MILLBURN, NJ - M-SPEC held a Board of Education Candidates Forum on March 28th at the Millburn Public Library. The forum was open to the public who were invited to submit questions to the candidates. Community members also had a chance to ask questions and provide comment on the Board of Education budget.
The first part of the forum was directed to the Special Education community so that they could ask questions of the five candidates, specifically relating to special education areas. During the second part of the forum, any members of the Board who were in attendance, along with those candidates that are running for the first time, answered questions from the public.
Candidate Amy Justice, a relatively new resident of Millburn, said she decided to run because she "misses the educational community." With a thirteen year background teaching High School English, Justice feels that as a teacher and a parent, she will be able to offer a different voice on the board.
When asked how to discuss her feelings about the integration of special education students with regular education children in the same classroom, Justice said, "To improve what we already have in place, the main thing would be to really listen to parents, students and committees to help facilitate the process. To integrate both sets of children is the goal. In doing so, encouragement in participation helps kids get to know each other and parents to know each other. Special education students should get every opportunity that every other student does. There are some things that can support special education that don't cost money. Teacher training, repurposing old materials; making sure that those things are happening are good examples. When we pool from one bucket, we are hurting another."
The Millburn School District currently integrates special needs children with regular education classrooms in the elementary schools and most of the middle schools, but they do participate separately in the high school.
Candidate Manish Shah, who moved to Millburn five years ago, has an extensive background in finance and a strong interest in education. Specializing in "turn-arounds," and having experience running a financial services company, Shah feels that he can offer sound advice in working with the district's current budget.
"Our budget needs to shrink. We now have a limited scope to work with. I have done it with companies and non-profits alike, and have found that the same issues come up. How do you do more with less, keeping the end goals in mind? I am very passionate about this. We are not meeting standards. We have a fairly large budget and we are still not meeting standards. It's not right. There has been too much money spent and we are not delivering where we should be. We have to have levels of accountability."
Michael Birnberg, a member of the board for the past three years is running for re-election. Birnberg said, "Money's not our issue. The problem is making sure we're spending the money wisely. The first step is the reenergizing of your committee. This year MSPEC has become more active. It is very important to have a special education liaison. Are we doing enough? Well, we know we're not." He continued, "The state created NJ Smart which shows us where we are and where we should be. Our numbers aren't where they can be. The board is only one form of checks and balances. We need to specifically know where the problems are. Most of the knowledge that we currently have is just from administration." Birnberg added, "I have been on the Board for 3 years. The greatest problem is communication. In the last year or two the disconnect between the administration and the board with regard to spending is where we got into the issue. We were working under the notion of, 'Don't worry about it we have plenty of money.' There's a new dawn and Gov. Christie forced us to wake up to that. We knew we would face it sooner or later, unfortunately its sooner."
Candidate Rona Wenik, a graduate from the University of Penn., worked for the US Department of Justice as a Federal criminal prosecutor. She now has three children and wants to focus on working together to help improve our schools.
"The MSPEC Committee is a very important tool for the district and parents to assess and learn more about special education. This organization makes a fantastic bridge from parents to Board of Education members," said Wenik. "The parents can learn more about what's available to their kids. Our main job is to keep open lines of communication open. Board Members should attend MSPEC meetings as well as all other constituent meetings. I would also like to see a more civil tone between the board and community"
Candidate Lisa Chapman, a Millburn resident for over 23 years, raised three children in the district and has a background in education as well as finance. She also has a BA from Stanford and an MBA from Yale.
"I have two children with special needs. I think we have a very strong program. Having served on the Board for three years, I believe that we have overset responsibilities. We have not gone in yet and done an evaluation review; we've not investigated thoroughly. We must revitalize what was there before and going forward, it is essential that we review this year's program and make changes where appropriate." She continued, "We have been using a bonus structure to pay our operating costs. [That] no longer can happen. We have to cut expenses. We have 85% in non discretionary costs built over 10 years. We have to run a much more lean and efficient operation. Each department starts with a zero based budget. Each department head would have to justify the costs so that everything is on the table. We've been able to have minimal cuts; we have not cut special education and going forward everything needs to be looked at on a different basis."
Although many of the candidates shared similar views on most of the issues discussed, some had varying opinions in regards to ways of handling the budget and the progress on particular aspects of the special education program thus far. All were in agreement that the budget would need to be worked on from the ground up and that communication between Board Members, the Administration and the community is essential in going forward with Millburn's district goals.