Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Meet Janet Matthews, Easton School Board Candidate for Region III

Janet Matthews
Posted by: Noël Jones

The Easton Democratic Committee has chosen their candidate to run for the remaining two years of the school board seat vacated by Jen Holzberger in Region III, which covers part of Lower Mount Bethel Township, Forks Township and Easton's West Ward and College Hill neighborhoods. I had the opportunity to sit down with Janet Matthews in her Forks Township home, to discuss the upcoming election, her
views on the current state of the district, and ways as to how it could improve. A former teacher and Associate Director of Literacy in the Easton Area School District, Matthews says she wants to give back to the community by serving on the other side--representing voting taxpayers while working to find the best value in terms of effective programming to raise student performance. "I have experience and expertise to share," says Matthews. After 32 years with the district, that experience is broad, and she serves on invitation-only boards at the state level as well.

"My experience as a teacher and administrator has given me the unique perspective of each school's strengths and weaknesses. I'm not sure that a candidate has ever offered that combination of experience before. I can look at things with a critical eye when it comes to spending, and I have the ability to evaluate programs to know if they are worth keeping or not. Each school is different--there's no cookie-cutter…this is my community--I want it to get better."

I ask her what she might say to voters who are hesitant to embrace candidates with strong ties to the district. "There is definitely a deficit of trust in the community, and I want to help restore that trust. My connection to the district is different than board members in the past--I have no relatives looking to get jobs in the district, and if I did, they would know better than to ask me."

With regard to academic achievement, literacy is her forte, and close to her heart. "I see the big picture. I know that if students aren't reading at grade level by the end of grade 3, the chances of improving academic performance overall are very slight..." She trails off for a moment, before sharing a disturbing statistic, "The best predictor of the number of needed prison beds in several states is 3rd grade reading scores. We have to do everything we can in K-3."

So with regard to programming that works, and program expenses that can be cut, what does she suggest?

"Each program might be valuable to some students and not others--again, it's not a cookie-cutter--you have to treat each school individually and decide which interventions are working and which are not. It's not hard to find out--the teachers know."

As an example, she offers Cheston Elementary, which won the International Reading Association's Exemplary Reading Program Award in 2002. Eighty-seven percent of 2nd and 3rd grade students were reading at or above grade level.

So what happened? "There were a lot of good interventions going on, in addition to best practices being taught by teachers, and a we had a lot of teacher training." One intervention being used at the time was called Reading Recovery, an intensive 1st grade intervention program that consisted of a half hour each day for 16 weeks. "After Cheston won the award, the Director of Literacy showed up one day in the middle of the year and shut down the program without explanation." Matthews points out that many of the teachers from that time are still with the district. "Teachers are already trained and we are not using it."

Another successful intervention was made possible by a Read to Succeed grant, through which Cheston acquired an on line literacy program called Fast Forward from Scientific Learning. Kids went to the lab for an hour and a half, for five weeks. "We paid $100,000 for a perpetual site license for Cheston. The program hasn't been in use for about eight years." According to Matthews, the lab was dismantled because the computers were outdated, and the room was needed for Special Education students. But she points out that the program is now hosted in an internet cloud, requiring no need to load into hard drives anymore, so since Cheston has a perpetual site license, the school could be using the program again at minimal cost, even without upgrading their computers. But they aren't, so both the money spent, and the benefit that helped achieve the award in 2002, are currently being wasted.

At one point Dr. Maura Roberts, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, was approached about moving the site license to the middle school, where students were struggling badly with literacy and academic performance, but Roberts said no. "It's a shame,” explains Matthews, “because this program has had proven success with this population, which is difficult to move [because the students are post-3rd grade]. It could also be used for the high school. It's a great way to increase literacy, and test scores in general."

So that is an example of money already spent and programming being wasted, but what does she think can be cut to ease spending right now? "Anything that's not working,” responds Matthews, “AFG for example--or Excellence by Design, as they're calling it now." 

