WW-P School Board 2011: Plainsboro

Plainsboro Candidates Answer League Questions

Vote Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the Plainsboro 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 one (three-year term)

Rachelle Feldman Hurwitz - Event Planning and Fundraising Consultant

(Mani) Alapakkam Manikandan (incumbent) - IT Professional – QA Practice Lead

A recent forum, designed to ascertain where changes should first be made, asked participants to rank 13 areas of the budget: class sizes; shared services; restructuring school programs; curriculum changes; corporate sponsorship; sports teams; online courses; staffing; transportation; world languages; facilities use; teachers/staff; and creation of fee-based programs. In which of these areas do you believe changes should be made? Please explain your reasoning.

Ms. Feldman Hurwitz: Budgetary issues impact all educational decisions, and fiscal conservatism while gutting programs without a sense of responsibility to our children’s education is short sighted. With diminishing state allocations and budget constraints we should install solar energy on all of our schools as a means of cutting facilities expenditures and potentially earning money back from the power company. Furthermore, utilization of clean energy teaches children earth science, technology, and economics. Another means of earning income from our facilities could be charging fees for residents outside of our district. As a seasoned fundraiser, we should empower our high school students with tools for obtaining corporate sponsorships. Our district has major corporations and we should explore all avenues obtaining funding, so students may continue participating in activities such as school trips and/or sports. I would reduce transportation costs by having students attending schools closer to their homes, rather then bused miles away.

Mr. Manikandan: The forum asked the participants to rank the changes using two other matrices - impact and ease of implementation; these are important for the board to consider before deciding the order that changes should be made in. The use of our facilities to generate more revenues for the district is an area the board should take up immediately. Although we make use of shared services, there is always scope to look at other areas for potential savings. We should also leverage WW-P education foundation to generate more revenue through corporate sponsorship for specific projects.

Areas like class size, school programs, curriculum etc., which directly impact the quality of education we offer our students, should be the last areas to look at for potential cost savings.

List, in order of priority, the three most important challenges facing the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. How do you plan, in both the short and long term, to address them?

Ms. Feldman Hurwitz: The three most important challenges are budget cuts in correlation to tax increases/deficits, maintaining our AAA bond rating, and high curriculum standards. In the short term we need to find ways that not only save money, but maintain the quality of education. We need to offset expenditures. As stated above, our facilities can start by using solar energy. While trying to keep our taxes down, we should ensure our AAA bond rating is maintained. Targeted cutbacks are needed, however, I do not want teachers forced into inordinately large class sizes. No parent wants to learn their child is not on task due to large classes. Volunteer parent teacher’s aids in the elementary level and middle schools may be a workable solution in large classes. Preparing our children for advanced degrees and competing in a global market for the 21st Century requires superior math, foreign languages, science/technology, reading and critical thinking, and we should be proactive creating our curriculums.

Mr. Manikandan: The most important issues facing the school district center around the theme of how we can continue to provide an excellent education in these tough economic times.

One particular aspect is reduction in the state aid that results in increase of property taxes, disproportionate to increase in school budget.

Another specific aspect is the possibility of a charter school siphoning taxpayer money. This year we have budgeted $1.2 million dollars for the proposed charter school. The annual expense will keep increasing in future years as the charter school adds more grades.

To deal with these challenges, I will continue to work with all the stakeholders to look for areas of improvements in efficiency, reduction in cost and increase in revenue.

I will do my part in convincing the state that a charter school is a luxury that taxpayers of Plainsboro can ill afford in these tough economic times.

As an incumbent member, I can point at our district record of reducing per pupil spending from $500 above state average in 2002-03 to $1200 below state average in 2008-09. We achieved this while our students continue to excel in all areas that they participate in, from academics to extracurricular.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf's plan for education reform proposes changing teacher evaluations and tenure, ending seniority rules that require newest teachers to be fired first, and introducing merit pay. Do you favor or oppose any parts of the plan and why?

Ms. Feldman Hurwitz: Our district’s teachers provide an exemplary education and as a recent graduate of Rutgers, I witnessed first hand how well prepared our children are entering college in comparison to their peers. I do not want to break the teacher’s union. Teachers know who are the best teachers amongst themselves. Testing students has not proven to be a reliable device measuring teacher’s success rates. Rather then allow Commissioner Cerf mandate changes, my experience as a mediator suggests we should have our teachers intrinsically involved, representing themselves, bringing to the table what standards and procedures would best serve students and teachers. Evaluations by their peers and supervisors should be comprehensive by grade levels and subjects, with retirement incentives or mechanisms for dismissal. I would rather have teachers at the table for discussions then order firings and losing quality educators because they were recently hired. Financial compensation for top educators could mean many of our teachers could earn considerably more income. However, due to budget concerns, we should consider bonuses by subject, grade levels and limit the number of bonuses each year. Offering yearly bonuses encourages competition and creates appropriate incentives amongst educators.

Mr. Manikandan: As an individual school board member or even as a single school board, we have minimal impact on the issues you raise. What ever my personal opinions are, I believe we must keep politics out of our education process. The students deserve nothing less. That applies equally to the Governor and the New Jersey Education Association. One of the things I find most disconcerting is that during my tenure on the school board, Governors of both parties force the school boards to implement radical changes overnight and expect better results.

I would instead prefer a more collaborative model that has worked so well in our district. The politicians should realize that any reforms must be well thought out and have backing of the school boards that are going to implement them. The teachers union must realize that things will have to change. We will achieve better results if we work together. As a member of the curriculum committee, I have witnessed the great strides that we are making in teacher evaluation and training through a collaborative approach.

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