Livingston Board of Education Candidates Push for Increased Community Input, Decreased Stress on Students & More at Open Debate

LIVINGSTON, NJ—The Livingston League of Women Voters played host on Tuesday to a forum to the four candidates running for the township board of education in the Nov. 8 school election.

Barry Funt, Samantha Messer, Mike Ramer and George Shen—the four candidates vying for two three-year terms in the fall—discussed how the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) can better meet the needs of students; the district's strengths and weaknesses; how to survive budget cuts; how to improve the mental health of students and more at the Senior/Community Center on Sept. 27. 

Below are the summarized responses of candidates to the various topics raised during the forum:

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Why they should be elected:

  • Messer said education is her “passion” as well as her “career.” She has been a teacher and school and district administrator and wants the opportunity to bring these skills to bear in her home community and prepare township schools for the future of her two young sons. She also wants to open more lines of communication between the board and community, including bringing social media comments into the mainstream of the school body. She has “no agenda except helping all students get a quality education.”
  • Shen said he wants to build stronger community ties to the school system by utilizing Livingston’s diversity. He also wants to break down the stereotype that the Asian community does not want to become involved in the schools. Also, he hopes to apply his skills as a researcher in helping improve curriculum as well as combat the “cultural shock” some residents feel when interacting with schools.
  • Ramer said he Would use the skills he acquired in business to increase the excellence to township schools and advocate the teaching of more life skills, including communication, presentation, problem-solving and teamwork skills, for students in the 21st century to be successful beyond high school in college and their chosen careers.
  • Funt said that from his previous experience on the board, he realized it takes some time to form alliances and get things accomplished. He hopes to pick up where he left off and continue improving Livingston schools, especially in giving students—like his son, who chose not to go to college—more career options and providing more options for students apart from striving only to enter the “top-tier” schools.

How the district can better meet the needs of all students:

  • Funt said that for gifted students, the district should ensure that they get courses that properly challenge them; for special needs students, it should bring more of them back into the township district. Those “in the middle” often fall through the cracks, he said, and the school system has to do more to meet their needs.
  • Messer said the district needs to invest in district teachers, who she says need to be provided with improved professional development opportunities. She also said the district needs to give teachers the tools they need to provide the correct differentiated instruction for children at all levels in the classroom.
  • Ramer said the number one priority should be the safety of the students in the schools. Especially combat incidents like the recent cyber attack at Livingston High School and cyber bullying. Students also need to acquire more “soft skills.” Suggested creating an "individual student development program" to track progress from kindergarten through 12th grade. He said some of the tools exist now, for example, what parents write for guidance counselors when students apply to colleges.
  • Shen wants to balance class sizes with the curriculum and better meet the needs of all students, not just those with special needs. Under the new superintendent, Shen said the district should more carefully screen teachers and improve communications between teachers and parents. He also said it should place more emphasis on instilling the core values of honesty, integrity and hard work.

Strengths and weaknesses of the district and how it can improve:

  • Messer said there is great school spirit, culture and pride and that the schools make necessary, bold moves such as opening advanced-placement courses to all. On the 1:1 initiative, Messer said it is being improved as the district moves along with it. According to Messer, one thing that needs improvement is that parents sometimes complain that students in the same class do not have the same experience.
  • Funt said the staff and the community are very involved with the schools, despite challenges faced due to spending “caps” and rising costs. He also said that the facilities are outstanding. According to Funt, there needs to be more options for students not planning to go to college; more vigorous methods of dealing with drug and alcohol abuse; and an examination of the gap between honors classes and level three and four courses.
  • Shen said, on a positive note, that parents in the professional world bring a large range of backgrounds in interacting with the schools. However, he said, there needs to be better communications between the board and community. Accourding to Shen, board meetings sometimes are “impenetrable” and said that the district needs a greater voice for taxpayers with no children in the schools.
  • Ramer said Livingston already has excellent teachers, staff and curriculum. However, he said, the board needs to be careful with finances—especially with financing the 1:1 Initiative. He also said more teaching of presentation skills is needed and that the district needs to require students to do it and to create academic-professional partnerships whereby professionals could come into the classrooms to share what they do in their jobs and the skills needed to be successful in their careers.

How to recover from the cuts initiated by Governor Christie and restore programs lost:

  • Ramer said the board should survey the community to see what they want restored and focus on the 80 percent of programs remaining. He also said it should look for additional ways to raise funds to finance programs that are difficult to finance through the budget.
  • Messer said decreasing costs is difficult and that the board needs to look for ways to institute after-school programs and raise money through those programs. She said that the board needs to look to districts like Chatham, a very successful district with many fee-based afterschool programs, and apply similiar methods. 
  • Funt said the 2-percent “cap” makes bringing back many of the programs difficult. Eighty percent of the budget is not under the board’s control, he said. According to Funt, the board needs more community input. The fee-based summer school program is one area where the district has succeeded, he said. 
  • Shen said the district needs to revisit programs that improve the schools and bring back those that make the student experience better. He agreed that the summer school program is successful and said that everything should be done in collaboration with the community. He also said the district should upgrade some facilities.
  • In response, Funt added that little aid currently comes to Livingston from the state and that Governor Christie’s proposal for equal funding for all schools is a “good start” to improving the situation.

