MILLBURN, NJ - The six candidates running for the Millburn Board of Education came to the table at Thursday's Short Hills Association candidates' forum from different life-experience angles and they had a variety of approaches to tackling the future of the township schools. The election is Nov. 5.
Seeking to fill three, three-year terms on the school body are incumbents Michael Birnberg, an attorney; John Westfall-Kwong, director of development for a legal organization that advocates for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; Emily Jaffe, a former Wall Street financial executive, and Michael King, who has held communications positions in the White House and with federal and state agencies.
In addition, there is a two-way contest for the one year remaining in the term of former board member Jean Pasternak, who resigned earlier this year. Although Westfall-Kwong was appointed to fill Pasternak's position until the November election, he decided to seek a full three-year term.
Incumbent Rona Wenik, who currently serves as vice-president of the school body, decided to run for the year remaining in Pasternak's term. She is being opposed by Millburn High School senior Chase Harrison.
When asked about the issues facing the district the candidates generally had a positive outlook and did not differ widely in their solutions.
Birnberg, a 6.5-year veteran of the board, emphasized “balance, accountability and responsibility.” He said the board, while working in the best interest of students, has to also respond to the needs and desires of taxpayers, teachers and other school staff members. He cited his experience in successfully settling a contract with the Millburn Education Association and currently working on another contract with the teacher group as head of the board negotiations committee.
Westfall-Kwong said one of his greatest strengths, as head of a nationwide department, was exhibiting “leadership through listening.” While seeking appointment to his current term and again at last night's forum he pointed to his work as a committee chairman in the initial phases of the community's strategic plan committee which is mapping out future initiatives for the township schools.
Jaffe, who also has been active on the strategic plan committee, noted she is a graduate of the Wharton School of business and pointed to her background on Wall Street and later in forming her own investment firm as skills she believes will help in the school budget process.
King, who worked as a White House advisor and in the federal Department of Health and Human Services as well as heading a state agency, noted he has negotiated contracts and negotiated with public employee unions. He also is a former school board member from Chicago.
Wenik, who entered township volunteer activities through parent-teacher organization activities, is a former assistant federal prosecutor. She has held positions on a number of board committees and currently chairs the program and personnel committees.
Harrison, a member of the peer leadership group at Millburn High School, has been active on the forensics team at the school. He also has been an aide to Assemblywoman Mila Jasey of District 21.
The only sign of some conflict among the candidates during the evening seemed to come between Harrison and Wenik.
The high school student said he would represent a student voice on the board and advocate strongly for issues such as homework load, the large amount of achievement street put on Millburn students and block scheduling so that students would not have the same subjects every day and would be better able to plan for classes.
Moderator Arp Trivedi noted that Harrison was the only candidate who responded when all were asked if they had direct questions of the other contenders.
Harrison asked Wenik why, when chairing the student liaison committee, she decided that questions brought up during committee meetings had first to be cleared by middle school and high school officials of the respective committees.
Wenik replied that she felt board members on the liaison committees had monopolized too much of the times at the meetings and she asked for the change in policy so all would be given a chance to speak and board members could spend most of their time addressing student concerns. This, she said, was the purpose of the liaison committees.
The board vice-president, in many of her comments, also emphasized her life, professional and board experience and said she could “hit the ground running” on the first day of her new term and not need on-the-job training.
She also pointed out she had been a member of the federal prosecution team that brought the Cali drug cartel to justice.
Harrison responded to criticism about his student status by saying when he goes away to college he will plan his schedule so he is available for all board meetings.
When it came time for public questions, frequent board critic Jeff Diecidue asked Wenik if she thought it was a conflict of interest that she was running for a one-year term on the school body when her son would be graduating from the high school in one year.
The candidate responded that she didn't believe the age of a board member's children or their grade in school should have anything to do with whether or not they should seek a seat on the school body.
Birnberg said only Millburn residents were qualified to sit on the board and, as taxpayers, that might create a conflict for all of them. Also, would it be a conflict for any parent to sit on the board if he or she had students in the township schools?
Birnberg said the only quality that mattered was dedication to the district and its students.
The other candidates agreed there didn't seem to be any conflict.
Former board member Abby Kalen asked whether the current board had put too great a limit on public discussion at meetings.
Harrison said board responses at public meetings were somewhat ambiguous and sometimes board members did not answer questions from the audience. He called for more followup through the social media.
Birnberg, however, said by law the public input at meetings was really a public comment session and, during his time on the board, he had seen the school body get away from the debates which often caused former boards to get bogged down.
The other candidates did advocate more detailed explanations of committee decisions, more use of emails and the school website to answer questions and more board member appearances at community meetings and events.
When asked about increasing peace education in the schools, all of the candidates said greater education about bullying and more character education would be good for all students.
As for the question of a limit on the number of advancement placement courses a student should be allowed to take, they all agreed that, although board members and school officials should work to lighten the academic load, the decision on the number of courses to be taken should be a family one.