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West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School Board 2010

2010 SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES VOTERS GUIDE

NON-PARTISAN ELECTION INFORMATION

Vote Tuesday, April 20, 2010

CANDIDATES FOR WEST WINDSOR-PLAINSBORO REGIONAL SCHOOL BOARD

Polls are open in West Windsor and Plainsboro from 7 AM to 9 PM

These are the verbatim responses of the candidates for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional 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 from Plainsboro Township - Vote for one (three-year term)

Harshad Tanna - Senior Scientist, Telcordia Technologies
Ellen Walsh (incumbent) - Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics – Rider University

In any challenging economic climate, constituencies and programs compete for the same dollar. Co-curricular activities – sports, arts, and clubs – compete with academics. Class size at the elementary level competes with advanced courses at the high school level. Do you favor cutting/reducing specific programs or making district-wide cuts?

Mr. Tanna:
It has indeed been challenging couple of years for the national, state and local economy. It is clear to me that increasing school spending and corresponding tax increases aren’t sustainable. I do not believe in across the board cuts and would do all that is within my power as a board member to pursue targeted cuts.

According to the latest NJDOE comparative spending guide of 2009, there are 105 school districts comparable to WW-P. In NJDOE’s ranking of the lowest to the highest spenders, WW-P ranks 47th in comparative cost, 50th in cost of class room instructions, 42nd for operations cost, 79th in administrative salaries, and 94th for teacher salaries. This is at the best a mediocre financial performance. However, when viewed positively, this also presents an opportunity for reducing the spending without affecting quality of the instructions.

Ms. Walsh:
The question points out the competing interests which must be considered when deciding how to best meet the financial obligations inherent in providing the excellent education that our students deserve. While the academic component must have precedence, it is important to recognize that we cannot overlook the value of exposure to the arts, the involvement in clubs and the opportunity to compete. Our students should have the chance to be well rounded. Most colleges look for participation in clubs and athletics along with academic performance as part of the admission process. I would ask the administration to maintain small class size at the elementary level. This is the foundation of learning and requires more individual attention. Class size is also important at the high school but we should be looking at a minimum class size, so that under-enrolled courses would be eliminated. Cost cutting must be across the board with the most emphasis being placed in the areas outside the classroom.

How do you propose to deal with steep reductions in state aid which are likely to continue into the future? Please indicate areas of the budget that you would review for potential savings.

Mr. Tanna: The state has cut aid to WW-P by $7.1M for the next year. It also appears that state aid to affluent districts like WW-P is going to be minimal for the foreseeable future. However, it is a disturbing fact that the WW-P board approved next year’s budget without accounting for this. Instead the new budget proposes to continue spending as if the cut hasn’t happened.

My goal is to put the school district in top 20% of the lowest spending school districts over the next 3 years. This would lighten the tax burden going forward and put the district on a sustainable financial footing. I propose to achieve this goal with targeted cuts in the following areas: a) administrative costs by consolidating positions across the school district b) cost of staff benefits by asking for teacher contributions towards the benefits and c) reversing the trend of year over year salary increases by reopening the teachers’ union contract. I am sure the teachers in the district appreciate the fact that they are one of the best paid in the state and are already rewarded for excellent educational performance. I also intend to advocate a review of all co-curricular programs and school operations.

Ms. Walsh: The District does not receive as much state aid as one might think. Last year our state aid was 7.5% of the total budget. West Windsor and Plainsboro residents/ taxpayers have been forced to shoulder most of the education expense while continuing to be regulated and scrutinized which is a cost to the District for the time and effort to comply. With state aid dwindling we must evaluate all areas for cost versus effectiveness. It is time to ensure that we are not running small classes that benefit a small number of students and that there are no expenditures that are not justified.

What principles will guide your decision-making as a School Board member?

Mr. Tanna: The first and foremost function of school board is to provide the best education to each and every child in a financially sustainable manner. My guiding principles while making any decision on school programs and operations would be:

  • Maintain the excellence of core instructional and support programs
  • Every program or project must be judged based on the impact on the number of students, its efficacy and overall sustainability over the long term
  • Maintain open communication with all the stake holders – students, teachers, support staff, tax payers and community at large – to explain my decisions and maintain the valuable trust placed within me by the constituents

Toward the last goal, I would like to invite everyone to my blog at http://harshadforschoolboard.blogspot.com/ that discusses these matters in more details.

Ms. Walsh: Before making any decision I need to make sure that I have all the necessary information. My guiding principle then becomes what is best for all the students of WW-P as well as for their parents and our community.

