West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School Board 2009
2009 SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES VOTERS GUIDE
NON-PARTISAN ELECTION INFORMATION
Vote Tuesday, April 21, 2009
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 given an equal amount of space for their answers.
Candidates for West Windsor Township - Vote for one (three-year term)
John Farrell (incumbent) - Assistant Dean for Graduate and Professional Programs, Rider University
Candidates for Plainsboro Township - Vote for two (three-year term)
Anthony Fleres (incumbent) - Civil Engineer
Anjani Gharpure (incumbent) - Homemaker
Todd Hochman - Director, Compliance in the Compliance Department of Prudential Financial in its Iselin, NJ office.
Shipra Mitra - Management Consultant (IT)
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?
Spending more does not always mean a better education, as the question implies. One only needs to look at the success of our district, which is one of the top districts in New Jersey by any measure. Our cost of $12,457 per pupil is $319 less than the state average. Our educators provide outstanding learning environments and experiences, preparing our students for college and the challenges in life. Our administration has proven to be fiscally prudent, while continuing to increase the educational excellence in the district. The proposed budget increase of 1.56% is reflective of the balance that we need to achieve our vision of educational excellence while managing within our limited financial resources.
I do not believe in arbitrary budget caps, like 4% cap given by the state bureaucracy. We can't just increase our budget 4% because the DOE allows it. We must continue to be fiscally prudent and follow the well-defined yearly budget process in the context of our goals to reach higher levels of educational excellence. Each year, the budget process prompts us to assess our spending plans based our current priorities, planned programs, and the resources available. It is part of the way we remain a financially strong and well managed district, as indicated by our AAA bond rating (only 26 school districts and community colleges in the US have this rating). The Board, the administration and the taxpayers will continue to be accountable for school spending and a great education for each student.
The arbitrary 4% cap on school tax increases is little more that a method for our representatives in Trenton to be able to say they have done something about property taxes, while ignoring the long-term consequences on educational quality. It begs the question, if the governor and legislature believe that a tax cap is necessary to protect the taxpayer, why not impose one on the state budget?
Board of Education members must make difficult decisions to strike a balance between the desire for a strong educational experience and the need to control costs. Of all public agencies, school districts are unique in that their budgets must be submitted to the voters for approval. By placing restrictions on the budget that Boards can submit to the voters, the state legislature has substituted their judgment, on a statewide basis, for those of the locally elected residents.
Notwithstanding the 4% cap, for the three budgets I have been involved with while serving on the Board, the overall tax levy has increased at an average annual rate of less than 2.5% while maintaining the level of excellence WWP residents demand. This was during a time when state aid, which makes up only about 7% of our total budget, was essentially unchanged. (Note that of the much-ballyhooed $1,000,000 increase in state aid WWP received for the 2008-2009 school year, slightly more than half - $550,000 - has been quietly rescinded in late March to help the state deal with its own budget problems.)
Having served 2 years on the BOE's Finance committee, I have recognized the fact that our district faces a constant challenge to provide excellent education at below average cost. After a series of moderate budgets with careful planning, the districts's per pupil spending is lower than neighboring districts and $330 below the state average with below average administrative expenses. Our district has been recognized for its sound fiscal practices: clean public audits, 7 years of moderate budget increases, a QSAC fiscal score as a “High Performing School District,” as well as earning the first AAA bond rating of any New Jersey public school system, all the while offering a national reputation for academic and extracurricular excellence. Two years ago the district adopted an approach to raise the general fund tax levy by the full 4% allowed by law. By utilizing existing regulations to build on its moderate budget, the district used available dollars to reduce what would have otherwise been collected for the debt service levy. This held the overall tax levy increase to a reasonable level.
Future educational quality will suffer due to the lack of funds if districts fail to raise general fund tax levy by 4% and if the state aid remains stagnant and this might not even result in lowering property taxes. The increases in a homeowner's tax rate depend on many factors outside the board's control: assessed values, commercial ratable, and anomalies resulting from the variance between the tax year and the school year.
I believe that the Board of Education has an obligation to taxpayers to do its best to provide quality education at a price we can afford. We should be looking to decrease our tax burden and not simply limit spending increases to the 4% cap allowed by law. While it is critical to enhance and not just maintain educational quality, it is certainly not necessary for the District to move budgetary numbers around to take advantage of a cap allowance that essentially allows a huge tax increase every year. Educational quality can be enhanced without increasing taxes, but only by making hard decisions on the things that we “must have” as opposed to things that are simply “nice to have”.
First, getting better education does not always mean spending more money. Making the correct judgement on where to spend is the most important decision making that board members need to focus on.
Second, average property value in our community is significant. So, low tax rates do bring in larger sums of money. On the other hand, increasing tax rate will dissuade new buyers from moving into our community, thus bringing in less revenue for the local government.
