Princeton Regional School Board 2009
2009 SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES VOTERS GUIDE
NON-PARTISAN ELECTION INFORMATION
Vote Tuesday, April 21, 2009
CANDIDATES FOR PRINCETON REGIONAL SCHOOL BOARD
Polls are open in Princeton from 12 noon to 9 PM
These are the verbatim responses of the candidates for Princeton Regional School Board to questions presented by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, in cooperation with The Princeton Packet. The candidates were given an equal amount of space for their answers.
Princeton Borough candidates- Vote for two (three-year term)
Rebecca Cox (incumbent)
Charles Kalmbach - Assistant to the President, Princeton Theological Seminary
Dudley Sipprelle - Consultant, Diplomat and Educator
Princeton Township candidates - Vote for one (three-year term)
Mia Cahill (incumbent) - Ph.D., Esq.
Under the cap system, any increase below the 4 percent cap this year cannot be recovered in future years. How do you view the impact of that decision on future educational quality vs. the need to slow the growth of property tax rates?
The cap is necessary to slow the growth of property tax increases statewide, particularly in the current economic environment. We are doing everything we can to maintain the quality of education in Princeton, while keeping a lid of costs. Some of the moves are relatively simple, like cutting building budgets by 2%. Others have a longer-term payoff. For example, I worked on restructuring the pre-K program to attract more low-income children to get them started on a quality education sooner. This will reduce their need for special services in elementary school later on. We also renegotiated our union contracts to encourage faculty and staff to use generic prescription drugs if possible. The switch means our benefit expenses will be unchanged in the upcoming year. This is a great outcome considering health benefits can jump as much as 14% in a year. The struggle has been to rein in costs without harming the long-term quality of our schools. So far, we have been successful.
Princeton has a well-resourced school district. As taxpayers, we should expect that the District would propose to spend what it needs, and not what it can, in any given year. This, of course, is not a “normal” year. However, the automatic yearly increases of the various contractual obligations put pressure on any attempt to keep the budget increase near 0%. The Administration has done an admirable job in keeping the increase to under 1%, while, at the same time, adding resources in two key instructional areas: reading teachers and instructional technology. Furthermore, the budget calls for no cuts in programs at any of the schools.
The real problem with the local taxes is the unacceptably large shift, for the third consecutive year, of share of tax paid from the Township to the Borough. (This follows a series of years in which the share shifted in the opposite direction.) Uncertainty of this kind has the potential to misdirect the focus of the voters in one of our two municipalities away from the most important matter: the quality of education we provide. A solution must be found to this inherently unstable situation in the immediate future. If elected, I would make the pursuit of a solution a personal priority.
It must be kept in mind why a legislative cap was placed on budget increases by local government entities, including school boards. The cap came about because local spending was out of control and property taxes, the chief source of local government income, escalated to unreasonable levels. It was thought that a 4% cap would counter the rise of inflation and cost of living. As it turned out, inflation has been less than 4%, but Princeton schools have kept spending increases close to the cap. Consequently, Princeton School District spending in the last five years has exceeded inflation by one-third.
Local government bodies interpreted the tax cap to mean they should increase spending every year “to build the tax base” in order “not to lose” the broader base for future tax increases in case of a “rainy day.” Not surprisingly, every year became a rainy day. School budget deliberations began with consideration of how much expenditures could be raised without public outcry instead of what was strictly necessary to maintain educational quality. Budget efficiency was a casualty.
School spending must reflect economic realities. If high property tax levels contribute to personal financial stress in the community, schools must exercise the same type of frugality individuals do. Expenditures must be prioritized and those not absolutely necessary to meet direct instructional needs must be eliminated or deferred. Common sense should not be used as a scare tactic.
The school district lives in a regulatory environment that would make Kafka look light-hearted. One of those regulations is the 4 percent cap-- - this means that a district cannot collect more than four (4) percent of the prior year's operating fund (tax levy). This has the intended effect of reducing school budgets over time. In any given year, this cap might make sense for a particular school district, but in the abstract, it is a rule that does not address the changing needs of school districts and the communities in which they educate children. It does not account for changes in population, contractual obligations (many supported by the state), the changing needs of the students (that are not always linear) and most importantly, it does not account for the good sense of the School Board. For Princeton Regional Schools, the four-percent cap was irrelevant this year-the budget proposed by the Board has less than a one percent increase.
What should our educational priorities be during this time of national economic upheaval?
The overarching goal is to prepare students to be successful in the 21st Century, to be flexible enough to learn new skills and to use emerging technologies in order to do jobs that do not exist today -- just as Web page designers and video game programmers barely existed 20 years ago. It is startling to think that today's students will have 20 to 30 jobs in their lifetime, when our parents had so few. To reach this goal, our board has four directives, and everything we do addresses some of all of those priorities. The directives are: to build a connected pre-K to 12 curriculum that is standards-based, clearly articulated and provides for the academic growth of all of our students; to develop a system to closely monitor student achievement; to build a comprehensive professional learning program for teachers; and to increase overall student achievement while narrowing gaps among groups of children.
