MILLBURN, NJ - The seven candidates running for three seats on the Millburn Board of Education in the Nov. 4 election made a forum appearance on Tuesday in an event sponsored by the township’s Cultural Community.
The forum was the second of two sponsored by the group.
Topics discussed ranged from educational phllosopophy to school finances to language arts and special education.
All seven contenders agreed the role of public education is to provide the highest quality education possible to every child eligible for entry into the Millburn public schools.
Samples of opinions from the candidates:
Jane Gomez—“Education is the great equalizer.” She said people from every economic strata in the township are served by it and education is what Millburn residents value most. She is running to bring the highest quality education to all.
Richard Gray—The more money a society has, the more it has to spend on public goods. Education is the most important of these public goods. “Whether it is our children or someone else’s children, they all need a good education to become good citizens and good workers in our society.”
James Kasdon—When delivered well a good education pays back well over a person’s lifetime. Millburn has the capacity to deliver a world-class education. The product of our schools demonstrates this. I want to continue providing that.
Jyoti Sharma—“Education is the greatest gift that we, as parents, can give to our children.” The community has great wealth—not only in terms of money, but also in education and family. Our administration, board and teachers all must make sure our children get the best education possible.
Jesse Liu—Because education uses public funding it must prepare all children to get into college and compete, for the sake of their futures, and to deal with all kinds of challenges in their lives. Because public schools are paid for by public funds we must make sure we educate all children properly without discrimination.
Regina Truitt—The role of public education is to prepare children for the next phase of their life—whether it be college or careers. We must prepare them to become creators able to solve the problems of the future. Millburn has the best schools in New Jersey, and I want to continue that.
Milton Resnick—Our obligation, using public funds, is to prepare students for the next phase of their lives and provide a path that will show them how to do that. We need a board that monitors what goes on in our school system and pays attention to how our money is spent. We need a vision for the future.
On the use of school facilities and communications by M-Spec—The Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee—all the candidates agreed that the apparent rift between the school administration and M-Spec needs to be healed and lines of communication should be opened more widely.
Sharma, like her fellow candidates, has been impressed by the resources fair sponsored by the organization. She said the school district needs to take more advantage of M-Spec resources She also praised the work of M-Spec parents in opening up avenues for special needs children and said all school resources should be available to the organization.
Liu noted special education students have a significant presence in the community, much of it thanks to M-Spec. Judging by his daughter’s emails, he said, the M-Spec message is being communicated, but he needs to gain a better understanding of why the decision was made to exclude M-Spec from school facilities.
Truitt, saying the M-Spec situation is a sensitive topic, noted that while she does not know the percentage of parents in M-SPEC, that the number of Special Ed students is around 17 percent of the student population. She said the M-Spec resource fair was “phenomenal.” The incumbent, however, said M-Spec is provided with a great deal of communications through the Parent Teacher Organization Council. She said she hoped the rift would be healed someday. A sitting board member, Truitt said that due to a legal communication from M-SPEC to the Board of Education, she could not comment on this particular matter on advice of legal counsel.
Resnick said it is wrong if even one child is adversely affected by the lack of communication. Any child should be able to use any school facility at any time. He said he doesn’t understand why there is a problem between the school administration and M-Spec and, if there is a problem, the administration should be bending over backwards because those served by M-Spec are more in need than any other segment of the community.
Gomez, currently the co-president of M-Spec, said in 2005-2006 there was a good relationship between the district and the predecessor organization to M-Spec, which she was involved with. She said “something fell apart” for a few years until a new chairman took over and renamed the organization. Gomez, noting 12 percent of the children in the district are classified, noted the goal of the organization is to educate, support and advocate, bringing together teachers, parents and children through study skills fairs, reading seminars and presentations by experts in teaching special needs children. Parents in the township, she said, are a valuable resource, and the lines of communication should be kept open. “We all live in one house, in one community, when working together we can do great things.”
Gray—There are a number of different views about what happened to cause the rift between M-Spec and the district. It needs to be healed and lines of communication kept open. Until he receives the details of how the rift happened and reviews policies on use of school facilites by other groups, Gray said he did not feel qualified to comment further.
Kasdon—his wife is the co-president of M-Spec. He too, noted, it has a significant base in the community, but M-Spec has been excluded from Edline and other community resources. Despite the fact that it serves to most needy in the community it is not permitted to use the Education Center and other school facilities. He would like to hear a public explanation of the reasons for this. It is about accountability and affects a significant population and needs to be addressed, he said.
The candidates all have had various stages of interaction with current board members.
