BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - In preparation for the Berkeley Heights Board of Education election, questions were submitted to each candidate to give residents insight into why they are running and how they feel they can contribute to the Berkeley Heights school district.

There are five candidates running for three open seats on the Board of Education.  The candidates are incumbents Robert Cianciulli and Helen Kirsch, and first time BOE candidates Michael D'Aquila, Dr. Shengwu Du, and Angela Penna.

GET TO KNOW BERKELEY HEIGHTS BOARD OF EDUCATION CANDIDATE MICHAEL D'AQUILA

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Why are you Running for the Board?

My wife, Cathy, and I have been residents of Berkeley Heights since 2005.  Our children, ages 10, 9 and 6 all attend the Berkeley Heights Public Schools.  I have a vested interest in working to continue keeping our school district highly rated while making improvements where necessary.  Having children in different schools within the school system has allowed me to gain a diverse perspective. I am able to see firsthand what works, as well as, see where enhancements may be beneficial.  In addition, my educational background and work experience offer a unique and fresh perspective to address issues facing our school district.  12 years of my career have been spent in leadership roles in higher education.  In my most recent role as Associate Vice President at a state institution of higher education, I partnered with administration, faculty and students to provide a first-class learning environment to ensure student success.  I will be a visible, approachable and involved leader who will insist on budget efficiency and fiscal accountability. I will work to ensure we continue to improve our top-rated school system at an affordable cost to all residents.  It is essential that we build on our tradition of excellence in preparing our children for success.

What unique skills or knowledge will you bring to the Board?

I am a graduate of SUNY Maritime College where I earned a degree in Marine Engineering along with my US Coast Guard 3rd Assistant Engineers License.  I am also a licensed Professional Engineer in the State of New Jersey. My past work experience has included construction management leadership roles in Higher Education as well as Science Research facilities.  I am a person that focuses on accomplishing goals and seeing projects completed in the most efficient, cost effective manner.  As a project management team leader, I have overseen the planning, renovation, and construction of various types of facilities ranging in size from $1 million to over $200 million.  As part of these roles, I handle capital construction and building infrastructure replacement projects and assume responsibility for operating and maintaining facilities ranging in size from 1.0 – 1.8 million square feet.  My responsibilities have entailed managing operating budgets of $10 million+, and supervising teams of project managers to ensure that project schedules are met timely, efficiently, and well within budget parameters.  I have lead teams of over 100 employees, acted as a liaison between various departments, and interfaced with all levels of staff including management and union personnel.

With my many years of project management, operations, and construction expertise, I will tackle any projects that are presented and/or undertaken by the school board to ensure they are executed efficiently and within budget.  I will also ensure that they incorporate technological improvements to provide state of the art facilities for our children. 

What do you think the top three challenges facing the District are at this time? How can the district address these challenges?

The three challenges that I feel the District is facing at this time are student achievement, keeping the school budget flat and aging infrastructure.

Student Achievement can be enhanced by upgrading schools with new technology / media centers to encourage open collaboration which will help prepare our students for higher education and/or the work environment.  In addition, I support Dr. Varley’s initiative for increased professional development and targeted training initiatives for our teachers which is vital in keeping up with the latest trends.  Teachers need to have the proper tool kit and the ability to provide instructional learning for our students.  New methods of learning need to be incorporated while balancing technology-based learning in a responsible manner. 

Maintaining a flat school budget is a challenge that our school district faces.  It is a delicate balancing act to address contractual salary increases, increased maintenance costs due to the aging infrastructure, and introducing new programs while keeping the budget flat. I would analyze our current outstanding debt liability and evaluate the potential opportunity to refinance due to low interest rates. This would ultimately reduce our annual debt payments. I would also find creative ways to share costs, thus reducing the overall tax burden to our residents, by exploring the expansion of shared services with both the township and the surrounding school districts.

