MILLBURN, NJ - Township Committeewoman Sandra Haimoff and Board of Education President John Westfall-Kwong were in the spotlight on Thursday as the Short Hills Association presented its spring forum.
Haimoff was pinch-hitting for Mayor Robert Tillotson, who could not be present due to a family emergency.
The spotlight at the session was shining not only on the participants but on areas of cooperation between the two governmental bodies and what they were doing to cope with safety, taxes and a number of other issues.
According to association President Arp Trivedi, who moderated the forum, the group received 12 questions from community members and Short Hills Association board members supplied four questions that were submitted in advance to the participants.
Leading off, the two leaders were asked how their respective groups were working together to maintain the high quality of life in Millburn-Short Hills, which is noted its ease of transportation into New York City and its wealthy and highly educated population.
Although noting that the school board and the township governing body had two very different roles and different policies on a number of issues, Haimoff said that, in the considerable amount of time she has served on both bodies, both have worked together wherever feasible and fiscally responsibly.
She pointed to the joint administration of athletic fields in particular, which is supervised by a committee comprised of members from the township and the school district as well as the Millburn Recreation Department. In addition, she noted, although the recreation department collects any fees associated with use of the fields it does make some of those fees available to the school district in areas like helping to repair its turf fields.
The joint field administration, Haimoff added, is one of a number of township programs that have been recognized by the New Jersey League of Municipalities and other civic groups.
The township committeewoman also pointed out that the township business administrator and the school district director of buildings and grounds have an excellent working relationship, which, for example, comes into play when township public works trucks make repairs to school property.
Township officials and members of an ad hoc committee on the status of the Millburn Regional Day School (the former Washington School) also have met with board representatives on the future of the facility.
The school is currently owned by the state, but the state has said it wants to relinquish control of the facility. Under the facility’s contract, Haimoff noted, the school board has the right of first refusal in the event of a sale of the day school and the township has the right of second refusal.
Haimoff said both bodies are awaiting official word on next steps before a determination on the future of the school can be made.
In another area of cooperation, the township official noted that Millburn High School architectural students had done a very useful study on the revitalization of the township’s central business district.
She also noted that township students serve on the Millburn Environmental Commission.
Westfall-Kwong pointed out that there is cooperation at a high level of governance between the two bodies.
As another example of the close relationship between the township business administrator and the school district buildings and grounds director, he noted the close cooperation between the two in keeping tabs on the amount of road salt available to the township this past winter for keeping roads clear for safe passage to the schools.
He also thanked Haimoff for the efforts of the recreation department in keeping staff and students aware of the many programs available to them through the department and cited collaboration with the township in programs at the Millburn Public Library.
On the regional day school, he noted that interim superintendent of schools Christine Burton was developing plans to use either that facility or the Millburn Education Center to serve as a center of innovative 21st century learning through the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) program.
On another matter, he suggested that the township and the education body work on developing a joint calendar of activities so residents would know what was available and perhaps community groups could work to avoid scheduling conflicts.
Haimoff thought the calendar was a good idea, but said expanding it beyond events sponsored by the township and school board to other township civic groups might prove somewhat challenging.
On the matter of safety, Haimoff noted the township was looking for ways to better manage the large number of students in the central business district at times and she noted the challenges posed by the “free and open access” to many school events.
The school board president said his board tried to “benchmark” what other school districts were doing and emulate the more successful programs. He added that providing access and safety at the same time presented a number of challenges.
He also noted the school district had hired former Millburn police officer Michael Palardy as its head of security.
While extending best wishes to the families of the township public works employees injured in this week’s dump truck accident on Great Hills Road, he praised the work of school staffers who quickly alerted parents in the area to keep them away from the scene and avoid traffic congestion.
As far as unwanted intruders in the schools, Westfall-Kwong noted school officials and township police share a “playbook for dealing with the bad guys” but the school district does not publicize those plans to avoiding tipping off those who may present a danger to students or staff members.
On a related safety matter, Haimoff noted the township has unmarked police cars and other ways of keeping track of those who might cause harm but also keeps many of its plans secret from potential criminals.
As for dealing with possible calamities in the schools, the board president noted there are 140 emergency drills per year conducted in the education facilities.
Haimoff also cited cooperative safety efforts including participation of school officials in the township’s office of emergency management where the office, for example, conducts “tabletop drills” about how to handle potential areas of danger.
She also said the township is working on a Complete Streets Program that will provide traffic-calming programs in many parts of Millburn-Short Hills.
Also in progress is planning for Safe Streets to School, which now is being rolled out to parent-teacher organizations and will be expanded to other township groups in the future.
“Real-time” cameras, monitored by township police, are located in township parking garages and near the township’s two train stations and the township is looking for ways to more brightly light the tunnel near the Short Hills Station, Haimoff said.
Asked to speak about long-term plans for maintaining the township’s infrastructure, the committeewoman said the picture of the township in 40 years would depend on who is in charge at that time.
At present, however, she said, the committee is working on ordinance updating while avoiding removing the intention of ordinances as they originally were adopted.
She also noted the town hall has been around for some time and its renovation or replacement probably was in the cards along with a revitalization of the downtown area.
“It’s good to keep abreast of the times and yet be open to positive change,” Haimoff added.
She added that she would like to see many of these issues addressed at a more rapid pace, adding that she would possibly like the town hall to become a cultural center which would host community programs in addition to serving as the seat of township government as well as a suitable place to display the many pieces of artwork that the township now keeps in the municipal building basement.
Westfall-Kwong noted the board was developing a facilities roadmap to deal with the school district’s aging structures and such items as boiler replacement and pavement repairs.