Third, most of the community's highest priority is education. I have talked to many people in our community, and one of the primary reasons they moved to Plainsboro is the good education system. Many of them have young children who will grow up and benefit from the excellent education system that we have - giving that up will be disappointing to them, and will impact the property value, thus forcing the local government to increase the property tax rates at a higher rate.
Fourth, the community can always vote to override the cap if they feel the need to do so.
To conclude, keeping a good quality of education intact is necessary to increase the property value, implicitly helping to keep the property tax rate low.
What should our educational priorities be during this time of national economic upheaval?
Within the district, I don't believe that the current economic upheaval should have an impact on our educational priorities. They should remain as is. The situation is certain to have an effect on the resources available to us in both the long and short term. However, educational excellence for all of our students will be our number one priority. Our administration and faculty have been very creative in developing programs that meet our educational objectives while being fiscally prudent. For example, the innovations in our special education programs, which have improved the educational experience and while decreasing our costs, are models for other districts to follow. I am confident that our administration will continue to drive excellence, and at the same time, efficiently manage our resources.
We must, however, look to the future and find ways to improve our curriculum, programs, and facilities in support of our fundamental mission. Whether it is the introduction of new technologies that will help us mange our costs, such as the proposed solar project at High Schools South and North or the results of the five year curriculum reviews, that update our programs of study, we must continue innovate to drive our success and reduce our costs.
While these are difficult economic times, we must be careful not to rush into quick fixes that jeopardize the long-term educational goals for the children of our community. Impulsive changes to our excellent programs can have impacts lasting well beyond any temporary economic situation.
Five years ago, the district, through the hard work of its administrators, faculty, parents and other community members, rewrote the Strategic Plan used to set our long-term goals. Later this year, that plan is scheduled for a thorough review and will be revised as necessary.
As part of our normal policy, the board does regular curriculum reviews in all subject areas. This allows our educational program to evolve with changing times without overreacting to short-term circumstances.
On the financial side, the Board of Education has set a goal of limiting budget increases to 1% less than the sum of enrollment growth plus inflation. Our district's sound fiscal practices has resulted in West Windsor-Plainsboro being the first school district in New Jersey to receive a AAA bond rating and currently is one of only two districts in the state with such a rating. We must be careful not to take advantage of one-time budget gimmicks that could jeopardize our sound financial condition.
The current national economic upheaval has demonstrated an urgent need to invest in our future i.e. our students. Our educational priority is to strive for educational excellence for our students. As pointed out by the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, need is for “Higher academic standards, teacher training and development, enhanced statewide tracking systems and improvement of low-performing schools”.
WW-P School district will continue to focus on the academic excellence of our students. We have made progress toward college and career-ready standards and have implemented rigorous assessments that will improve both teaching and learning. WW-P students have extraordinary opportunities to develop knowledge and skill in academics. The district's co-curricular and athletic programs, including extensive after-school activities have shown exceptional results. At WW-P there are programs for special needs students, from pre-school and multiply-disabled elementary programs to the HSN Academy. Academic programs and instruction are monitored and improved through a five-year program review cycle.
With respect to teacher training and development, WW-P has a professional development program that is targeted toward specific needs identified through our program review process. WW-P advocates a turnkey training model, whereby staff members who are trained by experts become the trainers for other teachers and staff.
WW-P high school seniors continue to have a graduation rate of almost 100%. 96% of these students plan to attend college/postsecondary education. SAT/ACT scores are far above state and national averages. Data indicates that our students continue to be successful in post secondary education as well.
Enhancing education quality is critical and particularly so during this time of national economic upheaval. While it is difficult to choose one priority over another, I believe that math and science educational standards need to be improved. This country simply cannot maintain its innovative edge in comparison to other developed countries around the world without more college graduates with degrees in math, science and engineering. College students will not be prepared to pursue these technical degrees without having mastered the basic fundamentals by the time of their high school graduation. Additionally, there will not be enough qualified math and science teachers unless more American students pursue technical majors in college.
Education is the only way out when economic crisis hits the community. A generation better educated will have better economic decision making abilities. Each student should be given the opportunity to expand to his/her full potential, even in this current economic state. However, a balance between investment and results needs to be assessed. Measuring success against our spending will give us an idea on the most effective way to invest our money. The high school and middle school students in this community are doing well. We can raise our bar to compete with private and magnet schools, and I believe we have the potential to do so.
Variety of education opportunities - hands on skills that can be employed immediately, as well as life skills of leadership, decision making and ethics need to be emphasized.
