the LBI Grade School and the EJ School, he said.

“I am happy to have meetings over there,” he said, noting the board recently kicked around the idea. There are a few issues that need to be resolved before a decision can be made, he added.

For members of the public against consolidating both schools, holding meetings at the LBI Grade School could go a long way in rebuilding trust. By no means, however, does Donahower believe the street is one way.

“It assumes the board is solely responsible for ‘the loss of public trust’ when in fact the distrust is generated by sources other than the board, as well, and it assumes that the entire public distrusts the board when I am not sure how widespread the distrust actually is.”

With that being said, Donahower said he believes everyone, from board members to community leaders, citizens and parents, needs “to take a good, long look at themselves and their role in this monstrous antipathy that’s hanging in the air out there. I have only been on the board for two years, so I can’t possibly tell you where it all went wrong, or how, or who’s to blame.”

For his part, he acknowledges the board needs to document things better for the public so the transparency issue some of the public has with the district can slowly dissipate.

“For the public meetings, that’s easy enough. We need microphones and a camera so the people can hear better at the meetings and watch them online afterward should they be so inclined,” he said. “We need to do more informational pushes like we did with the referendum: aggregate the facts in a clear and easy-to-consume way, and let people know the info is out there for the taking.”

Public education is one of those issues everyone takes ownership of, especially in New Jersey because of how public schools are funded. The problem is most of the general public doesn’t have a complete understanding of everything that goes into public education, Donahower said. Simple logic, for the most part, doesn’t compare with institutional knowledge of how things get done and must get done because it’s mandated by the state, he said.

“They shouldn’t be on the attack, because they don’t know what goes into it,” Donahower said, noting he doesn’t believe that’s representative of the public at large.

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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