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Montgomery School Board 2011

Montgomery Candidates Answer League Questions

Vote Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the  candidates for the Montgomery Township Board of Education to questions presented by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area in cooperation with The Princeton Packet.  The candidates were allowed to vary the length of their answers to the three questions but were given a word limit for the total.

Candidates – Vote for three (three-year term)

Christine Abrahams -Supervisor, k-12 Counseling Services, Hopewell Valley Regional School District

Richard T. Cavalli -Turnaround Interim Executive. Website: www.BlackBoxPrincipals.com

Anne Michaelson - Community volunteer and homemaker, formerly marketing administrator, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Website:  http://campaignwindow.com/annie4boe/

Arun Rimal (incumbent) - Professional Engineer, Assistant Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, Columbia University. Email: Arimal2011@gmail.com

The Montgomery schools are facing budget shortfalls over the coming years due to reduced state funding and tax caps.  Most discretionary, non-instructional costs have already been sharply reduced. Given this, what additional measures do you favor in order to reduce school budgets or to increase revenues?

Ms. Abrahams: At this point to reduce the budget further could impact the effectiveness of the instructional program.  I believe the district needs to begin exploring other revenue resources such as sponsorships of our athletic fields, teams, and the Performing Arts Center.  Montgomery should begin to package, brand and market our curricula nationally; and to develop and deliver on-line classes for a fee. Other districts could use these courses for home instruction, make-up credit or extra credit.

Mr. Cavalli: This is not an either or question; both need to be addressed.  Expenses: I reject the premise, “Most discretionary, non-instructional costs have already been sharply reduced.” An initial analysis of costs in administration indicates a potential savings in overhead of $1M or greater. Other potential savings may be achieved through the use of education based technologies. Revenues: The current BoE apparently does not understand the economics of inelasticity. They are currently increasing prices for use of the facilities. To increase local business and community usage, I recommend maintaining current fees in most areas and lower fees in others while improving ease of use. As well, I recommend aggressively pursuing initiatives to market our facilities for county and state extracurricular events. I am adding the notion of effectiveness. I do not feel the BoE has a strategy to bring balance to the relationship between the unions and the community. I believe – separate from the union leadership – that the educators desire to find a balance between their and the communities long term interests. I believe that balance can be achieved.

Ms. Michaelson: Montgomery’s schools are important to our students and homeowners. Maintaining excellence to ensure student success and balancing that against the needs of taxpayers requires us to challenge past assumptions and think outside the box. As PTA President in two schools, I’ve identified needs and secured private funding to meet those needs.

Let’s expand efforts to share administrative, business, purchasing, transportation, and other required school district services. I’ll advocate for a Shared Services Center for Curricula Development where comparable districts work together to revise curricula to meet new State standards. I’ll explore advertising opportunities on busses and district websites and lead a collaborative effort to lobby State leaders to eliminate or reduce the mandated $884 payment to families who chooses to send their kids to private school. I’ll push to create a new a fee-based, district-run before/after school enrichment and activity based program to capitalize on the new school start/end times. My website offers more on this topic.

Mr. Rimal: As a result of our focus on strategic priorities throughout my tenure on the school board, Montgomery school district (MTSD) is New Jersey’s "lowest spending and highest performing district."  Our priorities should remain the same: high achieving programs for all children; sustainable school spending; efficient use of limited resources; effective use of technology.  As the Chair of the Operations and Facilities Committee, I oversaw the implementation of a new energy policy which saved, and will continue to save, millions of dollars annually. . We streamlined our transportation system to save an additional million dollars a year annually.  MTSD has historically spent less on administrative staff versus other comparable districts by strategically matching our spending with our education objectives. In the coming years, we need to be even more disciplined in defining strategies and establishing priorities. To provide the best educational opportunities for our children, we have introduced initiatives that improve our system while eliminating ineffective programs, without compromising our challenging Advanced Placement coursework. 

List, in order of priority, the three most important challenges facing the Montgomery Township school district.  How do you plan, in both the short and long term, to address them?

Ms. Abrahams: The three priorities facing the MTSD are: balancing our quality education with sound fiscal responsibility; creating a stronger partnership and enhancing communication with our residents; and strengthening our total commitment to ALL our children.  In the short-term it’s important to continue or start dialogue on all three of these points. Long-term means first, diligently monitoring costs and finding new revenue streams.  Second, we need to nurture a welcoming culture for parents and engage them in volunteering in the schools at every grade level to fill the gaps left from cuts and to help them feel part of the schools. Third, the district must also figure out alternative communication vehicles to inform residents about what is happening in the schools. These could include town hall meetings, tea talks and even one-on-one meetings with key residents who can spread the word.  Finally, although the district has excellent teachers, curricula and committed parents, we must continually reflect on our practice. It’s hard to take such an inventory, but we must in order to continually improve and to remain one of the highest rated school systems in New Jersey.

Mr. Cavalli: Three critical challenges facing the MTSD/BoE are Leadership, Transparency, and Embracing of New Realities. These challenges are highly interrelated and equal in weight. The future MTSD/BoE must be transformative in how it plans and executes. The lack of leadership, transparency, and embracing of the new realities has resulted in further entrenchment of legacy thinking. Thinking that is being marketed by the MTSD/BoE in a series of public meetings. We live in a community with a wealth of knowledge and perspectives that the MTSD/BoE should harness in a real discussion. However, due to the lack of community trust in the MTSD/BoE in meeting its fiduciary responsibility to the community - that caused the defeat of the 2010/11 budget - has resulted in the lack of community participation and passive aggressive sentiment.