The current economic times does put pressure on the budget. We have to be looking at everything - even programs that are working may need to be revisited to see if there are ways to achieve the same result in a more cost conscious way. If there are projects that do not have immediate returns, or are not urgent in nature, we may try to postpone it for better economic times. Our school budget does have minimal growth in the state (only 1.6%), showing our community's consciousness on cost. But it will be hard to absorb the cost if our revenues fall due to decreasing property value and we do not get enough state aid.
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?
I applaud the Commissioner for reaching out to the school districts for guidance and suggestions on which mandates, regulations or directives should be lifted. On the surface it seems like a very practical way to identify some of the directives that can be eliminated and therefore, relieve the financial pressure on the district's compliance. However, given that her office, other state agencies and the legislature put these in place, and therefore have a vested interest in seeing them continue, I have absolutely no confidence that relief of any magnitude will be forthcoming. Additionally, the education bureaucrats and other elements of the State will simply take forever to agree on any action to eliminate these mandates and they will deliberate well into the next legislature and administration - and simply nothing will get done.
One could reasonably expect that when the State Commissioner of Education issued mandates and regulations, her office would have prepared a cost-benefit analysis, and understood the burden and impact that they were placing on individual districts. Furthermore, they should know the efficacy of mandates to this point and understand their impacts on the quality of education. Therefore, I strongly believe that the DOE is in the best position to identify and eliminate/suspend current mandates. It should also seriously consider whether to move forward on the several mandates that are in the pipeline. Do any of these truly have an impact on the education of our children?
Since the start of the year, the state has issued over a thousand pages of new or revised regulations and directives. These regulations can run the gamut from budget accounting, to bus maintenance and replacement practices, to the provision of services to students with special needs. Many are only slight tweaks to existing polices or cover situations that have either never or only rarely arisen in West Windsor-Plainsboro. Nevertheless, the sheer number of these regulations presents an administrative burden on the district at a time when we are striving to reduce our overall administrative costs.
In my view, the most onerous of these are those that seek to achieve a tax “savings” by infringing on the district's established sound fiscal practices. Items like deferring pension payments or reducing the fund balance (basically cash on hand) to unsound levels don't reduce costs - they simply put them off into the next fiscal year.
One particular difficulty is that recent legislation has empowered the Commissioner to bypass the normal rule-making process by eliminating the public notice and comment period. The result is a myriad of regulations and directives that, while each individually may appear to serve a worthwhile goal, often conflict with each other or have significant unintended consequences.
The Garden State Coalition of Schools has called for a moratorium on implementing new state initiatives until school funding is more stable. I agree with this.
All state mandates should be research-based and evidence-based. If the research shows that a mandate improves education and saves costs, then the state should implement a mandate, regulation or directive. Innumerable and unnecessary mandates and regulations end up costing the districts in terms of administrators' time. Instead of saving tax payers dollars, we could end up losing tightly-budgeted, much-needed funds for the improvement of education in NJ school districts.
Most of the state's regulations and cap formulas treats all districts the same and do not recognize fiscal prudence, efficiency, effectiveness and achievement of any individual school district. There should be closer scrutiny of the districts and individualization of mandates for various districts. Also, the state has played a major role in a number of districts and those districts have neither excellent education nor below average per pupil costs. Mandates that might contribute towards the failure of under achieving school districts should not be imposed on more successful districts.
The identification of state mandates, regulations or directives that can be lifted to reduce costs is a difficult question. It is also a surprising question from the State Commissioner of Education considering that the Department is in the process of increasing the number of credits required for a high school diploma from 110 to 120. Fortunately, our District has always maintained strong standards for a high school diploma and already requires 120 credits. Consequently, this increase should have a negligible effect on our financial bottom line.
During 2009-10, this District plans to spend an astounding $22.6 million on Special Services. This is an incredibly large 14.5% of the total $155.9 million budget and a 2.5% increase over last year. When one realizes that we are only spending a total of $50.2 million on Regular Instruction, the $22.6 million Special Services expenditure becomes even more alarmingly high. We need the Special Services requirements relaxed sufficiently so that this expenditure can be reduced to a manageable number. Efficiencies and synergies need to be identified and cost savings must be found. We simply cannot afford to increase our Special Services expenditure year after year without raising the tax burden to an unaffordable level.
DoE had established a Commission in 2003 to look at state mandates that could be lifted to help reduce cost of running schools. Its report lists several mandates that can be lifted. I found the following to be useful:
a. Appropriate holiday observation can be eliminated - the Legislative mandated curriculum already includes this
b. Eliminate circulars/printed materials that are costly - information dissemination can be done through wesite, library or media center.
c. Eliminate custodian/treasurer of school monies and reassign duties to the Board Secretary - this can potentially save an Accountant's wages.
d. Simplify Reporting and Consolidate report cards - Consolidate the reporting system for QAAR (Quarterly Assurance Annual Report). Other reports like New Jersey School Report Card, NJSA 18A:7E-1 through 5 can also be consolidated with Federal Report Card.