Aging infrastructure is an issue that faces many school districts in New Jersey.  If elected, I would review the current Capital Improvement Plan and identify what projects would address the aging infrastructure so that students would benefit from an enhanced learning environment.  I would examine conditions of classrooms, cafeterias, and heating and air conditioning systems to name a few.  It is important to look at what specifically is creating stress on the annual maintenance budget that could be addressed with a capital investment.  If done properly, this could result in lowering the annual expenditures and reducing unanticipated / emergency replacement of equipment that fails.  In addition, I would look to take advantage of state financing available to school districts.  Currently, the state would fund up to 40% of a capital improvement, thus reducing the cost for these improvements.  

What are your thoughts about the ongoing negotiations between the BOE and BHEA, and would you recommend any process improvements for future negotiations?  

I believe we are all in agreement that the ongoing negotiations between the BOE and BHEA needs to be settled.  As a former elected official, I understand how challenging contract negotiation can be for both sides.  Ensuring that the teachers are compensated fairly and at the same time ensuring the taxpayers are protected (keeping within the budget) should be our overall objective.  

If elected, I will bring a fresh set of eyes along with contract negotiations experience to help bring resolution to this contract settlement.  In previous roles, I have been involved in contract negotiations and understand that at times one party cannot discuss details while the other party chooses to.  This is not out of the ordinary in labor contract discussions.  If elected to the Board and the contract is not settled, I will work to get up to speed very quickly on what has been discussed and offered to the BHEA, including the Arbitrators opinion.  I will evaluate the current issues to understand where the current impasse is.  Taking all this information into account I would then determine the best path forward.

As a process improvement in future negotiations, I would explore the opportunity to extend the contract to 5 years. This would allow both the teachers and the Board more time to focus efforts on enhancing the education of our children.

The BOE is considering the implementation of full-day kindergarten - do you think this makes sense for our District?  Why or why not?  If Full Day kindergarten is implemented, how would you recommend that the district pay for it?  

Berkeley Heights is one of the few districts left in the state of New Jersey to offer a half day Kindergarten program.  Kindergarten plays an important role in the growth and development of a child as it provides the foundation for the rest of their education. The more time kids have in school, the more opportunity they have for learning and socializing with peers which is important at this age. It is also important to consider that a full-day program can reduce the number of transitions that a child makes in a day.  Children would be able to stay in one program without having to attend a wrap-around or enrichment program to supplement the other half of the school day.

I encourage residents to attend the November 14th BOE meeting where a proposal for full- day kindergarten will be presented.  This will give residents the opportunity to learn about potential implementation, costs, curriculum, next steps, etc. During the meeting residents will be able to ask questions and provide valuable feedback. Directionally I support the expansion of the kindergarten program.  However, I am reserving my opinion until I have the opportunity to hear the full proposal to ensure that the full day program includes an enhanced solid curriculum that is beneficial to our students compared to what is currently offered in the half day program. The educational benefits should be the main driver behind the decision to implement a full day Kindergarten program.

How to pay for this initiative should be carefully considered.  Depending on the current outstanding debt liability, there may be the potential to refinance any existing debt due to the low interest rates. By doing this, the school district would be able to reduce our annual debt payment.  This would be similar to what the Berkeley Heights Township Council recently did to reduce their annual debt payment. Depending on costs and available funding other options can be explored such as a tuition-based system.

Do you believe that the current use of technology (including IPads and Chromebooks) in the District is appropriate, and would you recommend any changes? 

Technology is all around us in the world today.  I believe that technology can be a highly effective tool in our classrooms if done in a responsible and appropriate matter that benefits our students.  The uses of technology within education are widespread.  With sensible implementation, technology can create a flexible learning environment that breeds innovation and provides for a more collaborative learning environment.  Beginning at an early age, it is important that we educate students and parents regarding safe usage of technology. Technology should be used to enhance a student’s education and not be used as the only learning tool.  

What is your opinion on district Media Center upgrades? 

Transforming our current libraries into Media Centers is an important step in enhancing our integrated learning approach.  Creating an open environment that allows for small and large group collaboration as well as space for a Literacy Center and a Discovery Center enriches our children’s learning experience. In addition, books should be made more accessible and reading spaces more inviting, especially for our younger students.  By introducing this concept early in a child’s education, they will have the opportunity to begin developing collaborative and innovative skills at an early age.  This type of space is already being introduced in Higher Education and the business world with great success.