Montgomery School Board Candidates 2015

Montgomery School Board Candidates Answer League Questions

November 3, 2015 General Election Day

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. until 8 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.


Vote for three (three-year term)

Paul Blodgett - Finance and Operations, ex-Naval Submarine Officer

Richard Cavalli - CEO of Black Box Principals. Website:

Minkou "Minkyo" Chenette - Homemaker

Shannon Devine - Science Teacher in West Windsor-Plainsboro School District High Schools. Website:

Charles F. Jacey, Jr. - Retired Senior Parrtner of PricewaterhouseCoopers (International accounting and consulting firm) Facebook: "Focus on Education."

Ranjana Rao - Strategy and business consulting

Tommy Riggs - Investor /business consultant and work from home dad

Vote for one (two-year, unexpired term)

Phyllis Bursh - Stay-at-home mom; Lawyer; Education advocate. Website:

Dale Huff (incumbent) Executive Director, Global Supplier Management – Merck & Co.

What personal and professional experiences have prepared you for serving on the Board?

Mr. Blodgett:

I served as a Naval Officer, spending most of my military career on a submarine and ending in the classroom as a physics professor. I currently work in finance, focused on operational risk. As a nuclear-submarine engineer, I learned that leaders are more than decision-makers: leaders develop processes that enable people around them to excel and contribute to the common mission. This school board is faltering because it has not provided adequate oversight to ensure successful implementation of well-defined goals. This contrasts with the hard work and dedication of our teachers and administrators, and is contrary to the expectations of this township. A school’s past achievements are no guarantee of future success; therefore, constant attention is required to maintain high standards of excellence. I am concerned that some of the board’s decisions have simply continued past policy without drawing upon the best available data.

Mr. Cavalli:

Life - growing up fourth of five children in a lower middle income home where education was important - receiving a BA from Columbia University and MBA from Boston University, a career as a CEO and Consultant in expanding growth and turning around companies ranging from start-up to Fortune 500, and most importantly being a husband and dad to three children.

More distinguishing is that I excel at assessing situations through fact based data; hearing, understanding, and respecting differing opinions and perspectives from varied individuals and groups; ability to identify and capture opportunities for growth while also bridging differences among parties in creating alignment, and putting decisions into performance and accountability.

Ms. Chenette:

I graduated from F.I.T. - SUNY with a B.S. in International Trade & Marketing. I have gained a very strong understanding of business, budgeting, marketing and finance through working in New York City fashion industry. My husband and I have been married for 16 years and have lived in Skillman, NJ since 2007 with two children, who are currently enrolled in the second and fourth grades. I served the MES PTA as a Co-President in 2013-2015, and I am still involved with the PTA. I am also a volunteer translator for Korean families in the school district. I have served the township zoning board as an alternate member, currently serving the Social Committee at CVCC and MJM Library Foundation fundraising committee in bringing my organizational skills and creativity to bear on another venue. Volunteering for the PTA and the township has given me the opportunity to see, hear, participate in and improve upon the everyday school experiences for our children, educators and citizens in the township. I am a team player, a good listener and proven organizer who seeks to maintain harmony, while also driving toward tangible results.

Ms. Devine:

As a High school Science teacher with extensive professional experience with different school districts (Montgomery included) and as a parent of 3 children that have either graduated or are currently enrolled in the district, I would hold a unique perspective for a School Board member. With my professional education experience, I can guide the rest of the school board in analyzing and implementing successful curricular programs, strategies for improving communication with parents, and promoting successful collaboration between the Board of Education, administration, teachers, students, and parents.

Mr. Jacey:

As retired Senior Partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and former Vice Chairman, I had responsibility for significant segments of the Firm's operations. I led PWC's international business and I gained knowledge of diverse business and cultural matters regarding Asia, Europe and Latin America. My skills were honed while delivering professional services to major international companies. GNY Insurance Company elected me to its Board and designated me Audit Committee Chairman, a position I presently hold. My governance skills are current and relevant.

Passionately interested in the development of youth, my personal activities embraced the Board of the Police Athletic League of NYC, which serves the City's underprivileged youth in its most troubled areas. Also I was a Trustee of Pace University. Many matters that universities confront are similar to those school districts manage.

My relevant recent experience is two terms on the MTSD BOE, five years as its Vice President. The current Board unanimously appointed me to fill an "open" seat at a recent meeting. I have "hands on" credentials to help ensure an orderly transition as the BOE reorganizes again in January.