Candidates from West Windsor Township – Vote for two (three-year term)

Robert John Johnson (incumbent) - Asset Forfeiture Financial Specialist
Rakesh Kak - Investment Banking
Vijay Kanchi - Telecommunications Consulting
Hemant Marathe (incumbent) - Business owner 
Scott Powell - Director, Prudential Financial

In any challenging economic climate, constituencies and programs compete for the same dollar. Co-curricular activities – sports, arts, and clubs – compete with academics. Class size at the elementary level competes with advanced courses at the high school level. Do you favor cutting/reducing specific programs or making district-wide cuts?

Mr. Johnson: Over the past eight years the board’s discipline has brought per-pupil costs under control – in 2002 the district’s per pupil costs were five percent above the New Jersey state average; in 2008 (the most recent year for which costs are available), West Windsor-Plainsboro’s per pupil costs were ten percent below state average. That success was due to goal setting and discipline. Thus, I don’t favor blunt, across the board cuts. Rather, the board should set goals and work with the administration to identify the most promising areas for greater economy and efficiency.

Mr. Kak: Our country is facing a historic economic crisis since the great depression. The Tri-State region has been specifically affected due to the concentration of the financial industry. With negative inflation in 2009 and doubling of unemployment in the last two and half years – it is imperative that school boards adopt budgets that do not increase the already high tax burden of the residents. As a proponent of zero- based budgeting, I would objectively look at all line items in the budget to ensure an efficient allocation of resources and to achieve cost effective ways to improve operations while at all times focused on imparting the best affordable education to our children.

Any new programs or improvements identified that cannot be funded with current revenues should be included in our long-term strategic planning and implemented when the funds are identified for the same. I would also recommend an ongoing review of the various programs throughout the year to uncover the various areas of efficiencies that can be achieved, to identify the programs that should be altered and to recognize programs that should be either expanded or eliminated.

Mr. Kanchi: Challenging economic times require us to be creative as we continually seek to improve and enhance our educational programs to benefit all children K-12 in light of ever-increasing budgetary restraints. In the educational arena, we need to ensure that all children receive an outstanding education that will enable them to function effectively in the global marketplace that is rapidly changing. Additionally, it is my aspiration that our children must be afforded all opportunities to achieve their full potential in academic as well as co-curricular activities, that ensure that West Windsor-Plainsboro produces well rounded leaders of the next generation. This requires a constant evaluation and updating of curriculum, instruction and programs, and continued mentoring of our outstanding faculty and staff in the district. This must be accomplished in a fiscally responsible way to ensure that the Board and Administration spend the taxpayers' money judicially, while promoting the best interests of the students and the community.

Dr. Marathe: I support evaluating each program on its own merits within the budget constraints we face. Over the past several years, we have managed to control our budget by not necessarily cutting programs but by offering the same services in a different manner or by improving productivity. For example, between 2003 and 2009 we have controlled our budget by bringing 8 special services programs in-house, reducing two administrative positions, 18 secretaries, and 17 instructional assistants while serving over thousand more students. The upcoming budget continues that process by realigning the supervisory structure and not refilling positions of three retiring administrators. I will continue this approach in the future.

Mr. Powell: Before looking for cost reduction opportunities, I would first propose looking to increase fees for non-core activities as a means to balance the budget. A core education curriculum consists of English, Social studies, math, science, and language. Although non-core activities are important, we should look for participants in arts, sports and other optional activities to shoulder more of the burden for their participation. So as not to disadvantage students with lesser means, we should ask corporations to contribute to scholarships for these other programs.

We should also look for opportunities to leverage our best teachers, especially at the high school level. This will allow more students to benefit from our best educators, provide an opportunity for more rewards for our best teachers and an opportunity to reduce costs.

How do you propose to deal with steep reductions in state aid which are likely to continue into the future? Please indicate areas of the budget that you would review for potential savings.

Mr. Johnson: This year West Windsor-Plainsboro was slated to receive $10.7 million in State aid, and $2.9 million of it was withheld. The district was able to use available surplus and cost-cutting to make up the difference. The governor’s proposed budget for next year would reduce that aid by seventy-one percent. Eighty–five percent of that aid is for extraordinary special education costs and transportation, and there is no way to reduce those mandated costs by $7.6 million – indeed, they are likely to continue to grow. If re-elected I would continue to target areas of greatest inefficiency (as we targeted buildings and grounds this year), but larger staff reductions will be inevitable if the governor’s recommendations stand. I favor steady belt tightening over drastic cuts that will damage the educational program, but I’m afraid West Windsor Plainsboro is suffering for the sins of others.

Mr. Kak: In view of the potential $7.6 million cut in state aid for our 2010-2011 budget and with the assumption that these cuts will continue in the future, it is critical that the board does an introspection into various cost buckets in the budget. The non-instructional parts of the budget would naturally be areas to explore optimization. However, why target only custodians for savings realization when there might be potentially greater savings in creating efficiencies in other areas– we should review all programs and cost buckets for the value they bring to the development of our children.

