WW-P School Board 2012: Plainsboro

Plainsboro Candidates Answer League Questions

Vote Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 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 two (three-year term)

Anthony Fleres (incumbent) - Project Manager in the field of Engineering and Construction

Quentin Walsh - Financial executive with extensive experience in budgets, reporting and controls

Yibao Xu - College Professor of Mathematics

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

Mr. Fleres: The most important challenges facing us are: (1) providing our students with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in a changing world; (2) seeing that all students – the gifted, those who are struggling, and everyone in between – realize their highest potential; and (3) ensuring the schools have the resources to provide a quality education; all while being fiscally responsible to our taxpayers.

WW-P is fortunate to have parents who take an active role in the education of their children, an administration and professional teaching staff that is always striving to do things better, and of course, a student body that is willing to work hard to succeed. The most important thing a board of education member can do is ensure that this culture of excellence is maintained while recognizing the needs of the whole child. Together with the other board members, I have taken seriously our responsibility to establish goals and constantly evaluate the performance of the district and its senior staff, and I will continue to do so. On the financial side, we need to plan carefully so that limited resources are used wisely over the long term.

Mr. Walsh: Listening to the community – I have seen a tremendous amount of frustration from parents and community members who have raised questions or issues with the schools. I don't promise that everyone will get the answer that they want, but they must have the opportunity to be heard.

Budget Transparency – I have reviewed the district budget process and the reporting to the community. I feel that there are opportunities to reduce the tax burden, without cutting or eliminating programs. For example, the district spent $146 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The proposed budget for 2012-2013 is $161 million. This represents a $15 million or 10% increase over the two years. Considering the current economic conditions, this is not the time to build expensive contingencies into the budget, but rather to hold the line and avoid any tax increase.

Enrollment Growth – The district has experienced stable enrollment for the past several years. However, we are now seeing growth in the elementary schools, which has caused larger class sizes. In addition, there are new developments coming on line, they will bring more students. In the past, Stan Katz did a great deal of work to track and project the student enrollment, but those estimates have not been updated since his retirement from the board. I would like to see those estimates updated, so that the district can plan for that growth and not get surprised.

Mr. Xu: The most important challenges facing our schools are: 1) providing our students 21st Century skills to be successful in colleges and universities, empowering them to compete against their peers in a rapidly changing world; 2) meeting the needs of all our students, including our students with unique learning styles; 3) keeping balance of maintaining a high quality educational system while minimizing the tax burden on our residents.

One way to meet the first two challenges is by reducing class size, in order to maintain quality education for all students and allowing teachers to have more time for their respective student’s individual needs. Parents have a reasonable level of expectation that their child will receive their teachers’ attention when needed. Another factor is that parents want their children to have an exemplary education, while our senior communities with fixed incomes want to reduce their tax burden. Having experience with budgets, I would try keeping the balance between quality education and responsible budgets in an honest and forthright manner.

What are your thoughts about curricular and financial policies?

Mr. Fleres: The world is changing and the skill-set our children will need in the future will be very different than what our parents required. Our challenge is to keep our educational program relevant. Every area of our curriculum is reviewed on a five-year cycle, first by the administration, then by the board’s curriculum committee, and finally, by the full board. This process has served us well. The school district is also striving for consistency in its practices from classroom to classroom and across the schools.

Financially, a number of years ago, the board set a goal of limiting budget increases to less than the rate of inflation plus enrollment growth. Recognizing the economic conditions of recent years, the board has further limited budget increases. We have also managed for the long term, avoiding the trap of sacrificing the future with temporary one-year gimmicks.

Mr. Walsh: We have a very highly regarded school district that attracts people to our community. However, we have a very high tax burden that chases people away. The district must strive for a balance between the two. I intend to challenge all areas to ensure that students, parents and taxpayers are well served by each program. The district test results show extremely high performance for most of our students, but there are some struggling learners who are not achieving those levels. I would like to drill down into those situations to ensure that we offer appropriate programs for all of our students.

Mr. Xu: This year, parental overrides for AP and Honor courses in high schools were removed for a new process gauging children’s placement in the higher level courses. I am very interested in monitoring the strength and potential weaknesses of this new program, and if needed, would help fine tune our assessment criteria. In addition, if more students are entering higher level courses, we may need to reassess the current Honors and AP funding policies. I am sensitive to the needs of the children who have learning disabilities, who should also have access to top level courses, and I will review their access guidelines.

As for the financial policies, I support the proposed 2012-13 budget.

Describe how your personal experiences and involvement with public schools would qualify you as a member of the Board.

Mr. Fleres: As my children entered school, I became involved with school activities, mostly through the PTAs. I later helped to pass the 2006 building referendum which expanded and rehabilitated a number of our buildings. I ran for the board as a way to continue to contribute to our excellent school system.

My six years as a board member, including this past year as Finance Committee Chairman, have given me a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our schools. Board members need to work with each other, consider the opposing opinions and, if necessary, dissent with respect. I believe that I have achieved a good working relationship with my peers on the board and with the district staff.

Mr. Walsh: I have lived in Plainsboro for fourteen years. Both of my children are graduates of High School South. I have been involved in my children's community activities and their sports booster clubs. My business experience has given me a great deal of experience in assessing issues, identifying potential resolutions and solving the problem. My initial experience with the board was on the topic of the school facility equity, which led to the successful facilities referendum. I have attended board meetings for many years so I am familiar with the history and understand many of the issues that require board decisions.

Mr. Xu: I am a professional educator, teaching different levels of mathematics at the City University of New York Borough of Manhattan Community College. I understand the needs of students first hand. Serving on different committees, departmental and college-wide, I have learned how to work with other members in a respectful and productive way. As a scholar, I have co-organized several academic sessions for International Conferences and Symposia. As a volunteer, I am serving my second term as a Trustee of the Walker Gordon Farm Homeowner Association, and past President of Sanford Equality, Queens, New York.

As a parent, I have been involved with public schools primarily through parent-teacher activities and I have volunteered my services in my children’s schools. More importantly, as an educator I have thorough understanding of how colleges assess entering students for appropriate course level placement.

I believe my professional and volunteer services bring together a deep understanding of education and working within the confines of budgets. Most salient is my commitment to respect the opinions of others.

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