Ms. Rao:

I am an experienced business consulting professional with a graduate degree in public policy and research. I am a consensus builder and a common sense based leader. As a chapter leader for “Room To Read”, an international NGO that works in literacy and gender equality issues globally, I often reach out to our community and corporations to raise awareness and funds for the cause. My skills will complement the need for policy and operational decision making at Montgomery School Board.

Mr. Riggs:

I attended public schools and our child attended public schools in three different states. I have a degree in Finance and an MBA. I have decades of experience with a variety of institutions including private equity, public accounting, and health care. I was instrumental in designing and implementing employee benefit plans – including drug management, disease management and provider network development. I have experience with pension funding, 401(k) program development, risk management, capital budgeting, planning, forecasting and performance reporting.

I have worked in matrix management organizations and have extensive experience with cross functional work groups. Additionally, I received formal training in team building and management development both in house and at the post graduate level.

I have been both president and a board member of a not for profit organization – The Risk & Insurance Management Society of Florida. I served on the Finance Committee of my son’s first elementary school. I also acted as executive liaison between my company and United Way.

Ms. Bursh:

I gained my knowledge of how to improve schools while a K-12 Advocate for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, where I worked with teachers, schools, education experts, teachers' unions, school boards and politicians to improve assessments and teaching practices. I further developed my critical thinking and advocacy skills as a Harvard undergraduate and a lawyer. In Montgomery, I served on an advisory committee to the school board for two years. I have also been an active volunteer during the ten years my son has attended Montgomery schools.

Mr. Huff:

I am an engineer and an executive in the pharmaceutical industry with 20+ years of experience managing global teams, analyzing data, solving complex problems, fostering collaboration and teamwork in challenging situations, handling difficult personnel issues, and managing budgets. My job requires the utmost integrity and judgement in difficult situations, and it requires me to act calmly with a data driven approach. My wife and I have raised 2 daughters - our oldest graduated from MHS in 2015, the youngest a junior in high school. My father was a school superintendent, and my mother was a teacher, so I grew up in an environment surrounded by school related issues, where our family friends were mainly teachers, administrators, and school board members.

What do you consider the three most important challenges facing Montgomery Township public schools at this time? How would you address these challenges?

Mr. Blodgett:

Financial Planning: Enrollment has declined by 553 students since 2009 and is projected to decline another 280 by 2019; however, budgets have increased, raising per pupil annual expenses over $15K (up 30% in 6 years). The future will be difficult if we are not prudent with our resources. My experience in finance will help make more sound decisions.

Avoiding the “Teach to the Test” Culture: I support Common Core’s effort to raise educational standards and teach students to think critically and solve problems; however, it has left educators with some unwinnable choices. Many districts interpret the standards as primarily a testing metric, which undermines the spirit of the program. I will fight to find the right balance between maintaining the highest standards and appropriately testing our students. Improving Confidence in the Board: I commend the board for recently acknowledging their struggles with internal and community relations. My leadership approach will be to listen first, and act on the concerns of the community. I will be collaborative, but principled.

Mr. Cavalli:

Challenges are opportunities inside-out. The three foundational opportunities I see for Montgomery are to be: 1. Aspirational in setting our vision and goals. 2.Comprehensive in pursuing excellence. 3. Putting to better work our investment in our student’s total success.

Montgomery schools are an $85M+ annual investment. For those who have lived in Montgomery for ten plus years; the fundamental reason we came to live in Montgomery is our schools were among the best in NJ at an excellent return on investment. Today, although improving from its lowest ranking, we now describe Montgomery as a “good school system in a good community.” We are no longer among the best and the implications on our students, families, and community are important. My focus as a BOE member will be to: 1. Achieve excellence and return Montgomery to becoming amongst the best education options – thus improving and expanding the opportunities for our students. 2. Repair and advance the quality of life of our students. 3. Secure our return on investment in our children and schools. 4. Become more student, parent, and community centric.

Ms. Chenette:

(1) Consistency and effective communication - There are 5 different buildings in our school district and it is important to have consistent and effective communication throughout the schools in order to ensure the safety of our students and staff. (2) Maintaining and Improving Statewide school ranking by recruiting, motivating and retaining top teachers. Secondly, adding more school counselors to help students manage school life effectively. Limiting classroom size of 18-21 in elementary school, 20-24 in middle school and 23-27 in high school. As a member of the board, I will work with committee members to plan the budget in order to accomplish these goals during my tenure. (3) Budget/Finance - I will work with the team to maximize the benefit of each dollar that is spent on students. I believe we can run a financially responsible school district by studying current issues and planning ahead.