The board president also noted the many goals contained in the school district’s strategic plan update including:
- Providing “maker spaces” at either the regional day school or the Education Center, as mentioned above, ”to encourage such activities as the award-winning high school robotics teams whose members also are mentoring elementary school students to become involved in the field."
- Developing alternate sources of funding for more challenging areas of study in the schools so taxes are not the sole means of educational support.
- Improving student access to community service opportunities and enhancing character education programs.
- Supporting and monitoring such initiatives as the 1:1 program in the middle school.
- Encouraging content area professional development to address district program reviews of the math and science programs in kindergarten to 12th grade.
Asked what they would consider “progressive” ideas for the betterment of the township, Haimoff said she would like to see the central business district become more pedestrian friendly with the municipal building as a cultural center while maintaining the integrity of Millburn-Short Hills’ residential areas.
Westfall-Kwong said he would like to see more areas where students could safely bike to school. He added that he would like the board of education to expand the outreach it had begun with the PTOs to other community groups such as the Short Hills Association, other civic association and the Junior League.
Asked to assess, in the late Mayor Ed Koch’s words “How Am I Doing?” in terms of the school board, the board’s president praised his colleagues for the many long hours they put in on school business as volunteers.
He added that, although they arrive at conclusions often from different paths, their ultimate interest was the advancement of the students and, even after sometimes heated debate in committee meetings, they were able to arrive at a concensus and support solutions that helped the district move forward.
Haimoff cited the township-school board cooperation on field management, environmental awards such as that given to Millburn-Short Hills’ “Green Challenge” and collaborative environmental film showings with West Orange and South Orange-Maplewood and maintaining of a fairly stable tax base without seriously cutting programs.
She said, in the area of improvements, she would like to see some of the initiatives mentioned above completed more quickly.
Resident Edward Barker submitted a question asking, first, did the two officials foresee tax rates continue to climb above two percent and, secondly, to township officials, when would a township-wide property reassessment be done.
Haimoff replied that, under the law, she believed reassessments were supposed to be done every 10 years, but, most likely they would be done when the assessment figures for commercial property were widely different from those of residential properties.
As for tax rates, she said residents probably should expect them to go up, although increases had been about one or two percent over the last few years.
Westfall-Kwong noted that the school board, although under a 2 percent cap, was dealing with a number of rising costs, especially in healthcare benefits. This year, he noted, the school body had asked for a cap waiver, as permitted by state law, to deal with healthcare benefit cost increases. In addition, it was asking to use its “cap bank”—spending authority accumulated because it had stayed below the cap limit in previous budgets.
The officials agreed that, except in the case of school budget defeats at the polls, their two bodies had little effect on each others’ budgets.
Haimoff added that, in her 12 years of involvement, she had seen only three school budgets defeated. She noted that, when school budgets were voted on by residents, the township committee could only tell the board by how many tax points it wanted the school budget reduced and it was up to the board where to make the cuts.
As part of the state law allowing districts to move school elections to coincide with the November general elections, school budgets in Millburn-Short Hills, as in many other communities taking that option, no longer are voted on by residents.
Asked about the fact that Millburn Police seem to leave posts in front of schools, especially the high school and middle school, before all traffic has arrived at or left those areas before or after school, Westfall-Kwong said parents and other residents concerned about the situation should make their concerns known to William Myron, high school principal, and Michael Cahill, middle school principal. If they were not satisfied, he said, they could bring their concerns to the superintendent of schools and then to the school board.
Haimoff said township police determined where crossing guards were needed. Also, she said, police monitor where changes are needed and she assumed those changes are made as necessary.
On dealing with non-residents allegedly attending township schools illegally, Westfall-Kwong said the number of reports of such incidents was fairly low but the board followed up on every report.
He added the school body had devised a form for reporting such incidents and had formed a separate residency committee this year because the property commitee was being taken away from its other important work to deal with residency issues.
The board president added that residents needed to have a clearer understanding about the definition of “domicile” as it relates to residency for school attendance.
On the former Saks Fifth Avenue building on Millburn Avenue, Haimoff said, since it was located in Springfield, there was little Millburn could do about the property.
She added that she had approached two Springfield mayors about possibly condemning the property and turning it into fields but nothing had been done about it.
The committeewoman added, however, that the Short Hills stores surrounding the property which had previously been empty now appear to be thriving.
As for the TMB Properties land on the Livingston border with the township, over which Short Hills residents opposed a proposed development of the site, on the border of Millburn, which included affordable housing, there was a dispute over whether a Livingston sewer line would serve the site.
Livingston agreed to a settlement with TMB Properties, which formerly owned the site, after it had opposed the development. However, there was a dispute over a sewer line serving the site.
Haimoff said Thursday Livingston had located a sewer line to the site and they would have to deal with the site’s new owners in deciding what would be done about the question.
On another matter, the committeewoman said the historical building which the township had purchased on White Oak Ridge and Parsonage Hill Roads would have its roof replaced and eventually would be turned into a museum.
She said there was sufficient parking on the site to accommodate visitors to the museum.
Asked about disputes over PAARC testing in township schools, Westfall-Kwong said less than 10 percent of students had decided not to take the standardized tests and the majority of those students were juniors who would be seniors at the high school when the results were released.
He said the PAARC tests had become politicized on all sides of the political spectrum, but since the tests were mandated under state law township schools were obligated to administer them.
The board president pointed out that Burton had agreed to hold a summit on the tests and added that, although the board believes in standardized testing, it needed a more independent way of measuring achievement.
He added, however, that the school body would deal with mishaps which happened in Millburn during testing this year so they don’t reoccur next year.