Millburn, NJ -- An emphasis on process, greater transparency and stronger communication channels between the board of education and the community were among the main themes that were discussed at the Millburn Board of Education Candidates’ forum on Tuesday night.

The forum, sponsored by the Millburn Township PTO Conference at the town library, was the first opportunity for the public to hear the views of the four new candidates - Oyin Owolabi, Kate Foss Rifkin, Louie Shen and Alex Zaltsman. The candidates will be competing for three seats, marking the first contested election since 2014.

Each candidate made opening remarks before answering questions submitted to the forum by the public. Owolabi, a clinical researcher and mother of three, said her work experience gave her an analytical, result-driven approach towards problem solving. A recurring theme in her later remarks was her emphasis on policy, protocol and process, an adherence to which, she said, would help board members move forward in their decision making.

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Rifkin, a mother of two girls in the middle and high school, has been a Short Hills resident for 17 years and has a long history of volunteering in schools. She said she believes strongly in giving back to the community. 

Louie Shen, a father of two young boys in the Glenwood Elementary, said he was running because he cared deeply about education and he, too, wished to do his part in the community. His experience as an entrepreneur and a creative problem solver would be valuable to the board, he said.

Alex Zaltsman has a son in first grade in Deerfield School and a daughter in preschool and is relatively new to town having moved 2.5 years ago. But he says he was very impressed with the way the Deerfield school handled a challenging year for his son and said the experience made him committed to ensuring that the schools in town maintain their high standard. 

The candidates then proceeded to weigh in on various issues, chief among them student stress, transparency and communication of the board, academic standards and recent issues that have taken up the current board’s attention such as busing and the calendar.

On student stress, Rifkin said that while stressors such as unnecessary homework should be removed, her emphasis would be more on building resiliency and stress management skills among students. The implementation of yoga at middle school, therapy dogs and stress management skills in  high school were some steps to manage stress. She said that as a certified life coach she has tools to help students, though she did not elaborate on what those tools would be.

 Shen agreed that stress management was more important. “Most of the stress comes from a changing world. I want my children to have fun, enjoy sports and music…. But competition is getting tougher. I would be cautious in interfering with teachers’ choices on how to deal with students,” he said. Instead he said he would like to see more programs like the GRIT program introduced at Glenwood that focuses on building resilience. He said schools should work closely with parents to help students deal with stress without diluting academic standards. 

Owolabi said she had identified AP qualifiers as one of the significant sources of stress in the system and indicated that that was something she would like to address if elected.

Members were asked what they thought about the current board’s communication process and its transparency. “I would like to see more interaction with PTO members, town council, ad hoc committees and there needs to be more opportunities for the public to have more of a dialogue,” said Rifkin. 

A more proactive approach would help board members avoid issues from bubbling over, said Shen. “If the board promises the community something, they should be able to anticipate what challenges there will be and deal with them ahead of time, “he said. He also suggested pursuing alternate forms of communication such as creating an app to communicate with parents or hosting short information sessions ahead of board meetings.

Zaltsman said that the board is limited in its dealings many times because of legal restrictions. “I wish, not as a candidate but as a resident, that there was a way to talk to the members face -to- face. I know that in the past they had some sort of meet- and- greet and I would like to learn more about that and see if that is something we can bring back,” he said. He noted that currently the board does not have the staff to perform administrative functions such as promptly posting the minutes to the website, which also impedes communication.

 Owolabi said that an understanding of policy and protocol would improve communication and transparency at the board level. “I feel board members can do a bit better when it comes to communicating, even with each other,” said Owolabi. “We have to go back to policy. We have a bible for us to follow, how we are supposed to do things .. we can’t just make things happen by saying things from the top of our head,” she said. 

Rifkin argued for higher certification of board members given the high turnover rate, noting that members typically have been serving only one or two terms. She advocated getting board members more training on what is expected from them and on meeting protocol. “We should not be discussing how we are going to do something, we need to be discussing what we are going to do.”

Asked later about the busing debacle and the recent contentious debate over calendars, the candidates reiterated the need for better communication and proactive approach. 

 “As a project manager, I know the importance of planning early,” said Owolabi, she said referring to busing. “In order to not have this issue next year, it needs to start now. So if I get on the board, I would start planning now for next year.”

She also noted that the board needs to keep “going back to the drawing board” when in doubt. For instance, there is a policy on how to handle controversial issues, which would have been handy when dealing with the decision to add religious holidays to the calendar.

Shen said he thought the prolonged calendar debate was more of a communication problem. “I think most people understand that we are a diverse community and we want everyone to feel included and respected,” he said. He said a lot of people stand up and say they are willing to accept other solutions but feel the board has not considered everything and are just trying to rush decisions. 

“You need to communicate what your concerns are before instead of giving people only a few hours to work with,” he said. 

Both Zaltsman and Rifkin said they would like to explore bringing busing in-house. “If we cannot get a reliable busing company for whatever reason, it is time to look at what it is going to cost to do it ourselves so that we get to control it ourselves,” said Zaltsman. 

Rifkin noted that the schools have in-house custodial staff and crossing guards, via the police departments, who she said were excellent and so it might be worth considering whether the school district will be better off with its own fleet of buses. 

The candidates also briefly touched upon how to introduce STEM activities at an earlier age and continue to improve competitiveness in schools. 

The next PTOC candidate forum will be on October 30 at 11:00 a.m. at the Millburn Public Library.

Separately, the Indian American Association will host a forum for board of education candidates on October 29 from 3 to 4:30 at the library.