The manner in which this needs to be addressed is not complicated.  1. Improve transparency by providing information in a central location that enables insight and decision making. 2. Provide a comprehensive long term operational plan and corresponding budget tied to the current realities. 3. Provide to the community the decision making criteria and relative ranking of that criteria upon which the MTSD/BoE make decisions. 4. Develop metrics for goals that are correlated to programs and budgets and provide periodic updates/variance analysis of success to those metrics. 5. Reach out to the community as well as other Boards for expertise and resources not resident in the MTSD/BoE.

Ms. Michaelson: 1. Accepting fiscal challenges and finding solutions that don’t mean higher tax bills. Montgomery should collaborate with other high performing districts to revise curricula, purchase textbooks, share best practices and control special education costs. Common challenges and characteristics can be met with common solutions.

2. Engaging the community to meet our challenges. Actively engaging taxpayers, students, teachers, and administrators to raise awareness will make it easier for residents to contribute their talents and expertise will enrich and support our schools without adding to the tax burden. Online information should be expanded and made more relevant and digestible. All of us have much invested in the success of our schools and my leadership in the PTA has shown me that the district doesn’t always access the skills of our residents to solve our problems.

3. Providing an education that meets the unique needs, talents, and challenges of every student. Short term we need to expand our Social and Emotional Learning program to our lower school. Long term we need to expand the broadband network so all Montgomery classrooms have reliable service and help classroom teachers integrate technology successfully and comfortably into their lesson plans. We should expand in-district and inter-district Special Education services so more students with special needs are educated in public schools. We can provide more convenient services and save money by avoiding the costly tuition and transportation bills incurred when students are placed in specialized schools outside of the District.

Mr. Rimal:     Our children feel the stress of attending high performing schools.  MTSD is focusing on our students’ social and emotional learning to provide them with a supportive and less stressful environment and increasing the availability of Guidance Counselors.

We provide many challenging opportunities for our most motivated students and considerable support for our special needs children. I will continue to ensure our educational system addresses the needs of our “middle” students to drive their success. Our MTSD initiatives such as creating common assessments will ensure that our students will contribute positively to our ever-evolving society.

Teachers are the most significant driver of student achievement.  Accordingly, we must continue to attract and retain the best teachers.  Shrinking financial resources makes this objective a challenge. We must work collaboratively to find creative solutions to this problem. 

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf's plan for education reform proposes changing teacher evaluations and tenure, ending seniority rules that require newest teachers to be fired first, and introducing merit pay.   Do you favor or oppose any parts of the plan and why?

Ms. Abrahams: The state is focused on forcing education into a business model. Although I welcomed merit pay when I worked in the private sector, I don’t see how it can be implemented successfully in a school district with a fixed budget.  It’s also not clear how teachers would be evaluated for merit pay.  Standardized test scores should not be the barometer of a teacher’s effectiveness.  In the lower grades, the tests administered differ from year to year. The High School Proficiency Assessment, which is required for graduation, is a cumulative test given in 11th grade and should not be used as a measure for compensating 11th grade English or math teachers.  However, the process of teacher evaluations should be changed. Our district could implement a 360- degree evaluation, similar those used in business, to evaluate performance.  A panel of teachers would evaluate their underperforming peers and create an improvement plan for them. If there is no improvement the teacher is out regardless of tenure.  This type of system was put in place in Montgomery County, Maryland with promising results.

Mr. Cavalli: The truth resides in the specifics of the plan and timing in which it is executed. I embrace improving the educational experience and investing in our educator’s skills and passion to educate our children. I believe such investment will result in the increasingly efficient and continuous improvement of the educational experience and outcomes for our children; and thereby, benefitting all stakeholders. The purpose of education is to increase opportunity and choice for our children as they transition from MHS to adulthood.

Ms. Michaelson: Tenure reform is needed; a system that lets us keep our best teachers in the classrooms and makes it easier and less costly to dismiss teachers who fail to perform makes sense. The state’s “last in, first out” mandate that makes seniority the only factor considered when lay-offs become necessary is wrong. But, evaluating teachers solely on their ability to raise student test scores is not good policy. A fair, balanced, and comprehensive evaluation process that allows us to reward good teachers for performance instead of depending only on years of experience and graduate credits is the right answer.

Mr. Rimal: I favor improving the current teacher evaluation process.  Using clearly articulated performance expectations, teacher evaluations and granting of tenure should be a transparent process that rewards teachers who positively impact our children and permits us to release those who do not meet our community’s expectations.

I support the notion of merit pay but am concerned that implementing it will be financially impractical.  Most teachers go into the teaching profession because of their dedication to working with children, not because of the compensation. We must be creative in the ways we reward teachers for their commitment to educating our children.  Each June, graduating seniors who have been named Merit Scholars honor a teacher who has made a positive impact on their lives by presenting them with a book and a few words of public praise at one of the Board’s best attended meetings of the year.  The honoring of these noteworthy teachers -- reflecting the very best of our community and the values of teaching and learning that we strive to achieve – is one of the highlights of serving on our Board of Education.  I would like to continue to serve to help face the challenges that lie ahead.

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