Our first and overwhelming priority in this year, as in every year, should be the growth of our children - the growth of the entire child. During the 40 years in which I have been involved with education, the demands of the changing national and international economies on the classroom have continued to increase. The world in which our graduates will work has never been more connected. World languages; the basic skills of writing, reading and mathematics; and science literacy continue to be the foundation of a healthy response. However, our priorities should not be limited to cognitive development. Learning to function in the community which each of our schools represent is essential. We have the significant opportunity in our District to take advantage of, and celebrate, the diversity of our student body.
A similar emphasis must be placed on the professionals on whom we depend to grow our children. Last week, Nicholas Kristof, in The New York Times, referenced research that suggests “great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else”. We need to continue employ instructional technology, wherever possible, to free our staff to spend their time doing those things only a skilled professional can accomplish.
We will face tough financial times for a prolonged period. Under such circumstances, we must not lose sight of the fact that a quality public education system is necessary to keep our democracy strong and our economy globally competitive. As a state, New Jersey ranks second in spending per student. Princeton's new $80.8 million budget works out to $22,748 per student and is well above the NJ average. We obviously have sufficient resources. We must ensure that we are getting the best outcomes.
Given the economic challenges ahead, we must accept that financial support for schools will be constrained. This will require that schools give priority to educational programs that work, install procedures that minimize waste and duplication and gain the confidence of the community that relatively high property taxes are necessary and well spent. The most important factor in achieving good educational outcomes is not the level of resources, but how they are used.
Our School District must spend more of its budget resources on “instruction” which is the core goal of education. Princeton schools are at about state average in this respect. Creative thinking about how to get parents more involved in the schools is necessary. Schools should have their best teachers in the classrooms. Reading and writing skills in the lower grades must be improved. The measure of a school system is whether all its students are prepared to function capably in our competitive society. In this respect, Princeton has a ways to go.
The educational priorities should always be about the students-the children and the grandchildren of Princeton. The budget up for vote reflects the seriousness and economic distress of our times. It is measured, with substantial cuts. It's also important to know that the cuts that are made in any given year tend to stick with the students-and are extraordinarily hard to regain. This time of economic distress is also a time in which we need to protect our children, and in which our public institutions need to work harder to ensure the success of Princeton's children and grandchildren. Scholars will debate the lessons of this time of economic upheaval for years, but surely we have collectively learned that life, status and financial security are fragile. I would hope to help the Princeton Regional School District impart a sense of safety, self-esteem, knowledge and know-how to our students to help them have the flexibility required of the next generation.
The State Commissioner of Education has asked school districts to identify state mandates, regulations or directives “that could be lifted to help reduce costs to local districts.” Which ones do you think should be lifted?
he Commissioner has already received a four-page list of changes resulting in savings that range from requiring a specially certified custodian to be in each building during heating hours to reducing the frequency of mandated training such as annual blood-borne pathogens training. This includes training that could take place every three years instead of annually, and would still be safe and effective. The added benefit would be freeing up teachers' time for professional development. We also asked the commissioner to rescind a requirement that the district form a committee that would require us to spend $30,000 in extra pay to teachers. We are also asking that Child Study Teams, which evaluate children for special education services, only use psychologists when necessary. This would save us about $150,000 a year.
The list of mandates under which our schools operate extends for many pages. It is difficult for an outside observer to understand the literal meaning of many of the mandates, much less their value. However, it seems to me that there are three classes of mandates that require attention by the Administration and Board. The first are those requirements that cost relatively little for each district, but, when multiplied by all 600 districts in the State, represent a meaningful expenditure for little gain. The second set of mandates that should be reconsidered is the group whose economic trade-offs are poorly considered. Too often, I have been told, school districts are asked to perform tasks “at no cost” to the district when, in fact, there are very real economic costs.
Finally, there are a number of very important and worthwhile mandates whose execution is over-prescribed. It is unreasonable to think that details of effective, much less efficient, execution can possibly be the same over the wide range of situations represented by the 600 school districts in the State. The State would be far better off to stipulate outcomes, rather than process. This would give each district the opportunity to employ its assets, including available technology, to the best advantage.
The educational bureaucrats in Trenton are a major source of the many ills afflicting New Jersey's educational system. State educational officials are obsessed with the idea of centralization and a “uniform system” of education encompassing all public schools in the State. This misguided “one size fits all” concept is often ill-suited to high performing school districts and costs Princeton taxpayers with marginal benefit received.
