West Windsor Candidates for WW-P School Board 2013
West Windsor Candidates Answer League Questions
November 5, 2013 General Election Day
Polls will be open from 6am until 8pm
EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the West Windsor Township 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 – Vote for two (three-year term)
Louisa Ho (incumbent) - Volunteer for School Board, Girl Scouts, and marching band
Rakesh Kak – Founder/Managing Director of an investment bank specialized in merger & acquisition advisory for tech companies; website: https://www.facebook.com/RakeshKakForSchoolBoard
Scott Powell – Product Manager for pension products at Prudential Financial; website: scottpowellblog.wordpress.com
Yingchao “YZ” Zhang - Director of Sales Engineering; website: https://www.facebook.com/YingchaoZhangForBoardOfEducation
What actions would you recommend for handling growth of the school district?
Enrollment has been relatively stable for the last 4 years and is projected to be stable for the next 3 years. With some new developments in the works in West Windsor, continued growth is on the horizon, but not at the dramatic rates experienced earlier. The planned expansion of Village School will provide six additional classrooms, that can be used to absorb some growth. We need to constantly monitor growth and attendance for each school, to address capacity issues at individual schools and insure that class sizes are fair across the district.
I bring to the school board the right skills and experience for addressing this issue. I have a bachelors and a masters degree from MIT, and managerial and planning experience in the public sector at NJ Transit, where I was responsible for budgets of up to $50 million, and 900 personnel. I also know the school district as a customer and taxpayer. Both of my children have attended WWP schools since kindergarten. For the last 15 years, I’ve dedicated my time to parenting and volunteering, as a Girl Scout troop leader and co-service unit manager for all WWP Girl Scout troops, and, more recently, serving on the School Board, and being co-President of the HSS marching band.
Even though future enrollments are not currently expected to grow as rapidly as the previous 10 years, new housing developments are still coming up in West Windsor. Any major new residential development poses significant challenge to future school boards. The school board needs to keep a watchful eye on the population trends and be prepared for any adverse changes. We should take proactive steps to work closely with the mayor’s office and the township council and prepare years ahead of any proposed residential development. In addition, we should continually assess our facility utilization and make incremental changes to be equipped for any unexpected increases.
As we prepare to absorb the growing student population in West Windsor, we should grow our facilities sparingly, because an increase in students today can reverse tomorrow as neighborhoods mature. For example, at the lower grade schools, where the children spend most of their instructional time in the same room, we need more classrooms. We can add portable classrooms to the grounds of these schools. At the middle schools, we can share the classroom space between teachers, to maximize the use of the facilities. Finally, the high schools should employ the flipped classroom principle (learn concepts at home, work problems in class) in math and science. This should allow each class to handle more students.
As a former scientist, and currently a technologist in sales, I would recommend a more systemic and quantified approach. We should work closely with the townships and make comprehensive analysis of the historical census records to make an accurate projection of the student enrollment growth several years down the road. With that data, we can then project classroom sizes for the different grades and facility utilization. Whenever possible, we should try to optimize the classroom and facility usage, so that the additional students can be absorbed to the school district without having to increase the number of classrooms and the size of other facilities. At the same time, we should look into the possibility of incremental increase of classrooms in school to prepare for the situation where the growth projection is on the verge of exceeding maximal number of students per classroom.
How would you address the financial challenges faced by the school district?
Our school district offers an excellent educational program at a competitive cost. Our costs per pupil are well below those of school districts like Princeton and Hopewell. For the 2013-2014 budget year, the school district was able to produce a budget with no increase in the total amount of tax support needed from the two towns, compared to the prior year. Looking forward, we need to continue to seek opportunities for cost containment, such as through out-sourcing, class scheduling efficiencies, and additional grants, while addressing new administrative requirements, and maintaining educational quality.
One of the major financial challenges faced by the school district is managing the budget while staying within the mandated 2% cap. Annual increases in the cost of employee healthcare benefits, a reduction of our fair share of state aid coupled with unfunded state and federal mandates, have decreased the financial flexibility of the school boards. Since these challenges are here to stay, we will have to come up with a long term plan to manage inflation in costs while maintaining the excellence in education for each child, whether they are in the A&E program, regular education program or have special needs. We need to make data driven decisions and start saving smarter, such as combining/collapsing programs/activities that are currently underutilized or investigating shared-services agreements.
From year-to-year any enterprise, including the school district, has three financial options: keep spending the same but reprioritize, raise revenue (taxes) or lower spending. Raising revenues (i.e. taxes) should be our last choice, we already pay pretty high property taxes. Accomplishing more with less (or the same) money requires us to look for new ways to achieve our goals. However, making intelligent decisions about spending requires several months, or years, learning about the financial operations of the district, and then making informed choices.
I believe the district’s finances are well-managed presently, but incremental improvement is always possible. Cutting the budget is never a simple task. A well-rounded education is an important goal, and it is difficult to weigh one subject or activity against another. It is my belief that budget-cutting recommendations should be made by those who are closest to the action — the campus-level leaders together with the senior administrators at the school district. The board has the final say as the representatives of the public. Any increases in funding should be targeted to better serve our mission. That could be in technology, career and technical courses, or anything else that will inspire life-long learning. Public input is a valuable part of any budget change. Committees of the public should be formed whenever necessary to give advice on meaningful budget changes.
What changes would you support to improve school safety, including technology security?
I support changes to improve school safety that are cost-effective, tested, and balanced in their approach. The school district has already implemented changes along these lines, such as 42 additional video cameras and the “eyes on the door” pilot program which is being expanded from 2 to 4 schools this year. We need to always be looking for new approaches for technology security to keep up with ever-evolving technology.
I applaud the increased measures the district has taken including visitor controls, facility improvements, training and intervention and staffing, including its “Eyes-on-Doors” policy. I am glad that the district did not take a reactive approach to the horrible events at Newtown but made practical and financially prudent changes to the security system starting with the pilot at Village and Millstone to be expanded to the middle schools and beyond. We should continue to work in cooperation with police/fire departments of both townships and parents on how to further make our schools safer. Technology security is a concern for most organizations. We should make sure that our school IT networks are well protected and all student data, including their personal & medical records, are safe. The new Chromebook program with its cloud computing platform seems to have been planned well to prevent any technology breaches.
Our schools currently have appropriate safety measures in place. We practice fire drills and teach the students how to respond to intruders with evacuation drills. I believe the proposed dual door entryways may reduce the likelihood of intruders entering school grounds. This would only work if staff enforce strict entry criteria and prevent piggybacking. In an open society, the best defense is prevention. We need to educate the adults in our community to detect and treat people with malicious intent.
The safety and security of our students and staff are a top priority. While no plan is bullet-proof, and no amount of spending will guarantee a bad person with ill intent will not find a way to circumvent our procedures, we should continue to work with the professional law enforcement agencies to fine-tune our safety measures. In a broader sense, we should continue the efforts to protect our students and staff from all forms of hazards, such as fires, severe weather conditions, and natural disasters.
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