Ms. Devine:

At this time, the most important challenges confronting our district are improving curricular programs to meet the needs of every student, passing of the referendum for facility projects, and enhanced relations between the community, school district and school board.

Through my professional experience, I appreciate the components of the different educational standards and curriculums that are required of public schools in the State of New Jersey. Additionally, I have access to up to date professional resources that will aid the Board in making the best decisions for our students based on their needs. In the passing of the referendum, I would develop social media in conjunction with town hall meetings to better disseminate information, answer questions, and address concerns associated with the referendum. To enhance relations between the community, school board, and school district, I would encourage my fellow board members to increase their participation in school events such as Back to School nights, school plays, sports events and be available to answer questions or concerns along with improved follow up with issues concerning our community and the school district.

Mr. Jacey:

MTSD's three most significant challenges are achieving and sustaining Board effectiveness, educational excellence, and financial stability. The Board must restore its credibility with its constituencies. Academic excellence for all students must be pursued aggressively while the tax burden on our residents is prudently managed. Diligent oversight is required over the development of the annual budget, other significant financial initiatives and the review of monthly financial reporting. My knowledge of effective governance and successful business practices, coupled with my independent thinking, can help make opportunities out of these challenges. I know how successful organizations work.

Ms. Rao:

1. Diminishing public confidence towards the board and its effectiveness is perhaps the top challenge. To improve it, I would strengthen our communication channels, set up a committee that handles public grievances and promises a speedy response/feedback. Have Town hall style meetings that are less formal. Make better use of social media to convey board’s progress.

2. Up coming referendum on floating of the municipal bond is the next challenge. I will have an open debate to ensure that the key stakeholders and public in general will have an opportunity to weigh-in and collectively figure out the pros and cons involved in raising this money. 3. Our technology education, especially at Elementary and Middle school needs improvement. I would use my research background to run benchmark with the best schools and develop a clear strategy to get there. For example, I would look at utilizing readily available free or low cost teaching aids such as that helps kids learn how to code. Such initiatives will help our students in gaining their competitive edge.

Mr. Riggs:

Rebuilding the Board’s relationship with the community and administration. We must develop a strong, positive partnership with all constituencies. We can start by having Board meetings be more transparent and making two-way communication the norm.

Continuing to raise standards of excellence for all our students. We must focus on student achievement by collaboratively setting aggressive goals. As board members, helping the administration achieve results by removing barriers and providing adequate resources for our excellent teaching staff.

Expenses continue increasing while our student population is flat to declining. Unless additional monies can be obtained from the State or Federal levels, this imbalance needs to be addressed. If costs continue to grow at current rates and enrollment declines as forecasted by the MTSD Long Range Facilities Plan, our cost per student would balloon to over $21k by 2020. We must use the plan and budget tools to help ensure spending choices are aligned with our goals.

Ms. Bursh:

Quality education: We must strive for high standards in our curriculum and instruction, so that every child achieves his/her highest potential. We must train our teachers on best teaching practices, retrain any teacher who is failing to reach high standards and recruit talented teachers who will support our goals.

Financial responsibility: The board needs to determine if our district has exhausted every financial opportunity available and whether state or federal mandates align with our educational goals. We can address some of our costs by making sure that high salaried professionals are not handling responsibilities that can be managed by lower salaried staff. This summer a law firm partner was the arbiter of Roberts Rules in a board meeting which cost $1,100. Surely board members can learn the rules themselves or pay someone 90% less to perform the same task. Better communication and respect: The board will benefit from improving basic communication, respect and collaboration to develop more effective, transparent meetings. They should take advantage of the important perspectives of community members and respond to them accordingly. Finally, the board should better manage its calendar to ensure public opinions are heard prior to making board decisions.

Mr. Huff:

I believe three important challenges faced by our schools include: Consistent and proactive communication with the entire school community, improving the functionality and image of the school board, and preparing our students for the ever increasing demands of universities and employers. Since joining the board in June 2015, I believe I have had a very positive influence on the dynamics and functionality of our school board, and have helped begin to repair its image in the community by being collaborative, open-minded, and fair. I have also worked to ensure improving our communications is one of our main district goals for this year. Lastly, I would like to see our educational programs focus more on leadership skills and community service along with the continued focus on academic excellence, with some tangible goals set for the coming years to prepare our students for life after high school.

