Dear Westfield Resident,
My name is Michael Bielen. I have resided in Westfield for the past 20 years with my wife Helen and daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, who are now enrolled as juniors at Westfield High School. Professionally, I am a senior manager for a global IT consulting organization providing business analysis and project management expertise for our healthcare clients.
Over the past three years I have served our community as a member of the Westfield Board of Education. During my time on the Board, we have made great strides in social emotional learning, technology upgrades, SROs in the intermediate schools, updating security protocols and re-opening our state-of-the-art athletic facility at Kehler Field. That being said, we must always strive to look at what we can do better as a district.
There are many issues and questions that concern our community revolving around security, full-day kindergarten, curriculum, academic achievement, technology, instances of hate and rising property taxes which are pushing lifelong residents out of town. This November, I need your support to continue to be a voice for our community on these issues even when my voice may differ at times from the general consensus of the Board.
Specific areas I would like to focus on include:
- Security – While the Board has always taken security very seriously, we avoided a potential tragedy in our community when a Delaware man was arrested outside of Tamaques School this past June. This is a wake-up call that we cannot never accept the status quo regarding the safety of our children. Areas we need to address include:
- Ongoing review, implementation and auditing of security processes. It’s important that we not just implement new processes, but that we have an ongoing audit, without notice, to ensure the people managing the interpersonal, facility and technology processes remain in compliance.
- Closing schools on Election Day if the Board of Elections is unable to provide an alternative suitable voting location.
- Continuing investment in smart security including security sensors and implementing smart door technology implemented in the high school into the middle and elementary schools.
- Transparency – In 2018, the Westfield Public school budget comprised 58.7% of property tax revenue equating to just over $100 million. We need to provide more openness to the community who are funding the school district to operate by:
- Coordinating small group sessions with the residents of our community to hear feedback, discuss concerns and ensure the district is being “good neighbors” with our residents.
- Publishing full Board meeting minutes to the district website like many other local districts do including Scotch Plains, Clark and Mountainside. Currently only a synopsis of the meeting is published to the district website.
- Live-streaming Board meetings to allow on-demand access for residents who are unable to attend BOE meetings.
- Updating our district and superintendent goal process where the Board develops an integrated three-year goal roadmap that provide for a cycle for continuous district improvement. As a recently approved goal, which I abstained from approving, I strongly believe we should not be paying bonuses on Facebook and Twitter ‘likes’ as a measure of success for our district to improve communications.
- Curriculum/Technology – As I visit colleges with my daughters, I see the focus on healthcare and engineering similar to what the Union County Magnet Schools are offering today. Curriculum focus areas the Board can address include:
- Evaluating our curriculum and offer courses that get students interested in emerging fields of study to help better prepare them for coursework as they enter post-secondary education.
- Developing a mentoring program with local business whereby students can shadow or participate in an internship program with local professionals to provide greater insights into various majors and professions when applying to college.
- Full Day Kindergarten – Finally, full-day kindergarten has been a hot button issue in Westfield for many years. In December, 2019, the Board is scheduled to vote on whether we should schedule a special school election a referendum in March 2020 at a cost of $50,000.
The cost of full day kindergarten is $12.5 million for initial infrastructure costs and $3 million recurring costs over 30 years or a total spend of $102.5 million dollars which equates to an average increase in property taxes a minimum of $300 per year compounding yearly per household.
While I would like to support full-day kindergarten, there are two issues which prevent me from supporting the referendum in March 2020:
- The last special school election in Westfield held was in January 2016 with a 9.28% voter turnout versus a 64% turnout in November 2016 presidential election. Special elections generally experience a low-turnout which will not provide a representative view on whether or not the community as a whole supports full-day kindergarten.
- There is also risk to the community from a financial standpoint. For the March referendum, residents can only vote to approve the $12.5 million in infrastructure costs. Current New Jersey law prohibits us from voting on the $3 million recurring revenue until the year we actually budget for the expense. Hence, we could spend $12.5 million to build the infrastructure and if residents do not approve the recurring revenue, because of a downturn in the economy, residents could be left paying for unused or underutilized classroom space.
If we want a referendum for full-day kindergarten, I would support a November 2020 referendum once we can better understand how we can greatly reduce the risk we well as have a much larger voter participation versus having a subset of voters increasing property taxes for all of Westfield if a vote were held in March 2020 special election.
I hope I was able to convey to you my ongoing interest of serving on the Westfield Board of Education. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the lessons that I have been taught in life. These lessons are beyond the classroom or board room, but how you work with people in general. I listen and understand a person’s perspective. I am respectful, empathetic and truly care about their issue or thought. While we may not always fully agree, I will always take their viewpoint into account.
I can assure you, if I am offered the privilege of a second term on the Board, I will continue to represent our community in an open and transparent manner and provide a voice for all residents, parents and students.
I would only run for this second term and would not seek re-election. In three years, my children would have graduated and it would be time to pass the torch to new a new resident who can contribute their new ideas and new views to continue Westfield’s “Tradition of Excellence.”
We can all be proud of the education system in Westfield. Our student achievements, test scores, trophies, awards and college acceptances highlight our accomplishments. Recognition aside, all of us need to lead by example to ensure we are raising our children who are our future leaders to have the moral convictions and character that they are proud to say, “Yes! I am from Westfield!” and I attended “Westfield Public Schools.”
Thank you and I appreciate your support on November 5th.