Does the school district have sufficient communication among board members, administration, teachers and the community? If not, what improvements are needed?
The lines of communication between and among the board and administration are excellent. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to comment on the lines of communication between the administration and the faculty, though I have no reason to think that they are not strong. I also believe that the district does a fine job in communicating with the public through the schools, the media, public events and the district web site.
I am fortunate to have met many teachers. They are passionate professionals in the class room, in rehearsal halls and on the fields. We are fortunate to have them. Their association's leadership attends our board meetings and sometimes shares their perspectives with the board. I would like to see more of a dialog with the Association on key matters facing all of us over the next few years.
For example, we need to begin a discussion between the teachers, their representatives, the board, and administration about the “Pay for Performance” initiative being promoted by the Obama Administration. We have so many excellent teachers in the district who deserve to be recognized for their outstanding contributions. However, there are both real and perceived limitations to trying to do this. Nevertheless, we have two paths to take: we can ignore the issue for the time being and take what will be handed down from Washington and Trenton; or we can begin a constructive dialog that focuses on teaching excellence, pay for performance and rewarding the outstanding teachers in our district.
As a board member, I believe we have good, open lines of communication among all board members and the administration. This is extremely important for a properly functioning school district, as can be seen in districts where a sense of hostility exists among board members and senior administrators.
The district has gone to great lengths to communicate with parents and the general community. In addition to the usual flyers and mailings, we have taken advantage of modern technology and established a number of email list servs for residents to join covering news at each of the district's ten schools as well as ones for overall district news, guidance information for college bound students, and Community Education and EDP programs. We have recently implemented a program called Infinite Campus where, among other things, parents can go online to get current information on the children's progress.
Finally, as parents of children in the district for the past eleven years, my wife and I have always found the teachers and school staff accessible and willing to discuss the educational and personal growth of our children.
I serve as a BOE liaison on several committees such as PTA/PTSA presidents committee. This committee interacts with the administration and the BOE liaison on various school district related matters. I also have the opportunity to interact with Superintendent's advisory committee, which comprises of teachers, Principals and other staff members. I believe that good communication between the administration, teachers and the BOE at WW-P is based on mutual respect and understanding. I think that we have good and open lines of communication between the BOE and administration.
Community engagement is an ongoing process. It is one of the key features of WW-P's strategic plan. Various modes of communication are being implemented to communicate effectively with our community - public board meetings, district website with its new feature called WW-P tube, news flyers sent by schools. The challenge today is to improve upon the current level of parent involvement in the school district's activities especially during the school budget process. All efforts are being made to inform the public about the budget process through “Get out the vote committee”, “Budget Bytes” and budget discussions. Even though education is the top-most priority for all the residents in the townships and in spite of all efforts being made, engaging the community has not been easy. Various diversity committees to foster understanding of the district's teaching philosophies to parents from different countries of origin, and parents' expectations on education, will add to the ongoing efforts for effective community engagement in our school district.
In my opinion, communication in the West Windsor - Plainsboro Regional School District is excellent. As the parent of two children attending District schools, I have been very pleased with the willingness of both teachers and the Administration to spend the necessary time communicating with me. Email is used when appropriate and this technology has enhanced our teachers' ability to communicate with parents despite hectic schedules. But communication does not stop there. Teachers call parents to have candid discussions, often taking time out of their own evenings to make these phone calls.
Communication with the Administration is also very good. My oldest child is a college bound high school senior and I have found the communication regarding college planning and applications to be excellent. While there is always room for improvement, I believe that communication is one of this District's strong points.
Our school district is very good about communicating and disseminating information. They hold regular meetings (board with administrative representation) that are open to public, most information is posted on the web under the school district website, and flyers are sent home with students. However, some links do not work - for example, the administrator salaries link in the school budget brings up the NJDoE page as of today.
There are regular parent teacher meetings, and the teacher's emails are all public for parents to communicate.
Even with all that, there is no transparency of information. Parents always are at a loss to understand the process of student development and excellence. The 'Gifted and Talented' program is always a mysterious entity that many parents wonder about. Some teachers deny it's existance! Similarly, Math A&E program is shrouded in mystery, where if a student really does not want to do a lot of homework, or is not 2 grades ahead, a parent is discouraged from enquiring.
I would like information to be more transparent. The process of achieving excellence should be encouraged. Parents should be encouraged to be involved in the board meetings/activities so that their voices can be heard. Regular surveys of student's needs would indicate what the community wants, and their priority.
As a conclusion, I have a suggestion - why not have a 100 word summary in the PTA newsletter of every school, summarizing the key points of every board meeting?
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