Some taxpayers and parents of students in the district place a significant value on rankings by publications such as NJ Monthly and U.S. News and World Report. What value do you place on these rankings?

Mr. Blodgett:

These rankings are important in that they attract good families seeking quality education when moving within Central New Jersey. This helps our community grow and helps sustain the value of our homes. We should champion our schools and participate in the surveys; however, these rankings should not guide the direction of our schools as they are neither consistent nor objective. Preoccupation with rankings, like test scores, can indicate a short-term mindset. I will ensure the board acts in the long-term interest of our children and community.

Mr. Cavalli:

Montgomery is a community that has been known for being amongst the best school districts in NJ, having great proximity to career and cultural opportunities in NYC, Philadelphia and Washington DC, and the benefits of proximity to Princeton University.

Of these benefits, the one we have the most control is the education of our children. Education is one of the most important factors as to why we decided to make our most important investment to raise our families in Montgomery.

I put high value on the ranking because prospective parents, colleges and universities, and employers consider our rankings in their decisions about Montgomery students and our community.

Ms. Chenette:

I like to emphasize a strong partnership and sense of unity within our community. We cannot expect educators to raise our school ranking alone. It has to be done through educating our community and sharing information with each other. Montgomery Township School District was once Blue Ribbon School District, and I believe we can bring it back by working together!

Ms. Devine:

I agree with the importance of allowing Montgomery Township School District to be ranked by reputable publications. The publicity they communicate to potential residents is extremely valuable. When selecting a home, a homebuyer may rely on this information to decide which community will best meet their needs. Without school rankings we take Montgomery out of the competition. However, an issue with school rankings is the statistics that they are derived from can be subjective and perhaps not give an accurate picture of how well a district educates its students. In addition, the ranking criteria can change from year to year. Therefore, I would propose a well thought educated approach when selecting which rankings we choose to participate in.

Mr. Jacey:

During my 15 years as a Montgomery resident, I have seen our school rankings vacillate widely while the quality of our children's classroom experience remains high. Rankings may be useful to depict some trends, but have limitations. I caution against placing too much emphasis on them. Assessing quality of education requires more than a few general statistics.

We should focus on a broad array of indicators of college and career readiness such as college admissions and successful matriculation. We should maintain our attention on improved teaching and learning delivered by a highly qualified, committed, and caring teacher corps and enlightened District management. We need to assure MTSD graduates become useful, contributing members of society.

Ms. Rao:

In my opinion, the parameters of these school ranking services do not coincide with the situation prevalent in our district. As a parent, I rely more on the standardized test scores, Math and English levels, students pursuing college education, to name a few. The state reports this data annually and is easily available. I like our school district for what it does for the needs of our students rather than what is needed to fix the rankings.

Mr. Riggs:

No ranking system can serve as the be all and end all for such a complex decision as choosing a school for one’s children. (Anymore than Consumer Reports should serve as the sole information source for choosing an automobile.) However, we should not ignore the data. As a parent myself, I have found these tools invaluable in helping us determine where we would live when we moved from Miami to Southern California, then to Ft. Wayne, Indiana and finally to New Jersey.

Ms. Bursh:

Rankings are guides for homebuyers to find good school systems and in turn may increase property values. Unfortunately, rankings use inaccurate indicators and cannot guarantee the quality of any school. The mentioned rankings use a combination of state test scores, SAT scores, AP exams, achievement gap and college matriculation. SAT scores are a reflection of family income, test prep courses and tutors.

School districts may be able to make adjustments to remain high in rankings and not threaten their overall quality. An easy way for Montgomery to regain our top status is by instructing and testing all students at an AP level.

Mr. Huff:

I am competitive and I want to see Montgomery do well in the rankings, and we do – however, some ranking methodologies are very limited and not representative of how our students are really being prepared for life and further education after high school. School rankings can swing wildly up or down from year to year, which can lead to false complacency or chasing problems that aren’t existent or meaningful. We should focus on developing and tracking progress toward a set of metrics that are the most meaningful for all of our students, ensuring we continually improve against those metrics while addressing challenges that occur along the way. If we do that, our students will be well prepared for their futures, regardless of the widely varying myriad of rankings that are now available on-line.

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