There are dozens of mandates in every operational area which are antiquated, trivial, or totally unnecessary. These waste potential instructional time and are costly. The State should eliminate all unfunded mandates unless it can demonstrate specifically that the mandate is directly related to safety, health, classroom instruction or otherwise cannot be performed adequately by the highly paid professional and support staff of the School District. My specific list for elimination would include the requirement that the School District pay the Princeton Assessor to be its “treasurer of school monies” in spite of the fact the district has its own finance office and business administrator.
Other examples include the requirement for a special technician to be on the premises during heating season necessitating an extra custodial position. Eliminate the restriction on school bus capacity which requires more busses. Many professional development and in-service programs and their frequency seem only remotely related to student learning. Mandatory fee membership in the NJ School Boards Association is unnecessary and an example of special interest groups being accommodated at taxpayer expense.
It would be our happy day if we could rewrite the state mandates and other regulations. We could fine-tune our operations to best meet the needs of the District students and cut away in the budget. Instead, we are stuck with antiquated positions (such as “treasurer of school monies”), redundancies that make no sense, and sadly, so much state-mandated training, we are left with little time for District training of our staff for issues specific to our District. These, and many other mandates are left to be funded by the school district, and ultimately, we must make cuts elsewhere to balance the protection of students and taxpayers and also meet state obligations. But this is the world in which we live. It will take forward thinking, and the help of the entire community-- along with some lobbying-in order for Princeton to remain one of the most high-achieving districts in our region.
Does the school district have sufficient communication among board members, administration, teachers and the community? If not, what improvements are needed?
There can never be too much communication, and there is always room for improvement. One thing we can do is improve our Web site. As a former financial journalist and editor at Bloomberg News and Fidelity Investments magazine, I learned a lot about communicating via the Internet. Our Web site needs a more attractive and easier-to-use format, plus a Web address that isn't as hard to remember as www.prs.k12.nj.us. The site also needs to provide more information to parents. This should include a web page for each teacher, plus information about homework assignments and completion, as well as grades, on a real-time basis. The board also is improving its communication with the community and the administration while I have been vice president. Board members more frequently attend community functions, municipal and state government commissions, as well as monthly PTO meetings. All of us spend quite a bit of time meeting with teachers, and attending concerts and performances, or at committee meetings.
It is difficult for a person not yet on the Board to assess internal communication. However, I have witnessed communication between the Board and Administration during the budget cycle and am impressed by the quantity, quality and consistency of the information provided the Board. Communication is a two-way process and, particularly, with respect to communication to the public, it seems as if it is currently largely one-way. At two of the budget workshops I attended this winter, I was the only observer. The community is not taking advantage of the opportunities available to get informed, if not involved, with the critical issues of the District.
The Administration is making heavy use of technology to reach out to the community via cable TV and its web site. Perhaps, more pod-casts featuring students engaged in the many curricular and co-curricular activities would help to bring alive to the community the vibrant educational life of the District.
One area in which we definitely need more communication is between the Administration and the two municipalities. Early in the budget cycle, there should be exchange of expectations concerning budgets for the next fiscal year. It is unfortunate in a town that values education, that the only public budget on which we have a direct vote is the school budget.
As regards the subject of this paragraph, I qualify to comment only as a member of the community at large. My impression is that the School District makes a satisfactory effort in keeping the community informed about the School District's mission and activities at the various schools through its publications and mailings. Although at times, this effort can seem self-serving.
The School Board has not adequately communicated the reasons for Borough taxpayers paying one-third of the school taxes when it has only one-quarter of the students. This disparity costs Borough property owners dearly. The reason for the unfair sharing of the tax burden is that Princeton school taxes are not based on student enrollment, but rather on an arcane valuation formula. This serious inequity must be addressed immediately and corrected.
Yes, and no. I support the School District's efforts to bring in members of the community on important projects and changes in policy at an early stage. Such collaboration includes teachers, students, community groups and individuals. It makes the schools stronger, builds consensus, and often results in successes in which we may all have pride. However, such seamless and frequent success can have the unintended effect of allowing apathy. I fear that should voters decide not to pass the budget, that the District will not have the resources to maintain the successes of the past in the coming years. Princetonians are all part of the school district just like we're all part of the University. Divisive statements about property taxes simply don't recognize our connectedness, and overlook the contribution that our high-achieving school district makes to the value of residential real estate in Princeton. The School Board can speak to the fears and realities of homeowners, while still protecting the future of Princeton's children and grandchildren. It's not one versus the other. This careful balance is shown in the Board's proposed budget of increases less than one (1) percent. I hope every Princetonian will decide that he or she cares about our community institutions, and will refuse to artificially polarize our town. It is up to each and every one of us to understand the nuances of the school district's budget and to help the Board in this balancing year after year.
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