BERNARDS TWP., NJ -- Michael Byrne was saluted Monday night at the conclusion of more than 30 years of service on the Bernards Township Board of Education.

His fellow board members, school administrators and friends in the audience bade him farewell with words of praise, thanks, personal memories and gifts.

Byrne’s wife, Angela Jean, and three of their sons (Terry, Kevin and Patrick) attended – for the first time ever, Byrne said quietly before the meeting.

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Board President Robin McKeon presented Byrne, who has served for all but three years since the 1980s, with a “milestone achievement” plaque from the N.J. School Boards Association “in gratitude for 30 years of dedication to the school children of Bernards Township.”

Longtime board member known for plain talk, stressing basics

Byrne was known at meetings for prodding the board for fuller discussion of issues at meetings, and voting ‘no’ on things like proposed school clubs, curriculum additions and club trips when he felt they fell outside the public school purview.

He usually came back around to stressing basic hard work on studies. When the topic turned to what the school should be doing to help children deal with the stresses of today’s society, he insisted the scourge was more pervasive in the culture. He occasionally spoke of how he would see kids in public sitting at the same table, yet texting each other without talking.

He said he ran for the board “to fix problems.” He said after the meeting he got interested in school issues when his son was penalized by the wrestling coach for taking two days off to visit for a college interview in South Carolina. He fought the school, ran for the board and won, and got the school policy changed. More than 12 years later, after being voted off the board for one term, he heard of a boy who had been penalized for missing football practice. He discovered, he said, the non-punishment procedure had been changed, so he ran again and was elected.

As a board member, he picked up on a practice by a fellow member, Will Dolman, of tracking SAT scores from a few dozen of the top high schools in New Jersey. At a recent meeting, he presented the board with computer printouts and charts showing that Ridge High School ranked seventh in verbal and mathematics scores, he said.

Byrne, 82, is a retired mechanical engineer and a part-time teacher at N.J. Institute of Technology and Fairleigh Dickinson University. He worked at many of the top corporations – Litton, Western Electric, Xerox, Allied Chemical, Johnson and Johnson and Ethicon, to name a few, retiring in 1993.

When he first joined the board, the school faced the need to hire a superintendent, he said. He urged the choice to fully disclose the successes and shortcomings of the school system, and propose corrective action, but met pushback. “I’m not here to make enemies,” he said he was told. “If I do that, I’ll be fired.” Five years later, the “wonderful superintendent” was let go, Byrne said.

He often wanted more public discussion of items that would be summarized in committee reports. “The more discussion in public, the better,” he said he believed. Because committees generally meet in the daytime and not in the evening, it inhibits people from running for the board, Byrne said.

His open-discussion philosophy extends to budgets, he said. “Not all spending we do is sensible,” he maintained, reminding that he estimated that two-thirds of the families in the township don’t have children in school, yet pay their due taxes.

Byrne stood out by his reluctance to use email to the extent that society depends on it today. He said he spends a few hours a day on the computer creating Lotus spreadsheets, and concedes he may have to find someone to teach him Excel. 

He noted that the body of knowledge in the world doubles about every eight years, adding that he didn’t know if schools talked adequately about civics issues like history and democracy. Those topics shouldn’t be eliminated for the sake of embracing more technology, he said.