Resnick—we communicate pleasantly in social situation, but, I often get the same type of answers we received tonight, about lawyers. Every question I asked has never been answered. This board and administration are not transparent and don’t answer the community. M-Spec, a significant part of the community, is being cut out. If I am elected I will get answers. “The superintendent works for us, we don’t work for him.”
Truitt, in response to Resnick, said, aside from matters legal counsel has advised her not to comment on, she always has provided answers. The board, she pointed out, operates with a committee system—it does not operate as a committee-of-the whole. She believes this board is one of the most transparent in township history—citing for example, a recent extensive presentation on the five-year financial plan by board finance chairwoman Emily Jaffe. She also said the minutes of her own committee meetings are very extensive because she wants fellow board members to be well-informed about what takes place at commitee meetings they are not able to attend. She said, however, the public needs a better understanding of the district chain of command and how to reach board members. Other districts have the chain of command more clearly spelled out.
Liu—has spoken to each board member during the campaign. Each board member should, however, answer the public directly. There should be more transparency on financial matters—as is done in corporate finance. He talk to board members about his concerned that too much United States history and not enough world history is taught at Millburn High School. Board members responded to this concern outside of meetings.
Sharma-a mixed experience. Some board members communicate well one-on-one while others do not. She is noted to open channels of communication and, through this, has more board members reaching out to her. She wants to continue this.
Kasdon-Knew board members before I ran, and have met more during the campaign. Some want to talk extensively about certain topics while others do not. We all want the same thing—the best district created with the best resources. We need to talk about what we can create, not the problems of the past.
Gray—I have spoken to several board members. Found them and members of the administration to be open. The administration has been helpful in pointing me to the right person to speak to. Also, at one of my coffees, a person spoke to me about the tract of land that the board owns near Short Hills Park—the Oakey Tract. I called the board member in charge of property and he provided me with resources I needed to research to educate myself on board actions and history of the tract.
Gomez—I have appeared before various boards during my 15 years of involvement. They are friends and neighbors. We are all tied together in the same town. All want to be assured they are treated with respect and answered. I pledge to do that.
On school finances, Gray noted the budget deficit would “kick in” in a few years. Tax revenues are capped at 2 percent. Healthcare costs, which take up 80 to 85 percent of the budget, are rising at a much faster rate. We have accumulated funds from past years, but these will run out in 2017. Raising taxes above 2 percent should be a last resort. We should write grants, look for corporate sponsorship to increase revenues, looks for more donations and endowments, do more cost-cutting.
Kasdon—I have a different philosophy than the board on spending. Classroom expenditures in the last few years have plateaued at $72 to $73 million. The past four years the district has chosen to limit expenditures in the classroom. Every years we estimate that more money than we predict will be left over than the amount we spend. We also underestimate what we will save. We need to spend more in the classroom and devise a capital plan to deal with physical plant items that need to be repaired.
Sharma—We need cost savings and a grant writer to apply for grants. The investment would be worth it. Our first priority should be enhancing the curriculum. If something is broken in a building we need to repair it. Our kids will be known more by the curriculum they study than the physical plant in which they study. Kids need to become producers, not consumers of technology. We need to teach computer programming.
Liu—figures given are just one projection based on many assumptions. We need to look where to improve and save. Can’t save much on benefits, but possibly could save in the “other” category—look for ways to reduce legal expenses.
Truitt—We should not pursue a referendum right away. One of the District's goals this year is to develop a Facilities Roadmap. Every decision I make is based on how will this decision impact our students. Teacher salaries are 80 to 85 percent of the budget and we just hired a new curriculum director. Therefore, much already is being spent in the classroom. We had to repair the middle school auditorium—chairs were falling apart and there were birds in the rafters. Cement was cracking. Agree we should look at grants as a source of funding.
Resnick—I don’t see a vision of where we are going. We should be trying to return Millburn schools to the tradition of excellence they developed over 60 years. Need more education in computer science, not more Ipads. If we get non-resident students illegally in the district out we won’t need a referendum. There would be plenty of room in our schools for our children.
Gomez-agree with Liu, who has a background in finance, there are differences in projections. The public also does not get enough information to analyze finances and why and how cuts are made. We need to keep class size under control. Classes have gone from 22 to 27. Wyoming School just adjusted its class size, and it has become the norm at South Mountain to have 25 in a class. Twenty-one to 22 used to be common. Also, we need to infuse computer programming earlier and hire better foreign language teachers.
On another topic, the candidates, when asked to address issues they felt had not been brought up at Tuesday’s forum and the previous Cultural Community forum.