AFG stands for Accreditation for Growth, and is a program through which a high school can become accredited so that its graduates can be accepted to colleges. But there are many ways for a school to become accredited. AFG was the subject of much controversy last year during the budget crisis leading up to the firing of 72 teachers, as the Director of AFG was Linda Fisher, sister-in-law to then School Board President, Pat Fisher. The district had wasted millions of dollars over the years on the AFG program--a program that did nothing to raise Easton Area High School out of its six years of Corrective Action under No Child Left Behind, and a program that no other districts in our region employ. The price tag per year was reported as high as $600,000, including a handsome salary for Linda Fisher. Linda Fisher resigned last year amid the hubbub, but the program has continued on. Not only has AFG done nothing to improve test scores, but as Matthews points out, "there was never any need to run the program K-12," since only high school seniors were graduating and trying to get into college.

"AFG took on a life of its own. Major portions of teachers’ professional development, entire days, were devoted to AFG. Every teacher in every school had to be on an AFG committee in their school, and each "internal facilitator" in each school was paid a stipend according to how many teachers were in the school."

Considering there are hundreds of teachers at the high school alone, that's a lot of money. For teachers, it was an unpaid extra obligation and burden. They were touted as meetings where the district teachers and administrators worked with parents to improve their kids' academic performance. But in reality, although the meetings were open to the public, AFG did little to promote them, and the committee meetings were pretty much just mandatory discussions amongst themselves on the AFG topics of Literacy, Math and Citizenship. The committees made a variety of recommendations—extra staff needed, repairs, etc., that never made it past the school board. Every year the teachers were forced to participate in a “Celebration of Success” for AFG, when none of their recommendations had ever been acted upon. “Nobody wanted to do it,” says Matthews.

When AFG started, Linda Fisher was a teacher, and Pat Fisher was on the school board. Linda Fisher quickly went from teacher, to District Coordinator, to Associate Director, to Director of AFG while Pat Fisher was on the board [Fisher is still is on the board, but only until November, as she is not running for re-election]. During that time, according to Matthews, Sue McGinley was brought on as Superintendent, and she fully endorsed the AFG program.

“Sue McGinley promised to have an open-door policy when she was hired, but soon after, when I was the Associate Director of Literacy, she implemented new rules that no administrators were allowed to approach her. We had to go up the chain of command—the communication issue was huge—when you can’t communicate with leadership, it puts a strain on everyone. Principals couldn’t get an appointment with her—and still can’t, as far as I know.”

Matthews goes on to say of the general public’s frustration with McGinley, “There is no accountability here—for her to walk away this year with $324,000—where is the accountability?” She laments that the board hastily approved McGinley’s contract without reading it thoroughly. “The lesson here is that this can never happen again—people have to do what’s right, not what’s popular. If you cannot defend your vote, there’s something wrong with that.”

As an example, she recalls the school board’s recent vote to approve a $20 million TIF to help Chrin Brothers build a highway interchange off Route 33, so that Chrin can develop 690 acres of farmland into a new commercial complex. “According to the local paper, as of Tuesday, the board had not discussed it, and then on Thursday, they voted for it. It’s repeating past mistakes of not reading and discussing all possible outcomes.”

With regard to the November election, Matthews muses, “It cannot be business-as-usual. People will not put up with it anymore. I hope the new board will be a renaissance for the district, that it will be made up of people with diverse skills, who will take the job seriously.”

With seven of nine positions up for turnover this election, she may just get her wish.

She smiles across the kitchen table at me. “I’m really excited. I want to win.”


Dennis R. Lieb said...

This interview exposes everything wrong with this district's recent management techniques. It also highlight's a candidate who seems to have what it takes to start turning it around. We need more like her.


Piaggio said...

Noel, congrats on a nicely written and no nonsense article. Janet is right on the money when she stated that there is no "cookie cutter" that fits all the schools. She is also correct in that the McGinley's own building administrators and principals are not able to obtain responses to any form of communications with her. Former HS principal, Bill Rider, was never given a reason by McGinley as to why his position of head High School principal was eliminated, even though he left numerous voice mails, and sent emails and memos requesting that "Silent Sue" at least give him an explanation for the change. I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks, but, Noel, do you know who, if anyone, the Rep. Party has picked to run against Ms. Matthews? Thanks.

Piaggio said...

Noel, did Janet ever indicate who the Director of Literacy was who eliminated the RR program at Cheston? More important than the name, is that individual still with the SD?

noel jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
noel jones said...