Special services programs provided by our district are top-rated in the state – Can we find ways to optimize the $23 million spending in special services (equal to almost 50% of the regular instruction budget) for only 10% of the student population, – I am sure we can. The cost of benefits for the school employees have escalated significantly over the years – Can we find ways to preserve the benefits for the current employees while structuring them to realize potential savings for the future employees – I am sure we can.

Mr. Kanchi: Firstly, we must ensure that West Windsor-Plainsboro continues to get what it is due from the County, State and Federal support for our kids from K-12. Additionally, the Board needs to encourage and support the Administration in taking a critical view of the district's programs. Board and Administration need to continue to scrutinize all programs and continually evaluate what works, what is marginal, and what doesn't, and prior to making the final decision the Board must consider and understand the full budgetary impact of any proposed program.

Dr. Marathe: As an incumbent board member, I am proud of our record of moderate budget increases over the past several years. That has allowed us to provide an excellent education for costs that are several hundred dollars lower than the state average. Within Mercer County our spending per pupil is $4000 less than Princeton and $2000 less than Hopewell and Lawrence. I will continue that process of continual analysis and pruning of our budget.

I appreciate the fact that our teachers and administrators agreed to reopen their contracts to save the district over 1 million dollars for the coming budget year. We are dealing with the latest 7 million dollars in cuts in state spending through a combination of program readjustment and revenue increases. It is the only way to survive a 7 million dollars budget cut with 24 hours notice without affecting education. We continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that tax impact is kept to a minimum.

According to the state formula our district was entitled to 22 million dollars of state funding for last budget year. Of that, we were promised $10.6 million of which $2.9 million were taken away at the last minute. For the coming year we are promised only 3 million dollars in funding. If the state provides us with adequate funding based on their own calculations; we would be talking about a 10% decrease in property taxes instead of an increase. Given our track record over the past several years, I am confident we will adjust to the “new normal” with the least possible effect on students. This will require continually reviewing all budget areas to look for more economical ways of reaching our goals.

Mr. Powell: We need to ask district employees to contribute a larger share of their benefits. This will help contain the increasing compensation costs. As we compare our compensation structure to other industries, we may find that our district pays quite well compared to comparably credentialed jobs in the private sector. For example, we pay about 20% more per person for medical coverage than private sector employers.

According to a 2005 study by the Small Business Administration (http://www.sba.gov/advo/research/rs262tot.pdf), in 2002 the average non-farm medical premium was $4356. Even accounting for moderate 6% per year inflation, 2010 premiums would be about $7 thousand. According to information in the 2009 budget, the West Windsor Regional School District spent over $16 million or 11% of its budget on health benefits. This suggests that the district spends over $8500 per employee on healthcare. We need to rein in our medical costs.

What principles will guide your decision-making as a School Board member?

Mr. Johnson: I hope to continue to contribute to ensuring a well rounded educational program that prepares our students to succeed, and to be responsible citizens; to work hard to understand the issues and to honestly and forcefully present my best judgment; and to ensure that the residents of West Windsor and Plainsboro continue to get real value for their educational spending.

Mr. Kak: The primary mandate of the schools is to provide the finest education to our children. s a resident of the West Windsor community and a father of two children in the district my decision-making on the Board will always be consistent with this mandate. My decision-making on the board will consider input from all the stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, tax-payers and students in order to serve the mandate of providing an excellence in education in the most cost efficient manner.

Mr. Kanchi: Following are the key guiding principles that will form the basis of my decision making as a board member:

  • Advance our areas of strength in the global marketplace as creative and independent thinkers
  • Ensure academic excellence K-12 through current and relevant curriculum with continued emphasis on Language Arts, Math and the Sciences
  • Continuous improvement by leveraging best practices from educators, innovators and administrators that will continue to propel West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools as the leading institution at the state, national and global stage.

Dr. Marathe: The mission of our school district is to develop each student as a passionate, life-long learner. The single most important principle that drives my decision making is “what is in the best long term interest of the student?” As a school district we have made a decision to funnel most of our tax dollars into the classroom and areas that help the students most. The results speak for themselves. Our students excel in academics and co-curricular activities, many times on a national level. We are one of the top performing school districts in the state while our per pupil spending is $300 less than the state average.

Mr. Powell: Two core beliefs will guide my decision making as a board member. First, we have a responsibility to provide the best education possible at the lowest possible cost. With this in mind, my second principle will be to encourage the board to act more like a corporate board. Specifically, we need to set goals and contribute ideas to the administration on how to achieve the goals. We should provide full consideration to applying other education delivery models, such as those used in other countries, colleges and professional certification companies. For example, we should measure our teachers’ effectiveness based on a standardized test of their subject matter at the end of the school year. Those teachers with the best performance should be eligible for a bonus.

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