PLEASANTVILLE - A community effort led by Mayor Jesse Tweedle to let voters decide whether to change the city's elected school board to an appointed one comes with questions.
Tweedle himself isn't sure changing the way school board members are selected will help, but after years of controversy, something has to change, he said.
"There is no guarantee" the move would resolve problems facing the district, Tweedle said. "But you can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results."
Tweedle recently wrote a letter to city residents expressing support for changing the school board to an appointed one. A group of residents is circulating a petition to put the question to voters for the November general election.
The petition needs 318 signatures, 15 percent of the city's voter turnout, to get the question on the ballot.
If it passes, the mayor would appoint members.
A decade of problems and controversies is driving the issue. The district has seen a steady turnover of school administrators, the appointment of a state monitor and a focus by board members on campaigning over school issues, Tweedle said.
Also troubling is the board's infighting, lawsuits and the recent allegations by a state investigative agency that three current and former school board members lied on applications to get free school lunches for their children.
"I don't want it to sound like I'm bashing the school board," Jesse Tweedle said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I applaud anyone who volunteers."
Current school board members are upset by the mayor's efforts.
"It's disrespectful to voters," said school board member Tony Davenport. "Why would you want to take away someone's right to vote?"
Davenport is a new member to the board. He previously worked in the school district.
"It's disappointing. This is a new board, and we have not gotten a chance to get our feet wet. I'm new at this, but I'm not going to back down. The history of the board is the reason why I ran," he said.
Petitions in 2004 and 2007 sought but failed to change the board.
The 2007 petition was started by resident Frank Oatman soon after five board members had been arrested and faced federal charges of accepting bribes. Oatman said the school district attorney in 2007 was able to stall the petition by arguing the language used in it.
Oatman is now a part of the group of five who has been regularly meeting with the mayor to begin the new petition.
"Last time it was done at a grass-roots level. We didn't have any affluent people," Oatman said. "We didn't have the time or finances to get a good lawyer and come back (at the district) at that time."
Superintendent Garnell Bailey did not comment on the petition but said the district has complex socioeconomic problems that require motivation to tackle the longstanding issues.
"It's not going to work," said school board member Jerome Page, who was on the board in 2007 and was board president in 2004. "The citizens are going to vote it down."
School board vice president Joanne Famularo said she believes the city government, including council members and the mayor, have mishandled the situation.
"If they want an appointed school board, how dare they not sit down with the school board and have a discussion (first)? Call a special board meeting with all the members," Famularo said.
She also questioned whether an appointed board would be an improvement.
"And where are these people that would fill seats, when they have not run in past elections? How are they going to ensure this is not a tainted process?" Famularo asked.
She said the history and reputation of the school board, which has had 15 superintendents in almost as many years, has dimmed enthusiasm for serving the school district.
Tweedle said he already has an idea of who would be on the advisory board, but he wants to first focus on the petition.
He said a mayor-appointed board would bring accountability and sustainability to the district.
The first thing is getting enough signatures to hold a November referendum. The petition is being circulated among religious and community leaders in the city, Tweedle said.
"Signing it doesn't mean you want an appointed board. It just allows the question to go on the November ballot," Tweedle said.
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