Piaggio--I have deleted my last comment, because my guess was wrong and I don't want to add to any confusion. I just spoke with the Voters Registration office, and for the 2-year remainders of 4-year seats in Region III, the races are--

Sarah Bilotti's vacated seat:

Patrick Glovas (Rep) vs. Janet Matthews (Dem)

Jen Holzberger's vacated seat:

Frank Castrovinci (Rep) vs. Robert Moskaitis (Dem)

As for your question about the Director of Literacy during 2002-2003, Matthews didn't say during her interview with me. But I'm sure that someone could find out by asking friends in the district, or filing a Right-to-Know request on the EASD web site.

noel jones said...

Any other school candidates interested in being interviewed for this blog can contact me at: neighborsofeaston@gmail.com

I want readers to have an opportunity to get to know as much as possible about our choices this fall, since seven of nine positions are potentially turning over this election, and we have the opportunity to completely change the face (and behavior) of our school board.

Janet Matthews said...

The Director of Literacy who left the district seveal years ago is Davene Heckman.

noel jones said...

Thanks for posting, Janet. It's great for voters to be able to interact with candidates in a modern forum before voting.

That's the Facts, JACK! said...

Oh, dear God! Janet Matthews, disgruntled employee running for school board and bad mouthing the Superintendent that demoted her for cause!

These morons coming on the new board will create a new decade of litigation when they try to change things and get their buddies hired in administration.

WARNING TO EASTON TAXPAYERS: Get ready to hike your ass up for a good screwing with people like this getting on the school board!!!

Roberto said...


Your posting shows you don't have a clue as to what you are saying. Not a clue!

noel jones said...

Jack--you said:

"disgruntled employee running for school board and bad mouthing the Superintendent that demoted her for cause!"

I'm afraid you're going to have to back that up, Mr. Anonymous, or risk looking like a McGinley loyalist in the administration badmouthing a retired educator after 32 years of service, which, I'm afraid, defeats your purpose and only helps her campaign.

If you can't make a cogent point that contributes to a productive discussion and back up what you say, you will be deleted. This is not a forum for anonymous personal attacks.

noel jones said...

Roberto--you sound an awful lot like Jack, and like Jack, you need to back up your claims with regard to Lieb's comment or risk sounding like an administration loyalist on the attack (which you already do).

Make a point, and back it up, or get deleted. You're more than welcome to disagree with myself, the candidate, or any readers posting, but empty posts with nothing but personal attacks will be deleted.

Bring it.

Michael said...


The fact is that Janet Matthews was demoted by the current Superintendent from a supervisor position to a teaching position. If she was unjustly demoted, why didn't Janet formally protest her demotion?

She is running for board to retaliate against the person who demoted her which by definition is the Easton way, and you accept her every word as gospel. Shame on you for not questioning her motivation!

And by the way, you are clearly a biased, anti-establishment sensationalist who seems to get off on creating chaos for the sake of creating a following.

noel jones said...

"Michael"--since you are clearly an administrator, if you're so certain of what you allege, why not have the guts to put your name on it?

I do not know the candidate personally. I interviewed the candidate, and reported what was said in the interview. If you have an issue with what was said, then put your name on your protest and back it up.

The candidate, at the very least, is not a coward, and owns her words, as do I. Put your real name and administrative title on your comments if you want anyone to take you seriously.

You are more than welcome to disagree, but you will be deleted if you continue to make personal attacks with no points made, and no back-up as to what you're saying.

It's very creepy that an administrator--or someone very closely tied to one--is disturbed enough to use a public forum to anonymously attack bloggers, candidates and commenters alike. If anyone in the administration is aware of who this person is, you should have a serious talk with him, otherwise his behavior could come back to haunt the district one day.

Shall we have a guessing game as to which administrator it is?

Jennifer said...

Data doesn't lie. Cheston did well with programs that helped children. Seems those programs where eliminated due to politics and someone's desire to make a name for themselves. Who suffers the most from this? The children who deserve a better education. Congrats to Janet!

Janet Matthews said...

Thanks for your post, Jennifer. You are correct... data doesn't lie!

noel jones said...

It seems like a no-brainer to me--especially if we've paid for a perpetual site license already for one of the programs that was successful before...there is a saying..."if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well it wasn't broken--the school was award-winning--and then someone decided to "fix" it and it's been struggling along...