What is your opinion on charter schools and how should the district resist pressure from the state to allow them in the community?

  • Messer said, "Why should a charter school be proposed if there are no problems with the public schools?" She said the district needs to figure out what the charter schools are doing right and bring about those improvements in the established public schools.
  • Ramer said, "Why would the state push charter schools on us? I don’t know if charter schools would offer something that Livingston does not already have. I do believe in choice, but we should use charter school ideas to improve our township public schools."
  • Shen said, "Charter schools never should be allowed. They create a conflict of interest for the school board. We should look at charter schools and see what they are doing so we can improve our township schools."
  • Funt said, "Charter schools can be a drain on district funding. Shortly after I joined the board during my last term, a charter school applied to come to Livingston, but it was defeated because we pointed out the drain it would be on our resources."

How can we improve our college placement statistics so Livingston is on par with Millburn? 

  • Funt said different organizations come up with their rankings in different ways and that every child is different. The best result from four years of high school education, he said, should be measured by whether parents believe the school district has accomplished what they want for their child.
  • Messer said that if Millburn is having more students admitted to the more elite schools, the district should ask how they are preparing those students. However, she said, there is too much pressure on Livingston's students to get into the “right schools” and that the district needs to find what is best for its kids.
  • Ramer said, “We are there with Millburn. Our schools are among the top schools in Essex County. Also, Millburn students must apply for advanced placement courses, whereas ours do not."
  • Shen gave an example of how a community can improve the success of its students: The Chinese School, which started 12 years ago, was a community effort, he said, adding that the students studying together produced good results.

What is being done and what should be done by the schools in addressing the mental health of students?

  • Shen, stating the importance of this topic, said the district cannot afford to let one student slip through the cracks. Mental health should be addressed through a cooperative effort between the school and family, he said. During the recent cyber threat, for example, the family of the accused spent $175,000 to bail him out, but they did not tell him that what he was doing was wrong, Shen said, adding, "We need to stop instances like this early, before they become more serious."
  • Ramer said, "We put a lot of emphasis on teaching hard skills, like reading, writing and math, but should focus more on students’ emotional well-being and social pressures students are under. We need to expand health classes to include social media and cyber bulling and the repercussions of bad online behavior."
  • Messer said, "We need to examine the pressures brought by parents and the schools. The perception that more work produces better results is not necessarily correct. Look at what happens outside school—We need to reexamine assignments to see if they meet student needs."
  • Funt said, "We want our kids to get into the highest-ranking colleges, but we put pressure on them too early. We need a cultural change. College is not for everyone and it is not always necessary to go to the highest-ranking school."

What will be your first priority if elected to the board?

  • Ramer: To learn the inner workings of the board quickly. Then learn what he has to do to get things done quickly and what he needs to do for the community.
  • Messer: To address the need to get more input from parents, students, teachers and the community as well as develop a budget that will meet these needs.
  • Funt: To understand the future priorities of the new superintendent; to get to know his fellow board members and get along with them; and to satisfy the needs of the community.
  • Shen: To discover the teaching philosophy of the superintendent and her philosophy for training teachers. To need to review the results of the 1:1 initiative, which has high expectations, and see where it fits in the budget priorities.

On Nov. 8, 2006, there will be two three-year terms on the ballot, with no incumbents seeking reelection.

Funt, who previously served on the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) from 2011 through 2014, received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brandeis University and his Juris Doctorate from the New York University School of Law. In 1986, he studied for a summer at East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is a principal in A1A Terra Partners, a firm that makes long-term investments in commercial real estate.

A township resident since 1998, Funt has a step-daughter who graduated from Livingston High School in 2004. His son, who graduated from the high school last year, is currently serving in the United States Air Force. He also has two other children currently attending the high school.

Messer has two young children, Andie and Max, who will attend Collins Elementary School.

She is the executive director of Literacy for the Newark Public Schools. The candidate earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a master of arts in secondary social studies education from New York University and a masters in education in education policy and management from Harvard University.

Additionally, she is currently enrolled in a Masters program in educational technology at Columbia University.

Ramer, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year, has more than 25 years of experience in corporate and staffing industries and serving on boards. The owner of Ramer Search Consultants, he is also a trainer in the search and recruiting industry and has spoken at more than 50 state and national conferences.

The candidate also chairs the township education subcommittee for the Livingston Vision 20/20 Committee that is leading efforts to form a Livingston Adult School.

Born and raised in Northern New Jersey, Ramer earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in international economics and finance from Brandeis. He and his wife, Amy, have two sons, Max, who is in the 11th grade at Livingston High School, and Ethan, who is in his first year at the University of Michigan studying economics and politics.

Shen, an 11-year township resident, is married to Qing, a scientist at Merck. Their daughter Christine is in the ninth grade at the high school, while their daughters Jessica and Rebecca are in fourth grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School.

The candidate holds a bachelor of science degree from FuDan University in China and a doctorate in chemistry from the City University of New York. He is a research scientist for Celgene Corporation.

A founding member of the Livingston Citizen Institute, he is an organizing committee member of the Livingston Multicultural Celebration, a former board member of the Children’s Theater of Livingston and a former president and board member of the Livingston Chinese Association.

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