Liu—Although 3 to 4 hours a night of homework is too much. I am not sure cutting it down to two hours will be a good idea. As for starting school earlier in the day, I think we could fight student stress and not create scheduling problems better if we, perhaps, started the school year earlier.
Gomez—Corporate sponsorship is not a good idea if something is attached to it. Public schools should not be beholden to special interest groups.
Gray—I agree, but if there is a question of corporate sponsorship or raising taxes the board should act based on community input.
Sharma-We need to discuss how to provide teachers with the best tools to teach our kids.
Resnick—This campaign became more political than a school board race. It is about community service—how did this happen? Noone seems to know.
Truitt—Whether the district should reacquire the Millburn Day School—personally, I feel the board needs a business plan. I'd like to avoid a referendum to obtain the Millburn Regional Day School. Perhaps funds could be raised from the sale of the Oakey Tract to the township with the promise it will remain open space.
On board procedures to deal with requests for school closings on religious or cultural holidays—
Resnick—Removing existing holidays is counterproductive. The process for a referendum on this pits neighbor against neighbor. If we are going to add holidays we should take days off from the April vacation and end of the school year.
Truitt—The board took six months to carefully consider solutions. We looked closely at the Establishment Clause in the United States Constitution. You can’t close schools for religious reasons. Absenteem is a secular reason for closing schools. Although there were some parts of the process that I didn't love, the petition allowed the entire community to participate. And the survey focuses on absenteeism.
Liu-It is a complicated issue. The board made a great effort to accommodate all groups. More effort is needed to include more people in the process, but I also need to study more before giving adefinitive opinion.
Sharma- The Issue already has been decided by the board and its property committee. We need to move onto curriculum and other issues.
Kasdon-The process is too cumbersome. We could save money and strain on the community if we simply have each principal send a note home with students asking when and if students will be absent due to religious or cultual observances.
Gray-The church-state separation issue needed to be raised. State law recognizes potential holidays for 19 religions and 119 separate holidays. We need to base the decision on secular reasons.
On foreign language instruction—
Truitt—I was not on the Board when the decision was made to eliminate the elementary world language teachers. The decision was made because students arrived at the Middle School with insufficient knowledge of Spanish and the teachers had to start from scratch. At first, Rosetta Stone appeared to be working well, but subsequently did not work reliably. The Middlebury system is different, well developed and interactive with teacher facilitation. Our world language professional staff and the students love it. Our goals are that every student will complete Spanish level 1 by the end of 5th grade. The Program Committee has requested more frequent updates from administration on the program.
Liu-If we have the money we should have fulltime language teachers. If I am elected I would support teachers spending more time teaching foreign language.
Sharma-I would ask why children were not learning language in first through fifth grades. Computers are not the answer. Teachers should be back in the classroom. Studies show it is better to learn foreign language at an early age than later.. Some districts have three 40-minute periods per week. Perhaps we should look at this
Kasdon-The curriculum should have been properly peer reviewed. Language programs should not have come to Millburn unless piloted somewhere else first for a number of years. We took Summit’s word on the system after only a one-year pilot.
Gray-Rosetta Stone was not sufficiently tested. The ideal is immersion in foreign language starting in the elementary grades, but we have funding and curriculum challenge which probably would rule this out.
Gomez-We should not waste another three years testing software.
Resnick-Middlebury sounds like it will not work. Personal teaching works better.
Truitt—Some candidates have suggested that Millburn adapt a language immersion program. That is not our goal in Millburn public schools as that is more suited to Charter Schools.
Another question—Millburn recently settled a lawsuit for $1 million from township parents who claimed the district did not give their special education child the proper education plan. How would you deal with this and how would you avoid such suits in the future?
Gomez—We need to hire a special education director who is more effective in planning programs and less litigious.
Gray—It is difficult to come to conclusions without having familarity with special education litigation. To educate myself, however, I have been talking with an attorney friend who represents special education parents.
Kasdon-I have a daughter who is dyslexic. It was a painful experience. I had to remove her from South Mountain School. We need to lnow what tools are needed. For example, for dyslexia, the Orton Gillingham reading series helps many to turn around.
Sharma—We need an open dialogues with parents to find out their needs. Most parents want to keep their kids in the district. We need to support this.
Liu-I would look into such cases with greater detail and rely on legal experts for guidance. We need to yalk more to those involved and get more community and expert input. Learn the concerns of parents.
Truitt—Any case is an opportunity to learn. One of my top priorities has been the search for a new directtor.
Resnick-I am appalled the district lost $1 milion to one of our neighbors. Perhaps if we had a different director the case would not have been lost.